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Russia: Helicopter Crash In Chechnya Refocuses Attention On Moscow's War

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian Deputy Interior Minister General Mikhail Rudchenko, his deputy, and 12 other officials were killed yesterday when their military helicopter crashed in Chechnya. Some officials said the craft blew up in midair, leading to speculation that it had been hit by a rebel missile. Others said it was an accident. No cause has been established yet, but the death of so many high-ranking officers represents another setback for Moscow's campaign in the separatist republic.

Prague, 28 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The latest reports from Chechnya appear to indicate no rebel involvement in yesterday's crash of a helicopter carrying two generals, three senior officers, and other military personnel. All 14 passengers were killed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's deputy representative in the region, Nikolai Britvin, said today that no signs were found amid the wreckage that a missile attack downed the helicopter. A longer investigation will be needed to determine if sabotage could have played a role.

"The site of the crash was inspected, not only the actual place but quite a large area around it and the area along the route of the helicopter's flight. No signs or objects, no shells or cartridge cases or any other signs that the helicopter was downed from earth have been found."

The Russian Interior Ministry MI-8 helicopter came down yesterday morning near the village of Shelkovskaya, some 60 kilometers north of the Chechen capital Grozny. The crash is the second in just four months to kill senior Russian officers in Chechnya. Last September, two generals and other top military personnel were killed when their helicopter was downed by a rebel missile after taking off from Grozny.

Regardless of the cause of this latest crash, the deaths of General Mikhail Rudchenko, and his deputy, General Nikolai Goridov, are once again reminders of the high cost Moscow is paying for its continued military involvement in Chechnya and the Kremlin's apparent inability to come any closer to resolving the conflict.

After several weeks of diplomatic calm on the Chechen issue -- in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States, when Washington welcomed Russia as an ally in the war against terrorism -- international criticism of Moscow's war has been renewed. Last week, U.S. State Department officials held talks in Washington with Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister in Chechnya's separatist leadership. The meeting prompted an angry reaction from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said it ran counter to "the spirit of cooperation and partnership" between Russia and the United States in their fight against terrorism.

Also last week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called for Russia to allow it to set up a permanent office to observe the human rights situation in Chechnya.

A report passed by the assembly said progress made so far in the sphere of human rights in Russia's breakaway republic has been "slow and far from satisfactory."

The Council of Europe in 1999 temporarily suspended Russia's voting rights in the organization in protest against Moscow's heavy-handed tactics in Chechnya, including the alleged use of torture, executions, and indiscriminate bombing.

Those tactics apparently continue to this day. Three days ago, "The New York Times" published a report that cited Chechen police authorities working under the republic's pro-Kremlin government complaining of widespread human rights abuses by Russian Interior Ministry troops.

Sanobar Shermatova, who has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "Moscow News," tells RFE/RL that the military, through its actions in Chechnya, hinders any chance at a resolution of the conflict:

"The army, which is conducting mopping-up operations, is behaving in a very clumsy way. The army has not proved capable of neutralizing top field commanders through these operations, but it is causing many complaints on the part of the civilian population, who point to human rights abuses. Such an army has to be partially brought back into the barracks and partially pulled out of the republic. A political decision to do this was made almost a year ago, in the spring of 2001. But putting this plan into practice has so far proven unsuccessful."

Part of the reason, according to Shermatova, is that military commanders have too much to gain from being involved on the ground in Chechnya. Illegal oil sales, arms smuggling, and drug trafficking form the backbone of the republic's war economy and at all levels Russian officers are involved.

Since the start of its second campaign in Chechnya in September 1999, Moscow has announced a variety of plans aimed at breaking rebel resistance. The focus has been almost exclusively military. Generals have been reshuffled, chains of command switched. In the latest plan, authority for operations in Chechnya is due to pass from the Interior Ministry to the intelligence service, the FSB.

But as Stephan De Spiegeleire, an analyst for the RAND Europe think-tank, points out, this approach misses the point.

"For some reason the Russian leadership has been living under this illusion that if you just get the right people in place, with enough determination and some political support from the center, this thing will go away. But time after time, it's been proven that is not the case. It is not by sending in more military, by restructuring the military command structure of this operation, or even by throwing money at the military aspect of this operation that you're going to solve it."

De Spiegeleire says the main problem is that the Kremlin has no peacetime strategy for Chechnya. And if outside intervention in the Balkans and now Afghanistan have demonstrated anything, he says, it is that the military phase is only a small part of the overall solution to these types of conflict.

"There's a lot of writing now in the Russian press about how the Americans have shown the Russians how to fight a war in Afghanistan. Maybe to some extent that's true, although here again, the main effort will start right now. The military aspect was a small part of this operation, but the real reconstruction will be able to start right now. And that is something that for some reason the Russian leadership has not been able to come to grips with."

Last November, it seemed a breakthrough could be in the offing, when Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev, met his Chechen counterpart, Akhmed Zakaev, for a half-day of talks at Moscow's Sheremetevo airport. It was the first official dialogue between the two sides aimed at ending the war. But since then, no similar meetings have taken place.

Sanobar Shermatova says that according to her sources, the Kremlin has prepared a tentative plan for ending the conflict in Chechnya that resembles the power-sharing agreement that successfully concluded Tajikistan's civil war. But Moscow will first have to find a solid negotiating partner in Chechnya before any similar result can be implemented.

Shermatova adds that, with the possible exception of Zakaev, who functions as separatist President Aslan Maskhadov's emissary, the choices are not numerous.

"I know the people on Maskhadov's side. Maybe they're good warriors, good soldiers, but they are very poor negotiators, very poor diplomats, and very bad politicians. Totally different skills are needed at the negotiating table and the Chechen side is lacking those skills. On the other hand, Moscow hasn't been very active, as [it believes] the Chechen side might see that as a sign of weakness, and Moscow wants to show it can only go up to a certain point."

Until both sides do meet at the negotiating table, however, the casualty count will continue to grow and the military stalemate is bound to remain.