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Continued Chechen prowess in the face of superior Russian numbers


The 21 June attack against the capital of Russian Ingushetia, Nazran, adjacent to Chechnya, bore the hallmarks of superb tactics, reconnaissance, and execution common to Muslim Chechen fighters, although the Russians believe the attack to have been a mix of Chechen and Wahhabi jihadists. In any case, it was superb tactics against an ostensibly larger but ill-prepared force.

Separatist Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov had vowed in an RFE interview that rebels would shift their tactics against Russian security services. "Ingushetia may have been chosen because of its weak defenses and taxed capabilities. The province has hosted tens of thousands of Chechen refugees for years. Ingushetia's authoritarian leader, a Kremlin loyalist, forced the last refugee camp to close recently - though many have refused to return."

Oksana Antonenko, of the Russia and Eurasia program at IISS London (International Institute of Strategic Studies) questioned the Chechens' ability to sustain these tactics, noting that "the Russians have been quite successful in destroying large-scale military formations, so what is now left of the resistance of the rebels is a relatively small group;" unnamed Russian officials said that "just 500 rebels remain in thick mountain forests of southern Chechnya along the border with Georgia;" and in May 2004, Interfax news "quoted a regional Russian military chief asserting that rebels "are in fact completely disorganized" and on the run in groups of two or three.""

Somehow, about 200 of them got together for a superbly planned attack.  I think that, at least in public, everyone is underrating the Chechens. The coordinated, cross-border attacks into Ingushetia on 21 June temporarily took operational control of Russian territory by:

  • Simultaneous infiltration of multiple cities by night
  • Overwhelming fire and maneuver against rural police posts and barracks, achieving total surprise
  • Assumed command of a "network of road checkpoints and traffic circles," dressed as Russian and Ingush police
  • Summary execution of all police, military, and judiciary personnel that presented their ID at those checkpoints
  • Exfiltration before daylight

The Chechens killed 97, some two-thirds of those military and police, with an added 105 wounded.

A word about the Chechens as part of mountain border tribes: tribes in such harsh geography at a transit point between jurisdictions often resort to smuggling as livelihood. (The Basque corridor across the Pyrenees from northern Spain and southwestern France is another example.) Once the smuggling corridor is open, the value per kilo of the products that transit the corridor rises, which in the case of the Chechens has been become drugs, weapons, and specialized illegal aliens. Chechens have long had a criminal corridor across the Georgian border up to Moscow. Atop this, the Chechen culture has prized a warrior mentality and prowess that towers above those around them. A short but useful view of Chechen history and demography, admittedly hagiographic in its preface, is Who are the Chechen? I would also point the reader to the Council on Foreign Relations' Chechnya-based Terrorists.

For a decade prior to 11 September, the US saw fit to hammer the Russian Federation with its 'human rights violations against the Chechens, ignoring Chechen criminal history,  The US view largely reversed after the Manhattan and Washington attack, and became more pointed as Chechen soldiers move west in Bosnia, north into Russia, and south and east into the Stans and now likely Iraq.

Even under fierce, massed attacks by Russian troops and artillery -- where admittedly the early Russian troops were poorly trained and miserably and brutally officered -- the Chechens regrouped and counterattacked at high value weak points, even as the Chechen capital, Grozny, was reduced to a war zone worthy of Stalingrad. This is a group that had the skill and forethought to plant explosives in advance in a VIP seating area of Grozny's Dynamo stadium for a ceremony commemorating Soviet victory in World War II, killing the pro-Moscow Chechen President, Akhmad Kadyrov, and the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, Gen Valery Baranov. This is the group that infiltrated Khankala, Russia's main military headquarters in the North Caucasus, in order to down a Russian MI-26 heavy-lift troop helicopter executing a 'safe descent' procedure that presumed no hostile forces underneath its tight downward columnar spiral. More than a hundred died when this huge helicopter crashed, and in a mine field at that.

Chechens earlier attacked Samara, a 'critical path' city in the Russian energy system that ships oil to Novorossiysk and Druzhba, on 4 June. The upshot was a near interruption of 3 million barrels of oil that served Central and Eastern Europe.  Again the attack was elegantly simple: a kilo of plastic explosives placed next to existing gas cylinders. In a stroke, the Chechens could have put a severe strain on global oil supplies.

Chechnya and its Muslim fighters continue to demonstrate an enormous capacity to operate outside their territory and, within reason, to widely export their combatants.  To the degree that al Qaeda can co-opt Chechen fighters to their cause, they will measurably improve al Qaeda's lethality and scope of operations.

Police in Ingushetia Tell of Rebel Assailants' Skill
New York Times
June 26, 2004

Gordon Housworth

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