FEATURE ARTICLE -- THE TALE OF RUSLAN GELAYEV: UNDERSTANDING THE INTERNATIONAL DIMENSIONS OF THE CHECHEN WARS
In a series of recent decrees by Doku Umarov, the current leader of anti-Russian Islamist groups in the North Caucasus, the status of figures including Arbi Barayev, who were formerly considered as extremists and criminals, have been rehabilitated. Indeed, Umarov’s predecessors, Abdul Khalim Sadullayev and Aslan Maskhadov were not prepared to recognize Barayev’s status as a separatist field commander, or a legitimate face of the resistance movement. The key reason was reports that suggested Barayev’s deep involvement in criminal activities. While Umarov’s rulings seem benign, the decrees also shed light on a series of important relationships which shaped the Chechen resistance throughout the first part of the second Russo-Chechen War. And this point is brought into focus when attention turns to the role and status of other figures such as Ruslan Gelayev, who have been largely neglected in analysis of the two wars of the 1990s.
BACKGROUND: Ruslan Gelayev was born in 1964 in the town of Komsomolskoye, near Urus-Martan, around ten years after his parents had returned from the deportations in Central Asia. Gelayev was one of dozens of North Caucasians who travelled to the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, where he fought alongside Shamil Basayev in the Chechen battalion in the 1992-93 separatist war – something he later appears to have regretted and termed a Russian GRU operation. Thereafter he returned to Chechnya and actively participated in the first war (1994-96) commanding a small unit of fighters conducting guerrilla operations. Then, in the later part of the conflict he became an established field commander, who played a leading role in the battles for Grozny.
In the period between the two wars of the 1990s, Gelayev established his own political and military power base stationing himself, along with a number of radical figures, in the villages and towns near to Urus-Martan. Nonetheless, Gelayev refrained from becoming explicitly involved in the increasing hostilities between Salman Raduyev, Barayev, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov, on the one hand, and President Maskhadov and his supporters on the other. Even though he openly disagreed with both groups, Gelayev’s political star rose further within Chechnya, when, in April 1997, he was appointed deputy Prime Minister. Thereafter he was appointed Defense Minister in the reshuffled Maskhadov Government, and took command of the Shar’ia Guard. At the same time, Gelayev also fostered links with external benefactors, following a visit to Mecca in 1997, after which he changed his first name to Khamzat. More importantly though, in this period he maintained links with Chechen ideologue Yandarbiyev, with the radical wing of the resistance associated with fighters such as Basayev and Amir Khattab, and with Maskhadov, and yet retained a measure of political and military autonomy. In effect, this contributed to the internationalization of the second Russo-Chechen War, as a result of financial support flowing into lawless Chechnya, but also through informal connections, and the movement of some figures to the Middle East and Central Asia.
After the outbreak of the second Russo-Chechen War in 1999, it was links with prominent field commanders such as the brothers Ramzan and Daud Akhmadov from Urus-Martan, which shaped Gelayev’s ability to conduct large-scale military operations. At the start of the second war, Gelayev commanded a considerable fighting force of around 1,500 men, including a small number of Arab military instructors, as well as a handful of mercenaries from Central Asia, who were deployed in the defense of Grozny. Gelayev’s decision to withdraw from Grozny in late 1999, against the wishes of Maskhadov, remains shrouded in mystery, leaving the encircled city largely undefended. Following their retreat, Gelayev and his men were surrounded in his home town of Komsomolskoye, the first occasion when Russian forces managed to corner a significant number of Chechen fighters. The fighting in the town was brutal, leaving a high number of casualties on both sides. Reports vary, indicating that around eight hundred fighters died, with other allegations that two badly injured instructors of Arab origin were captured alive, and airlifted out of the town by the Russian security agencies. Accusations emerged that Gelayev and his men had been lured to Komsomolskoye, or had not received support from Barayev and his units. Even though Gelayev escaped the town, and remained at large, his ability to influence events in Chechnya had been severely undermined. It appears that this defeat led Akhmad Kadyrov, who had by then pledged loyalty to the Kremlin, to open negotiations about the surrender and amnesty of Gelayev and his men, although these talks quickly broke down. By early 2000, Gelayev and Ramzan Akhmadov were undertaking military actions in the Southern districts of Chechnya, leading what was then called the Chechen mujahideen units in, for instance, attacks on Alkazurovo and Roshni-Chu.
By mid 2000 though, significant infighting between the remnants of the Chechen resistance had come to the fore; some reports indicate that Maskhadov viewed Gelayev’s withdrawal from Grozny as an act of treason, whilst the ensuing battle in Komsomolskoye severely undermined his capacity to launch large-scale operations. Equally, rumors abounded of financial impropriety in the rebel movement, which led Gelayev to issue a statement, indicating that he would examine the use of foreign funds by Arbi Barayev.
IMPLICATIONS: Although operating in the Southern Front alongside Khattab after the battle of Komsomolskoye, Gelayev often acted independently from the Salafi units fighting in Chechnya. Indeed, he drew on his close network of supporters including Akhmed Basunkayev, recognized as one of Chechnya’s youngest ‘brigadier generals’ by the former Chechen President Jokhar Dudayev. Basunkayev himself became a mid-level commander in the second conflict, sitting on the Majil-us Shura, or State Defense Committee, even though he disagreed with both Maskhadov and Basayev, and the differing approaches to the increasing influence of Salafi Islamists. By the time of his death in Ingushetia in March 2004, Basunkayev was regarded as the brigadier general of the Urus-Martan sector. In fact, just prior to his death it was alleged that he had been in talks with Kadyrov, discussing the possibility of amnesty.
Then, in mid-2001, reports indicate that Gelayev and the remaining men under his command retreated through Dagestan, regrouping en route to the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. There, Gelayev became hosted by Vephija Margoshvili and continued to move between Chechnya, Dagestan and the Pankisi Gorge. Throughout the latter part of 2001 and the early part of 2002, Gelayev undertook a recruitment campaign, and became linked to radical groups then located in the Gorge. Equally, Gelayev was able to draw on regional support networks established, in part, through his experience in the Abkhazia Battalion, and as a result of small numbers of regional volunteer fighters who had participated in the first Russo-Chechen war. The latter group of Kabardin volunteers included a handful of fighters from the Kabardin village of Kendelen, one of which was Muslim Atayev, who would join Gelayev in the Pankisi Gorge, and who would become known as Seifullah, a leading figure in the Yarmuk Jamaat. At this time, reports indicate that volunteer fighters from the region, including Azerbaijanis, Dagestanis, and Kist Chechens, along with small numbers of foreign mercenaries including some Uighur combatants from Central Asia, became part of his reformed unit of around three hundred men. In essence, this led to a further regionalization of the conflict, as external networks fed into an emerging and broader anti-Russian narrative in the North Caucasus.
It was in this period that Gelayev increasingly used radical language to secure external financial support from Yandarbiyev, through the aforementioned links to Pakistan and the Middle East, and his criminal activities. He also continued to support small mobile groups, such as the Tauz Bagurayev gang in Chechnya, and the jamaat groups operating around Urus-Martan and Gudermes, with Sultan Alazov being his subordinate in change of military operations in the region, and other then deputy field commanders such as Akmed Bakayev remaining loyal to him. Throughout 2002, Maskhadov continued to try to bring Gelayev and his remaining men back into Chechnya, to undertake military operations. However, Gelayev rejected this idea, preferring instead to develop further links with Yandarbiyev, especially following the death or capture of a number of field commanders, including Arbi Barayev, Amir Khattab, and the Akhmadov brothers. Indeed, it appears that Gelayev did not see further military operations in Chechnya as feasible in the short-term, although in this period he continued to liaise with Basayev, who was establishing the military Jamaat system throughout the neighboring regions of Chechnya in Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. In this period, Russian forces also stepped up operations around the Pankisi Gorge region, forcing Gelayev to make a decision about his next move.
Gelayev’s units then fought their way into the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, retreating shortly afterwards, having taken casualties. The unit then attempted to break into Ingushetia, engaging in fierce fighting in the village of Galashki. The remnants of the unit dispersed into Karbadino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. Gelayev himself was wounded in the fight. Thereafter, he asked for a Shura meeting with other field commanders, where he suggested a change of tactics from small hit and run or suicide attacks to major attacks on Russian military installations. This was rejected by Shamil Basaev and Doku Umarov, and the former made sure that Gelaev was cut off from foreign financial support. By late 2002, a series of amnesties led to the surrender of small numbers of men linked to Gelayev’s unit in the Southwestern Front. This marked a shift in popular support within Chechnya, and illustrated the growing influence of Sulim Yamadayev, and the pro-Kremlin militias. In August 2003, Gelayev undertook another recruitment campaign, sending his assistant Lechi Naurskiy to remote villages in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, offering financial support, if volunteers joined his unit. Turkish, Kabardin, Balkar and Ingush combatants all joined Gelayev’s unit in this period. He moved across the North Caucasus back to the Chechen border with Dagestan in late 2003 with a remaining group of around thirty men, possibly with the intent to travel to Southwest Asia to seek funding. The group was tracked and cornered, with Gelayev being killed in early 2004, following a fire-fight with a unit of Border Guards.
CONCLUSIONS: Gelayev, popularly viewed as an abrek, an outlaw who resisted foreign occupation, became a key figure in the resistance in both Russo-Chechen wars. Even though he commanded popular support due to his background in the first war, and openly criticized both Basayev and Maskhadov, his support network dwindled following the events at Komsomolskoye, whilst he increasingly used radical terminology in the course of the second war. He was known, by the time of his death, as the black prince, who operated throughout the North Caucasus. He rejected the offer of amnesty on numerous occasions, became increasingly radical and sought to expand the war throughout the region in the latter part of his life.
The analysis herein points towards three themes worthy of consideration when assessing the contemporary political situation in the North Caucasus. First and foremost, the recent decrees by Umarov represent a shift in the position of what may be considered, formerly, as moderate elements in the resistance movement, highlighting an internal struggle to control the remnants of the separatist movement. Secondly, Gelayev’s role in the resistance movement and his relationship with the Akhmadov Brothers, Khattab, Maskhadov, Yandarbiyev, Barayev, Basunkayev and Basayev demonstrates a need to undertake detailed analysis of the different groups involved in second Russo-Chechen War of the 1990s, precisely because he played a significant military, political and religious role shaping the separatist movement. Finally, Gelayev’s own development, his decision to withdraw from Grozny, the battle at Komsomoloskoye, his links with external benefactors and informal support networks in the region and his movements throughout the North Caucasus, his relocation in the Pankisi Gorge in 2001, his ethnic detachments of Dagestani, Kist Chechen, Kabardin and Turkish sub-divisions, and his movement in Ingushetia in 2002, highlight that the conflict had spawned a new generation of volunteers and combatants, rather than Chechen separatists alone, which viewed a longer term policy of anti-Russian de-stabilization in the North Caucasus.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Cerwyn Moore is currently a lecturer in International Relations, in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, at the University of Birmingham.