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Russia: Chechen Commander's Death Could Boost Chances For Eventual Peace Deal

  • Jeremy Bransten

Chechnya has re-entered the headlines with last week's reported killing of separatist commander Khattab, a development hailed as a major victory by the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again proclaiming that the war in the separatist republic is coming to an end, but for now, the body bags keep piling up. What impact will Khattab's death have on the course of the war? RFE/RL spoke to two analysts, who offer up some surprising conclusions.

Prague, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After enduring months of humiliating setbacks and losses in Chechnya, the Kremlin claimed a major coup last week, announcing that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had succeeded in killing one of the separatists' top commanders -- Saudi-born Samir bin Saleh al-Suwailem, known by his nom de guerre, "Khattab."

On 26 April, RTR state television broadcast footage showing the body of a man resembling Khattab being prepared for his funeral. This week, the Chechen separatist command and Khattab's family confirmed his death.

Reports from Saudi Arabia say relatives and friends of the rebel have been lining up to pay their respects. Exact details of how the FSB conducted its operation against Khattab remain murky, but what is known indicates that the Russian intelligence service acted through stealth rather than force. According to information posted on the rebel-maintained websites kavkaz.org and chechenpress.com, Khattab died on 19 March after an associate he knew and trusted brought him a letter purportedly written by a fellow field commander. The letter had been treated with an unknown poison, which caused Khattab's death soon after he handled the document.

Ilya Shabalkin, an FSB spokesperson in Chechnya, told reporters that Khattab's death would cut off foreign financing to Chechen rebel groups and speed their disintegration. Russian officials say Khattab helped funnel money from Islamic militants to the Chechen separatists, and they have linked him to the Al-Qaeda network founded by another Saudi native, Osama bin Laden.

Mark Galeotti is a British-based Russia analyst who writes for "Jane's Intelligence Review" and who follows the Chechen conflict closely. He tells RFE/RL that Khattab did, indeed, receive financial help from bin Laden's group. But he says Moscow's claims are exaggerated.

"Yes, Khattab was in receipt of funds and support from bin Laden. The idea, though, that Khattab was the link man is completely wrong. We actually have no real evidence that the Chechen resistance as a whole were being supported by bin Laden. That's just very much a link that the Russian have tried to make because obviously they want to tar the whole opposition movement with the same terrorist brush."

That is an opinion shared by Moscow-based journalist Sanobar Shermatova, who has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "Moscow News." She tells RFE/RL that the so-called "Arab connection" that Moscow has been stressing lately in order to justify its war in Chechnya as part of the international fight against global terrorism plays only a marginal role in the conflict.

"What is primarily feeding the flames of this war is not the Arabs, who according to the Chechen Security Council number no more than 300 people -- Arab mercenaries and volunteers who came to fight, that is to say. What is feeding the flames of this war is young Chechens who keep fighting for a variety of reasons."

Those reasons include nationalism fueled by a sense of revenge for the destruction already wrought by Russian forces in the breakaway republic and a lack of other options due to the militarization of Chechen society and liquidation of the civilian economy. Fighting gives Chechnya's young men a mission, and it keeps them fed when no other jobs are to be had.

Ironically, Galeotti says, Khattab's death is one event that serves the interests of both the Russian and Chechen separatist leadership, rallied around President Aslan Maskhadov. Khattab's agenda did not coincide with theirs and Maskhadov saw Khattab more as a rival than an ally.

"With him gone, it consolidates Maskhadov's position within the rebellion and it also it gives him a freer hand in dealing with the Russians. It makes Maskhadov, first of all, once again a more credible interlocutor. Secondly, it strengthens his leadership and therefore the overall coordination of the rebel movement. And that will also make it more important and more worthwhile for the Russians to actually strike a deal with him."

Galeotti says the fact that Khattab was killed through a poisoned letter purportedly delivered by a fellow commander even suggests Maskhadov's men could have helped the FSB do him in -- although there is no firm evidence of this.

"I know for a fact that Maskhadov has wanted to have Khattab killed, and I understand that there have been times where actually the Chechen rebels -- through various arms-length contacts -- have more or less tipped off the Russians to try and encourage them to do the job."

Now that Khattab has been removed and Maskhadov's hand apparently strengthened, is a resolution to the Chechen conflict any closer?

Journalist Shermatova says Moscow's tactic of trying to split the separatist leadership has clearly failed, and the Kremlin recognizes this. For this reason, a resurgent Maskhadov could be a catalyst to eventual peace negotiations.

"Chechen field commanders long ago agreed that they would not hold separate talks with the central authorities. They agreed instead that they would rally around a central figure and coordinate their actions around him -- and that figure is Aslan Maskhadov. Therefore, the central authorities' efforts -- starting in 1999 -- to break each individual field commander and hold separate peace talks with him -- this tactic has failed."

Another thing the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin recognize is the need to end the Chechen war before presidential elections take place in two years' time. According to statistics released by the Russian Defense Ministry in March, more than 2,300 Russian soldiers have been killed and 6,000 wounded since the start of the second Chechen war in August 1999 -- an average of nine Russian troops killed or maimed every day for the past 30 months. Casualties on the Chechen side have been even higher.

Paradoxically, Putin -- the man who launched the second Chechen war and used it to propel himself to power -- will now have to find a way to end the fighting if he wants to remain a popular and re-electable leader.

Khattab's death may be a milestone on that path.

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