Will Basayev’s Death Matter?

As I wrote in yesterday’s post about the killing of Shamil Basayev (the details of which are still disputed): “Does Basayev’s death signal the end to the Chechen resistance and the Chechen War?” In regard to that, my friend and colleague Johnnie B. Baker makes this important point in the comments section, “The death of Basayev will not bring calm to the area, because that serve’s nobody’s interest. The altruistic fight for independence and freedom ended a long time ago, now it’s about controlling arms and drug smuggling, and other contraband.” According to Andrei Smirnov at the Eurasia Daily Monitor, robbery, the drug trade, kidnapping, and racketeering makes up a good portion of the insurgency’s funds. Insurgencies based on these methods spawn a dynamic of their own which not only terrorizes the population, but can also lead to insurgents eating their own. It is now suspected, for example, that former Chechen rebel leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, who was killed a few weeks ago, was betrayed by a man from his inner circle for 1500 rubles. The man, according to pro-Moscow Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, “needed that money to buy a dose of drugs.”

It is rather unlikely that things will get calmer in Chechnya and surrounding regions despite the serious blow of Basayev’s death. First, insurgencies are rarely the force on one person. There may be main figures that inspire and lead movements, but there are usually people ready to take their place, if killed. In addition, sometimes such people are move effective in death than in life. Basayev will undoubtedly be resurrected as a martyr, despite any disagreements figures in the Chechen resistance had with his methods. The Kavkaz Center is already labeling him a shaheed (martyr).

Second, since the struggle has spread to neighboring regions, it is already apparent that the conflict has already gone beyond Basayev or any one leader. RFE/RL reports that the movement adopted a strategy to widen the conflict while Aslan Maskhadov was still alive. The strategy called for establishing “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.” In addition, the State War Council made a decision on July 8 to “establish new fronts in the Urals and the Volga region.” The plan is supposed to carry the movement into 2010.

Lastly, despite headlines that the Chechen resistance has been “decapitated”, “flickered out” or his killing will “bring peace,” sadly such hope is unlikely. Military analyst Alexander Golts thinks that a decentralized resistance poses more danger than a centralized one,

When the actions of the enemy are controlled from a single center, it is always possible to infiltrate it and to learn of his plans. There is always the possibility, with help and technology and good intelligence, of learning where the enemy is concentrated in order to prepared for his blows. When the resistance is decentralized, and this is exactly what will definitely happen if Basayev’s death is confirmed, the problems are only increased, because it is impossible to track the activity of 10 or 20 or 50 field commanders who don’t take orders from anyone and who prepared their operations based only on their own ideas.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also recognized that one death doesn’t mean the death of a movement. Though hailing the killing a “landmark event,” he added that, “The killing of that terrorist doesn’t mean that the fight against militants is over. There is still work to do, and it’s being done.” This raises the important question of what signals the end to such conflicts. Can insurgencies ever be declared over by those engaging in the counter insurgency? The only way I see this happening is if one side simply gives up. And I don’t think “Chechenization” counts. And one side simply “giving up” doesn’t seem very likely anyway.

So what will change post-Basayev? It is of course too soon to tell how events will play out. I hold serious doubts that in the end his death won’t amount to much. The Chechen War has now been raging for ten years. Despite the fact that Ramzan Kadyrov has tight control over the country, his rule of terror could only inspire more ire toward Moscow and more desire for independence.

One plus that could come out of all this, besides the death of a ruthless man, is the demise of the Islamist current in the Chechen resistance. Basayev’s Wahhabism got them little except for talk of supposed links to Al-Qaeda and little sympathy from even religious Chechens. The use of Basayev style terror not only murdered scores of people, it killed much of the international community’s sympathy for their cause. Perhaps any new leadership that emerges will take a more secular outlook toward Chechen nationalism and national liberation. That, however, is wishful thinking . . .