Russian President Dmitri Medvedev proposed putting together a national anti-terror committee on March 27 to consider "officially" ending Russia's war in Chechnya. Medvedev said that "the situation in Chechnya has normalized to a large degree and life is getting back to normal, modern buildings are being constructed." The announcement raises questions about the future of Chechnya, and of the wider region. Russia has waged two tough wars in Chechnya since the fall of the Soviet Union in which Chechen rebels sought to eject the Russians from the Caucasian republic. The first war, 1994-1996, was a disaster and an embarrassment to Russian forces, which failed to counter the large-scale Chechen insurgency. The Second Chechen War began in 1999, just before Vladimir Putin came to power as Russian president, and was fought very differently than the first war. Instead of Russian forces taking on Chechnya and its insurgency as a whole, the Russian military and its intelligence services broke Chechen forces into a series of factions
(splitting nationalists from Islamists). These groups then became embroiled in infighting, which resulted in the expulsion of the Islamists. (The Kremlin estimates that only 70 Islamists are left in Chechnya.) Moscow then purchased the nationalists' loyalty. The Kremlin actually started to refer to the war in Chechnya as being over in 2007; evidence of a large drop-off in Russian security force operations in the war-torn region became clear in 2008. The defeat of the Chechen Islamists is due in large part to the Kremlin's having built up a very large and powerful Chechen security system with nearly 40,000 troops under now-Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. This success is manifest
in the absence of the traditional spring uptick in violence. (Previously, snow melt in the Caucasus signaled increased violence and a return of the military to the streets.) This March has not brought Chechnya this uptick, though one has been seen in the neighboring regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia
. Officially and legally, the war in Chechnya goes on, however. STRATFOR sources in Russia say that the Kremlin will most likely lift the legal mandate on operations in Chechnya in the next few weeks. Those sources also say that, with an official end to the war, Russia might start pulling nearly half of its 50,000 troops out of Chechnya in 2009, leaving the republic in the hands of Kadyrov's Chechen security forces. Many of the troops will be pulled back to some of Russia's dozens of military bases in the Caucasus. An official end to the war in Chechnya raises two major issues. The first involves just how loyal Kadyrov is to the Kremlin
. The young Chechen president has always been something of unknown quantity for the Kremlin, though he has been effective at ruling Chechnya with an iron fist. There have been great concerns in Moscow about allowing Kadyrov the freedom to oversee his large troop and security forces solo, however. Putin and Medvedev have said they are confident in Kadyrov's loyalty, especially since Putin's right-hand man, Vladislav Surkov, has long kept Kadyrov in line. But the Chechen president could grow more bold as Russian troops leave Chechen turf, meaning he will have to be closely watched from Moscow
. In any event, Russian forces will be stationed
in nearby Dagestan and Ingushetia, making it easy for them to move back into Chechnya if needed. The second is just what Moscow will do with 25,000 extra troops on its hands. Russia has had those troops committed to Chechnya for years — troops that it can now redeploy to other regions. The Kremlin has been extending its forces on many fronts, so the troop availability comes at a fortuitous time. Among Moscow's plans are setting up half a dozen permanent military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the wake of the Russian-Georgian war, and deploying troops along its Collective Security Treaty Organization fronts
in Central Asia and along the Russian-European borders.