While Russian president Boris Yeltsin spends his few sober moments fighting with whoever happens to be prime minister at the time, his interior ministry troops are trying to assuage their injured pride by provoking fights with Chechen mujahideen. It seems that some people never learn, either from their own mistakes nor from others’. There can be no other explanation for what the Russian interior ministry is doing in the Caucasus, where the Russian army suffered ignominious defeat three years ago.
On July 19, Russian Mi-8 helicopters attacked the Chechens along the border after eight people died in attacks on Russian forces along the southern Russo-Chechen border. This was the most serious escalation of the conflict in recent weeks, in which a series of attacks and counter-attacks have been launched. The helicopter attack, in which 40 missiles were fired, came three days after Turpal-Ali Atgeriyev, the Chechen security minister, was arrested in Moscow after spending a week in the Russian capital finalising details for a visit by the Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov.
The Russians have accused him of involvement in a daring raid on the Dagestani town of Kizlyar in 1996, led by Salman Rudayev. The Chechen authorities charged that Atgeriyev’s arrest was a provocation and aimed at sabotaging a key summit between the two sides. Maskhadov was to have flown to Moscow to meet Yeltsin and discuss steps towards easing tensions, and - in the longer run - Russia’s outstanding reparations for war-damages and political and diplomatic steps towards Ichkeria’s total independence.
There are groups within the Russian establishment who operate independently of the Kremlin and frequently work at cross-purposes. The military and the interior ministry troops that were humiliated in the three-year-long war in Ichkeria want to prevent any settlement that would make their defeat permanent. While they cannot take the Chechens on, they want to sabotage any deal with them which would finalise the settlement.
Chechen field-commanders, for their part, control various groups of mujahideen that continue to attack Russian units along the border. The Chechens refuse to accept Moscow’s contention that Chechenya - they prefer to call it by its proper name, Ichkeria - is still part of Russia. This year so far there have been 73 attacks on Russian posts along the border, according to the Russian interior ministry.
An estimated 5,000 Chechen fighters armed with automatic and heavy weapons have tied down about 17,000 soldiers from the ministry’s forces, which are separate from the army. Early last month, Russian interior minister Vladimir Rushailo announced a clampdown on ‘Chechen gangs’ who he said often cross the administrative border between Chechenya and Russia to ‘wreak havoc’. To this, Chechen fighters not only responded by attacking the Grebensky outpost near Babayurt, north of Dagestan, but Maskhadov fired his own warning shot. “Anyone who tries to play with Chechenya will get their teeth cracked,” he said.
Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1999