BACKGROUND: The conflict in Chechnya has been deadlocked for almost two years, with a low-intensity conflict going on between Russian Federal troops and Chechen irregular formations. As Russian and foreign journalists have reported in graphic detail, the Chechen civilian population presently bear the brunt of the war. The Russian military is bogged down in Chechnya, affecting its internal discipline and morale negatively in a way similar to what occurred during the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But as compared to the first Chechen war in 1994-96, the Russian leadership has at least managed to avoid a major Chechen counter-offensive such as the one that ended the first war in August 1996, when the Chechen forces in a blitz operation retook Grozny and two other major cities of Chechnya. This has been avoided not because of superior Russian military tactics, but because Russia during the inter-war period and afterwards has been successful in splitting Chechen resistance into different and sometimes hostile groups. This tendency of fragmentation within Chechen ranks was intensified by the division between the more secular Chechen forces such as President Maskhadov's, and the so-called Wahhabis, the orthodox Islamic forces influenced and funded from the Gulf, lead by Saudi-born militant Khattab and the notorious warlord Shamil Basayev. Earlier this year, Khattab was killed in fighting, removing the main leader of the Wahhabi forces, and seemingly also considerably reducing the inflow of cash to these groups. Apparently, Saudi funding for these Chechen groups was intimately linked to Khattab's person, and did not survive his death. This event galvanized the Chechen resistance, as Shamil Basayev only weeks later appeared in a videotaped mountain 'press conference' with President Maskhadov that was broadcast over the internet. The event was significant as the two had appeared to be hostile to each other for many months (though both had denied that) and because Basayev pledged loyalty to Maskhadov in this press conference, thereby boosting Maskhadov's status as the legitimate leader of all the Chechen pro-independence forces. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has been proclaiming for months that the Chechen war is over and that the only remaining phase is mopping up operations, it has remained clear that the war is still continuing, and may be intensifying, as the Chechen forces appear to be somewhat more coordinated and united than previously. Unable to confront this challenge effectively, Russia has put blame on Georgia for sheltering Chechen fighters in the Pankisi Gorge. Indeed, up to 600 Chechen fighters, the largest contingent of which were a group of several hundred well-trained men under Ruslan Gelayev, a pro-Maskhadov field commander, have been stuck in the Pankisi gorge for almost two years. But contrary to Russian portraying of the situation, these fighters have basically remained in Pankisi during this time, and any allegations that Georgian territory has been used as training and basing ground for any significant raids on Russian territory are nonsensical. Gelayev's forces were effectively dissociated from the theater of war in Chechnya, attracting widespread criticism from Chechen partisans for not engaging the Russians. Yet Moscow's relentless pressure on Georgia, and Georgia's revitalized State Security Ministry's efforts to persuade the Chechens to leave Pankisi, seem to have borne fruit. In late September, rumors began circulating that Gelayev and up to five hundred troops had left Pankisi for Ingushetia. According to unconfirmed reports, the Chechen fighters were airlifted to Ingushetia by a Russian military helicopter pilot in exchange for a handsome payment, while other reports suggest the Chechens crossed by foot.
IMPLICATIONS: An encounter between Chechen fighters and Federal forces in Ingushetia only days later gave credence to these reports, and high-level Georgian sources now confirm that Gelayev and his forces have left Georgian territory. Meanwhile, a Chechen Press Release noted that the forces had 'successfully retreated from Ingushetia to Chechnya'. Gelayev's return to Chechnya would mean that the Russian pressure on Georgia has backfired substantially. Whereas Russia was blaming the Georgians for sheltering alleged "terrorists", it sought the destruction of Gelayev's forces, certainly not their return to Chechnya, where they are likely to compound Russia's already fragile military situation. This event has two main implications. First of all, Russia's case against Georgia in Pankisi has lost most of the little legitimacy it ever had. Left in Pankisi are now certain Georgian criminal networks and minor groups of several dozen Chechen fighters, including the Akhmadov brothers, for example. But the large number of Chechen fighters has left the gorge, making monitoring of the remaining elements considerably easier for Georgia. With American assistance, Georgia is now in a position to gradually reassert order in the Pankisi gorge, and deal with the remaining criminal networks that have made the gorge their base in the past few years. Secondly, Gelayev's return may have large implications for the war in Chechnya. Given that Maskhadov and Basayev seem to have concluded a truce, Gelayev's arrival may mean that the Chechen resistance will become more united and more capable of larger-scale actions that would stress the already strained Russian military to the limit. While the Chechen forces are a far cry from performing an action comparable to the August 1996 counter-offensive, their military potential will undoubtedly benefit. Gelayev's return may also stimulate Chechen fighters disillusioned by the fragmentation and division of their leadership, and boost the morale of the Chechens in a belief that the military tide is turning in their favor. Such a multiplier effect is likely to make the situation for Moscow even more untenable.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia's belligerence against Georgia seems to have backfired to decrease Russia's own military posture in Chechnya. Paradoxically, this may improve the hand of the political forces in Moscow that desire a peaceful resolution of the Chechen conflict through negotiations with Maskhadov. So far, they have been unable to convince the administration that a negotiated solution is preferable to a military one, among other because negotiations with Maskhadov may not have ended the war, as he did not exert influence over all Chechen forces. Increased Chechen unity and increased Chechen military activity would both decrease the sustainability of Russia's current focus on military means, and increase the plausibility of negotiations.
AUTHOR BIO: Svante E. Cornell is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. He is also Course Chair of Caucasus Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, Department of State, and lectures at Uppsala University, Sweden.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.