Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sept. 19 that Russian forces achieved a "breakthrough" in Chechnya. The death of the last senior leader of Chechen nationalist militants two days before Putin's remarks likely signals the end of organized armed resistance for the Chechen militancy's nationalist wing. Islamists will take over the movement — which means the militancy's popular support will erode and become isolated as the foreign-supported Islamist militants focus more on terrorist-style attacks and expanding hostilities beyond Chechnya.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sept. 19 that Russian forces achieved a "breakthrough" in developments in Chechnya, and that Chechen law enforcement bodies are becoming more capable of ensuring security against Islamist militants. Two days before Putin's announcement, Akhmed Avtorkhanov — former head of security for rebel President Aslan Maskhadov, whom Russian forces killed in February — was killed in Chechnya. After Maskhadov's death, Avtorkhanov was the last leading commander of the Chechen militancy's nationalist wing. Since Avtorkhanov was the last leader uniting Chechnya's nationalist militants, his death has severely destabilized the militancy's nationalist wing. That destabilization probably will lead to the end of the nationalists' organized resistance to Russian forces. Avtorkhanov's death also will transfer the Chechen militancy's overall power base to the radicalized and foreign-supported Wahhabist militants led by Shamil Basayev. Unlike the radicalized current of Wahhabist militants supported by al Qaeda and whose ranks include foreign jihadists, the nationalists have focused on removing Russia's presence from Chechnya and gaining Chechnya's independence from the Russian Federation. Nationalist militants typically engage in guerrilla-style attacks, such as strikes against Russian military units, whereas the Wahhabist militants use terrorist-style tactics that often involve high numbers of civilian casualties, such as hijacking and blowing up passenger aircraft and taking and murdering civilian hostages. Pro-Chechen Islamist rebel Web sites mentioned Avtorkhanov's death but omitted the cause of death. This is a telling detail — when Russian forces kill militant commanders, such Web sites always specify where and how the commanders died; but in Avtorkhanov's case, Islamist militant-supporting sites could well have a reason for not giving the cause of death. He likely died of food poisoning after Basayev ordered his assassination, sources in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration and Russian military intelligence said. Chechen administration sources said this was Basayev's third assassination attempt against Avtorkhanov, who was at odds with Basayev's militant Wahhabist followers because they wanted to make Chechnya a base for future conflicts with Russia while Avtorkhanov wanted the war with Russia to end with Chechen independence. Basayev has been known to kill rival militant field commanders with whom he quarreled frequently. In April, STRATFOR predicted that an increasing trend of Chechen militant commanders being hunted down would systematically weaken the insurgency in Chechnya and in the surrounding regions by decentralizing militant groups. The effect on the militancy will be the same even if the militant commanders' deaths are a result of infighting. On top of that, the radicalized shift in the Chechen militancy will erode popular support for the rebels in Chechnya since a vast majority of the population there are traditional Sufi Muslims who see Basayev and his Wahhabist fighters — and their foreign jihadist allies — as strangers to Chechnya and its local Muslim faith. Also, the trend that began with Maskhadov's death — when nationalist fighters, disillusioned by frequent defeats and tired of fighting with the despised Wahhabist militants, began forming local police and militias to join the Russian forces' fight against the Wahhabist — will accelerate. This translates into a quick end to the nationalist insurgency in Chechnya. However, Basayev's foreign sponsors and Islamist militant groups such as al Qaeda will continue to support the Islamist militancy in Chechnya. As the Islamist militants see their support wane inside Chechnya, they will try to shift their major efforts to Russia's other Muslim-dominated republics in the North Caucasus. This trend already is picking up momentum; Sept. 19 saw several attacks against local police in Ingushetia and a major firefight between Russian special forces and Wahhabist militants in Dagestan. The changing nature of the war in Chechnya, with militants pursuing Islamist goals rather than the nationalist cause, has both positive and negative implications for Russia. Russian forces will no longer be fighting Chechen nationalists as a group, and at least some nationalist supporters are expected to side with pro-Moscow forces in the fight against Wahhabist militants. Also, much of the Chechen population, adamantly opposed to Wahhabi extremism, will aid the pro-Moscow forces. However, the militancy's new tactics will involve more attempts at terrorist attacks against Russia, along the lines of the Beslan school hostage crisis, passenger aircraft hijackings and a blast at a Moscow subway station in 2004. Putin's statement that a "breakthrough" in Chechnya had been achieved likely is correct; with some nationalist supporters aiding Moscow's efforts to fight the militant Islamists in Chechnya and surrounding areas, both the Russian and Chechen governments will be able to more effectively combat the jihadists operating in Chechnya.