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Wednesday, 02 August 2000

SHAMIL BASEYEV, CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER: RUSSIA’S MOST WANTED MAN

Published in Analytical Articles

By Dr. Brian Williams (8/2/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Shamil Basayev began his career as a fighter in 1992 when he joined the secessionist Abkhaz fighting for independence against the majority Georgians. Basayev's "Abkhaz Battalion" was responsible for the subsequent Abkhaz defeat of the Georgians. When the Russians invaded Chechnya in 1994, Basayev played a key role in the Chechen fighters destruction of Russian forces in Grozny on New Years Eve 1994-5.

BACKGROUND: Shamil Basayev began his career as a fighter in 1992 when he joined the secessionist Abkhaz fighting for independence against the majority Georgians. Basayev's "Abkhaz Battalion" was responsible for the subsequent Abkhaz defeat of the Georgians. When the Russians invaded Chechnya in 1994, Basayev played a key role in the Chechen fighters destruction of Russian forces in Grozny on New Years Eve 1994-5. In June 1995, Basayev led a unit of 150 fighters into the neighboring Russian province of Stavropol where they seized a hospital and over 1,000 hostages. After two clumsy assaults by Russian special forces leading to the death of more than 100 hostages, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin talked directly by phone with Basayev and agreed let the fighters return to Chechnya. A year later, Basayev participated in the surprise attack on Grozny that saw as many as 12,000 Russian troops encircled and trapped by the Chechen fighters. Yeltsin subsequently withdrew Russia's troops from Grozny.

In 1997, Basayev lost the Chechen presidential elections to Aslan Mashkadov, the moderate commander of the Chechen army. Basayev grew closer to Islamist fighters in the republic, such as the Saudi mujahideen, Habib abd-al Rahman, known by his nom de guerre Emir (Commander) Khottab. Basayev developed romantic notions of uniting Chechnya with Dagestan the same way his legendary namesake Imam Shamil had done in the first half of the 19th century. While not a Wahhabi, Basayev who is a member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order allied himself with his self-proclaimed brother Emir Khottab. Russia's worst nightmares for the region appeared to becoming fulfilled: Dagestanis and Chechens were uniting under the green banner of anti-Russian, militant Islam. If Russia were to lose Dagestan, containing 70 percent of Russia's Caspian coastline and her only all year warm water port on the Caspian, it would be a strategic disaster for the Kremlin. With access to the Caspian Sea and control of Russia's oil pipelines from Azerbaijan, the Chechen state could go from being a failed proto-state, mafiocracy to a viable Islamic republic.

During the Chechen invasion of Dagestan, Boris Yeltsin fired his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, and replaced him with Vladimir Putin. As a bloody wave of terrorist bombings swept Russia in September 1999 killing close to three hundred Russian civilians, Putin blamed Basayev and Khottab and placed a one million dollar bounty on Basayev's head, declaring him Russia's most wanted man. Putin then launched a "limited anti-terrorism" campaign against Chechnya in October of 1999 to destroy Chechen "terrorist formations" and create a cordon sanitaire in northern Chechnya. Basayev played a key role in the defence of Grozny but was seriously wounded during the Chechens' hellish retreat from the encircled city. The front of Basayev's right foot was blown off by a mine as the desperate rebel force of 3,000 broke through three layers of mines and clashed with the besieging Russian army of 100,000. The flamboyant Basayev had his foot amputated while a video camera rolled. Russian television showed Basayev calmly telling the surgeon, a dentist by training, to cut his mangled foot off.

IMPLICATIONS: Basayev is now recuperating from his wound. His leg has now been amputated up to the knee due to gangrene but he is still in charge of military operations in Chechnya's southern Vedeno and Argun Gorges. Forces under his command have launched suicide bombings, ambushes, and sniper attacks against the Russians since the retreat from Grozny. Khottab, whose forces wiped out a division of between 80 and 90 OMON (special paramilitaries) soldiers in March 2000, is still allied with Basayev and his brand of militant Islam appears to have been adapted to a degree by Basayev. The Russian invasion of Chechnya has in fact seen the radicalization of Islam among many elements in the Chechen republic.

Russia's clumsy invasion of Chechnya has now reached a stalemate as the Russians assume static, defensive positions and continue to suffer a stream of loses in their conflict with the mobile Chechen 'hunter' units which strike throughout the republic. Moving on horseback or hobbling on his handmade wooden leg, Basayev has now become a legend among the Chechen highlanders. He is in many ways a tragic symbol of the Chechens' bloody struggle against Russia. Russia still officially claims that it will not end its campaign until it has destroyed Basayev and Khottab, but this appears to be increasingly unlikely as the Russians begin to withdraw their troops from Chechnya. Russia cannot afford to keep so many units in the field and the Russian army in Chechnya has now been whittled away to 50,000.

A stalemate has now been reached in Chechnya with the Russians officially claiming to control two thirds of the republic but in actuality controlling only the bases they occupy. It would not be surprising if Basayev, Khottab, Mashkadov, and other Chechen field commanders such as Ruslan Gelaiev and Arbi Barayev, take advantage of the weakening of the Russian army in Chechnya to launch more ambitious strikes against Russian bases and Russian-occupied towns such as Chechnya's second largest town Gudermes in the near future. Basayev has vowed to continue the war until all Russian troops have been withdrawn from Chechnya and there is every reason to believe that he will lead a determined partisan war against the Federal forces in Chechnya. Russia has little hope of winning a partisan war in the heavily armed region and many unemployed, armed Chechen fighters no nothing but warfare with the Russians.

CONCLUSIONS: While Basayev is a skilled commander and symbol for the Chechen resistance, his death at the hands of the Russians will not bring a halt to the Chechen guerrilla warfare.  Killing Basayev will only make a "shahid" (martyr) out of the Chechens' most famous fighter. Russia's only hopes for ending its increasingly costly war of attrition in Chechnya involves negotiating with moderate Chechen president Aslan Mashkadov and, in the process, sidelining such anti-Russian militants as Basayev. While Mashkadov does not have control over the various field commanders, he does have the ability to negotiate a face saving deal with the Russians that would allow for a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.

While Russia can afford the war for the moment due to a surge in oil prices in 1999 and 2000, the costs of the war are rising and more and more Russian soldiers are being sent home to their villages in coffins. As Russia's losses continue to mount in Chechnya, Basayev's popularity among the Chechens has soared. The morale and sense of esprit de corps among Basayev's hardened fighters compares drastically to that among the poorly led Russian troops guarding block-posts, roads and bases throughout Chechnya. In Basayev, Putin has met a man who is as determined to achieve victory in the current war as himself.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Brian Glyn Williams is a Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He work examines post-Soviet migration, the Russo-Chechen Conflict, Wahhabism in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and Crimean Tatar exile and repatriation. His forthcoming book is entitled "A Homeland Lost: Migration, the Diaspora Experience and the Forging of Crimean Tatar National Identity."

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