Spring has come to the Argun Valley in Chechnya's mountain heartland, covering the dense oak and beech forests with thick foliage. But for Aleksandr, a 21-year-old Russian Army lieutenant, the sprouting greenery means danger--the danger of ambush by Chechen rebels who remain active despite an intensive eight-month campaign by Russian forces to destroy them. "In winter we still had a chance to get them: the mountains were naked and cold," says Aleksandr, scanning the woods that rise in front of him as he makes the hazardous journey down the rebel-infested valley. "But now they can move wherever they like--and they know these hills like their own hands."
In the past month alone, Chechen rebels have attacked at least five Russian convoys and launched dozens of small raids that have killed nearly a hundred Russian servicemen. What began as a vote-winning military campaign by President-elect Vladimir Putin to bring rebellious Chechen Islamic extremists to heel is turning into a quagmire of partisan warfare. International condemnation of alleged massacres, looting and execution of prisoners by Russian forces is mounting. And the hoped-for decisive victory over Chechnya's rebels is still nowhere in sight.
Not surprisingly, the Russian government may now be moving toward talks with the rebels. That is something Moscow vowed never to do at the beginning of a war launched, in Putin's words, "to stamp out every trace of terrorism in Chechnya." Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said last week that Moscow has begun a direct dialogue with "various representatives of Chechnya," and claimed that Russia seeks a "political solution" to the conflict.
Just which "representatives" Russia is talking to is unclear. Putin, for one, doesn't seem to distinguish between rebel leaders such as Chechnya's popularly elected President Aslan Maskhadov and renegade field commanders like Shamil Basayev and the Jordanian-born commander known as Khattab. And even Chechens whom Moscow considers its allies--the leaders of the newly formed, pro-Moscow Chechen OMON paramilitary police--clearly have divided loyalties. In a bid to create a local, anti-rebel force, Moscow has armed thousands of young men in areas it claims control over.
Yet Moscow has little direct control over the irregular militias it hopes will keep Chechnya pacified. Many local militias are little more than the private armies of local Chechen strongmen--and are full of ex-rebels whose willingness to fight their former comrades is dubious. Moscow has admitted that it is now in indirect touch with Maskhadov, a relative moderate, and has raised the possibility of an amnesty for the embattled president--who is currently wanted by the Russian authorities on charges of banditry.
It may be too late to deal with the senior rebel leadership. Russia's operation in Chechnya has destroyed dozens of Chechen towns and villages, killing up to 3,000 rebels. But in the process it has also destroyed the political unity of the rebel movement and its command structure. Several key commanders have been killed or, like Apti Batalov, Maskhadov's chief of staff, and field commander Salman Raduyev, captured and brought to Moscow. There are also signs that Maskhadov himself, though nominally still the rebel commander in chief, is no longer in control of the scattered groups of hard-core rebels who continue to harass Russian troops. Moscow is unlikely to offer anything better than a qualified capitulation--certainly nothing like the independence that the rebels demand. That may mean that many rebels will simply ignore any deals struck by their leaders with Moscow. "We aren't fighting for Maskhadov or Basayev or any man," one "resting" rebel told NEWSWEEK in Alkhan-Kala outside Grozny. "We are fighting for Allah and Chechnya... Our leaders may betray us by capitulating [to the Russians], but we will fight on."
Just how many fighters are left in the hills is unknown even to their own leaders. But even if their numbers are as small as the 2,000 to 4,000 Moscow claims, they are still remarkably effective at taking on the 90,000 Russian troops and police stationed in the 100-kilometer-square republic. Russian control over the territory is still very shaky. That was obvious in Vedeno earlier this month. The village, which was until last autumn the stronghold of Basayev and Khattab, was supposedly "liberated" by Russian troops twice--once last September and again in February. Now a small garrison of Russian regular troops mans a 19th-century fort built by an earlier generation of tsarist-era Russian conquerors, backed up by Russian OMON paramilitary police and a force of so-called Chechen OMON.
But when a column of Russian OMON police from the Urals city of Perm set out from Vedeno to conduct a search for rebels and weapons in nearby Tsenteroi on March 29, they were ambushed just a kilometer outside the village by a force of well-equipped rebels. The Russian troops in Vedeno's fort sent out a light tank to relieve the column, but that, too, was destroyed. The 600-strong force of Chechen OMON stayed put in their headquarters, within earshot of the fighting, as 43 Russian soldiers were slaughtered and nine taken prisoner. "A Chechen won't raise his hand against another Chechen," says one Vedeno-based officer of the FSB, successor to the KGB, who requested anonymity. "If they kill one of their own it means a blood feud for generations."
The loyalties of the newly formed Chechen OMON are divided because most of their recruits are self-confessed former rebels who fought with Basayev. Several of their commanders, such as 42-year-old Khamzat, were senior rebel officers in the last Chechen war. "But now I want peace," says Khamzat, a grin spreading across his face. He and his men are eligible for a sweeping amnesty that forgives all rebels who surrender voluntarily, provided that they have not participated in loosely defined "terrorist acts." The amnesty, and the formation of a Chechen OMON armed by Moscow, is seen by many Russian officers as a recipe for disaster. "By day they are loyal civilians, by night they shoot our boys," an anonymous group of officers wrote in an open letter to communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. "In every village there are 200 or 300 men who are ready to fight. Unless they are punished for what they have done, the male population of Chechnya will be at war with us forever." Moscow may want to scale back its latest Chechen conflict--but there are enough angry, armed Chechens to make that a distant prospect.