Kremlin Propaganda Belied by Increasing Rebel Attacks
Over the past several years, the arrival of summer in Chechnya has seen Ramzan Kadyrov’s triumphant declarations about life in the region as the perfect give-away to the alarming reports about the growing hostilities. This year has been no exception. Since May, reports about daily clashes in the mountains have gradually replaced official statements that peace has returned to Chechnya. This past week, the number of reports about warfare has increased significantly.
The tone of these reports has also changed, with news about a soldier stepping on a mine somewhere high in the mountains replaced by news of ambushes and rebel attacks on military facilities in settlements located on Chechnya’s plains. On June 25, Interfax reported that a garrison had been attacked in the Vedeno district. Three days earlier, on June 22, a police jeep was ambushed near the village of Komsomolskoe, which is located north of Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest city after Grozny, the region’s capital. A Russian policeman was killed in that attack.
According to other reports, rebels attacked Russian military garrisons in the village of Khattuni and in the town of Shali on June 24. The same day, an armored personnel carrier was destroyed by a roadside bomb near the village of Elistanzhi.
The wave of reports about rebel attacks has forced security officials to respond in the Russian media. There were no official comments, but an anonymous Chechen Interior Ministry officer told the Kavkazky Uzel website on June 25 that “there is information that the militants have recently received massive financial support from abroad.” The officer added: “I would link the certain increase in terrorist activities with this fact.” The “bandits,” he said, need to use the money they have received from “their foreign sponsors” in order to “demonstrate their capabilities,” which, he added, are “very small.”
The fact that the conflict in Chechnya has been going on for a long time enables us to see in detail how the Kremlin’s propaganda works. Indeed, the same thing happens every year: each winter, as pro-Russian Chechen leaders, especially Ramzan Kadyrov, are declaring peace in Chechnya, Russian siloviki start to prepare the public for the upcoming summer military campaign. In January of last year, for example, Nikolai Shabalkin, who at that time was the press secretary of the Russian anti-terrorist forces in Chechnya, warned that “hundreds of mercenaries” were concentrating near the Russian border in the North Caucasus and were ready to break through the border in the spring to escalate hostilities in Chechnya.
On February 2 of this year, Arkady Yedelev, head of the Regional Operations Headquarters for the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the North Caucasus, said that there were only 450 militants in Chechnya, but warned that that this number could grow if “foreign centers once again provide money to sabotage Russia” (Chechnya Weekly, February 15).
The number of rebel attacks generally increase in April or May, and it is during this period that the nature of the reports from Chechnya changes. The Russian military command has worked out several rules for hiding the real scale of the continuing war in Chechnya.
First of all, there are almost no official reports about the clashes, especially if the Russian army suffers casualties. Russian state or state-controlled news agencies, such as Interfax and RIA Novosti, usually report the hostilities by quoting anonymous sources in the regional law-enforcement agencies. It is impossible to find out exactly to whom these sources belong – the police, the army, or the Federal Security Service (FSB).
The second rule is to hide combat deaths. If the Russian military command is forced to report casualties in Chechnya, it mentions only the wounded soldiers. Dead servicemen are reported to the public only if the number is very high or all of those killed are from the same unit. If the daily loss is small but slowly rising, or if a rebel attack that results in the death of a Russian soldier takes place in a large city like Grozny, the military reports that a soldier or an officer has died as the result of a mishandling of weapons. It is easy to see that the number of reports about soldiers who have died due to accidents always increases exactly in parallel with the number of reports of rebel attacks posted on the Chechen separatist websites.
The third rule is to avoid reports about ambushes and shootouts in order to downgrade the strength of the insurgency. Usually, when an ambush occurs, the official report says it was a booby trap, a mine or a roadside bomb.
Nevertheless, as more rebels conduct painful attacks, it is becoming increasingly difficult to follow these rules. Judging by the latest reports from Chechnya, it looks like the current situation in the region is presenting the propaganda machine with a serious challenge.
Andrei Smirnov is an independent journalist covering the North Caucasus. He is based in Russia.
Jamestown: Chechnya Weekly 28.6.2007