At the same time, if the Russian leadership chooses to spurn that opportunity, the North Caucasus resistance is already reportedly planning -- apparently in line with an eight-year plan of action drafted and endorsed four years ago -- to take the fighting across the Volga and into the heartland of Russia.
The circumstances of Basayev's death remain sketchy. He is said to have been killed when a lorry packed with explosives detonated in the village of Ekazhevo, southeast of the Ingushetia capital, Nazran.
Whether the explosion was freakishly fortuitous for Moscow -- as the deaths of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005 and of Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev last month appear to have been -- or whether it was the result of a sophisticated Federal Security Service (FSB) surveillance and interception operation remains unclear.
A Blow To The Resistance
Basayev's death, coming as it does less than a month after the death of Sadulayev, is undoubtedly a major blow to the Chechen resistance, especially in light of his fighting experience and role as a strategist and coordinator between the various North Caucasus fronts.
But as both Sadulayev and his successor, Doku Umarov, have made clear, the strength of the resistance to Russian domination both in Chechnya and in other North Caucasus republics long ago reached the point where the death of one man -- even of a legendary figure such as Basayev -- cannot derail it, given that a younger generation of fighters is waiting in the wings to take over.
Neither the death of Maskhadov nor that of Sadulayev appears to have deterred many young men across the North Caucasus from joining the ranks of the resistance. Umarov said in an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in April, and again in a recent interview with the Turkish daily "Vakit," that the resistance has far more potential recruits to choose from than it can provide weapons for. In other words, the weak point of the resistance is not a lack of manpower, but a lack of funds.
New Fronts In The Urals, Volga Region
Moreover, the resistance drafted and endorsed four years ago -- while Maskhadov was still alive -- a plan of action for the period until 2010. The decision by Sadulayev in May 2005 to establish six "fronts," four within Chechnya, one in Daghestan, and one for the rest of the North Caucasus -- the latter subdivided into separate sectors for Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Krasnodar Krai -- is presumably part of that plan. Also likely to be part of that plan, is the decision made on July 8 by the State War Council to establish new fronts in the Urals and the Volga region.
Under Sadulayev, the resistance abandoned the tactic of large-scale terrorist attacks against the Russian civilian population that became synonymous with the name of Basayev. Such attacks -- launched first by Basayev in Budyonnovsk in June 1995 and again with devastating effect in the hostage takings in Moscow in October 2002 and Beslan in September 2004 -- more than anything else undercut international support and sympathy for the Chechen cause.
Even more crucially, such tactics played into the hands of a Russian leadership that sought to persuade the West that the fighting in Chechnya was part of the international war on terrorism. In 2003, the UN and the U.S. government designated Basayev's Riyadus-Salikhin battalion a terrorist organization. The Russian leadership placed a bounty of $10 million on his head.
An Opportunity For Talks?
The death of the man whom Moscow branded terrorist No. 1 at least theoretically removes the major obstacle to a negotiated settlement of the conflict, given that the United States too regarded Basayev as a terrorist.
By contrast, the international community would be less likely to discourage Moscow from embarking on peace talks with Umarov, who is not known to have participated in any terrorist attacks, or with London-based Chechen Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev. The latter was described by former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin in a recent interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service as representing the moderate wing of the armed resistance.
Many senior Russian officials, however, claim that both Umarov and Zakayev are, like Basayev, tainted by terrorism or war crimes. One of Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika's first actions following his appointment last month was to launch a new bid to have Zakayev extradited from the United Kingdom.
Proceeding According To The Plan
The resistance still intends, however, as Umarov stressed in his first public statement as president in late June, to continue to target Russian military and police facilities both in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. The example of the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage taking suggests that the logistical problems involved in launching such attacks thousands of kilometers from Chechnya are not necessarily insurmountable.
The Russian leadership thus faces a stark choice. On the one hand, it can abandon President Vladimir Putin's policy of "Chechenization" -- in other words offloading on to local pro-Kremlin forces most of the responsibility for hunting down the remaining Chechen resistance forces and trying to revive Chechnya's war-shattered economy and infrastructure -- and embark on peace talks.
Alternatively, the Russian leadership can ignore the opportunity and risk an indefinite series of attacks on military, police, and security facilities across Russia. Some of those attacks will in all likelihood fail, as did the October 2005 raids in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, and the planned assault that appears to have killed Basayev.
But the planned opening of the Volga and Urals fronts could herald an entire new dimension to what is no longer simply just the second Chechen war.
MORE: For coverage of this topic from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian, click here and here.