Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov was killed on March 8 in a special operation in Tolstoi-Yurt, north of Grozny, Russian agencies reported, quoting Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian federal forces in the North Caucasus.
Maskhadov's death effectively demolishes the hope that the ongoing conflict in Chechnya can be resolved peacefully, at the negotiating table. Command of the semiautonomous resistance forces, the various detachments of which are capable of operating independently for months at a time, now devolves to radical field commander Shamil Basaev, the next in seniority and experience after Maskhadov. While Maskhadov sought repeatedly to obtain Russia's consent to negotiate a peace settlement that would guarantee the security of the Chechen people within the Russian Federation, Basaev has made it clear that he has no interest in peaceful coexistence with Russia. But it is likely that others, as yet unknown or little known, will emerge in the months to come to challenge Basaev for that role, or to operate independently of him.
Talks with those new potential resistance leaders, according to former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev -- who negotiated with one of them in Beslan during last September's hostage taking -- would be "incomparably more difficult" than with Maskhadov and his associates, even assuming that the Russian leadership would agree to any such talks. Aushev went on to warn, in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta" last month, that it would be wrong to dismiss the new generation of fighters as savages; he described them as "politicians with a young and aggressive ideology behind them...they are well-informed and armed with sophisticated technologies." More to the point, radical Islam is a far more compelling motivating force to the new generation of militants than it was for Maskhadov.
Maskhadov's death also removes the last constraints and inhibitions about attacks on Russian civilians and extending the war beyond the confines of Chechnya. Until very recently, Maskhadov had insisted that his men abide strictly by the Geneva Conventions of warfare, that they refrain from killing civilians, and that they desist from terrorist attacks elsewhere in the Russian Federation. It was only in his most recent communication just last week, with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, that Maskhadov hinted he might relax the prohibition on extending fighting into other North Caucasus republics as the sole means of upping the pressure on Russia to end the war. He pointed to the emergence of autonomous militant formations in Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Those formations all maintained links to, and some were trained by, Basaev, who has claimed responsibility for numerous acts of terrorism, including the Beslan hostage taking, the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002, and the killing of pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in May 2004.
Insofar as Maskhadov's death will almost certainly lead to an upsurge of resistance activity across the North Caucasus as soon as the spring foliage provides enough cover, it may enhance Moscow's reliance on the pro-Russian Chechen military formations, including the so-called special presidential guard subordinate to First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmed-hadji's son and perhaps the most-feared and most-hated man in Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir Putin already apparently regards Kadyrov as the most credible and reliable source of "objective" information about the "true" situation in Chechnya. Moreover, the fact that the FSB managed to kill Maskhadov is likely to act as an additional incentive to Kadyrov to make good on his sworn pledge to kill Basaev, the one figure who could coordinate and control future resistance activities in the North Caucasus.
The key question that is likely to remain unanswered is whether the FSB has known Maskhadov's whereabouts for some time, but decided only now, for unknown reasons, to close in on him, or whether he was betrayed. On 7 March, lenta.ru reported that Maskhadov was among some 15 Chechen fighters pinned down in southeastern Chechnya, some 60-70 kilometers from where Maskhadov was reportedly killed.
Born in exile in Kazakhstan in 1951, Maskhadov returned to Chechnya with his family in the late 1950s and proceeded to make a career in the Soviet armed forces. He was without doubt the lynchpin of developments in Chechnya for most of the past decade -- certainly since the killing of President Djokhar Dudaev in April 1996. It was Maskhadov, in his capacity as Chechen army chief of staff, who negotiated with Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed the two agreements that put an end to the 1994-1996 war and paved the way for the withdrawal of Russian troops and Maskhadov's election in January 1997 as Chechen president. But almost from the outset, Maskhadov was challenged and deliberately undercut by more ruthless and less-principled rivals, including Basaev, whose ill-advised incursion into neighboring Daghestan in the summer of 1999 furnished the Kremlin with the rationale for launching a new war.