So, on 24 July Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov names Aslanbek Vadalov as his deputy and successor. On 1 August, he then announces that he is stepping down, a fact duly reported on rebel mouthpiece websites. And then a couple of days later they are posting his retraction, and his claim that the initial video message from him was “completely fabricated.” What on earth is going on?
Until the dust settles a little, it is difficult to state with certainty, but these are my current thoughts:
1. The resignation was not some nefarious FSB plot, despite the tendency by many to want to see their hands in everything. They may have the technical capacity to fake such a broadcast (although I’m not convinced), but I’m not convinced they could then get rebel websites and sympathisers to play it, comment on it and take it at its word. Some of these people are, after all, in direct or indirect phone or email contact with people close to Umarov. You’d think someone would have checked straight away…
2. Umarov did resign, but possibly under a degree of duress. I do believe he has been under pressure from a younger generation of field commanders who think his time has gone, his judgement faulty and his track record unimpressive. In this, I think they may have been supported by more senior figures such as Tarkhan Gaziyev and Abdullah Mukhannad. I think – and this is just speculation – that elevating Vadalov was meant to appease his critics, but that this was a move which backfired, allowing them to put pressure on him to resign. Khusein Gakayev, a man close to Umarov, might have been the crucial intermediary who persuaded Umarov to step down for his own sake, to avoid an open conflict (which could have been lethal) and to allow him at least to select a successor who has some relationship with him.
3. However, Umarov changed his mind. I suggest this is because of two factors:
4. …Because suddenly he wondered if there was a chance for a resurgence. The Chechen rebel movement is moribund, capable to launching attacks but not in any credible way posing an existential threat to the Kadyrov regime. However, Umarov’s career as ‘Emir’ has shown him eager to grasp at straws, to hope that the next big thing will indeed be a big thing, from the creation of a ‘Caucasus Emirate’ (which is entirely fictitious on the ground) to his eagerness to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks in Moscow. The rumours that Russia is seeking regime change in Grozny, with Kadyrov safely removed to a position of Russian deputy interior minister, Beslan Gantemirov installed as new president and a strategy of national reconciliation adopted, may have galvanised Umarov. Perhaps he thinks this new regime will be more malleable, perhaps he thinks that Kadyrov will not go without a fight and the ensuing chaos will open new opportunities for the rebels. Whatever his thoughts, they may have encouraged him to hold on: that dangerous tendency among warhorses who would love not to be remembered as failures to convince themselves that “one more push” and victory will be in sight.
5. …Or because of the Kabardino-Balkarian factor. The one element on Umarov’s vision of a unified ‘Caucasus Emirate’ which is not complete vapourware is the connection with the jamaats of Kabardino-Balkaria. This is where Umarov has his closest personal contacts, since he convalesced there in 2006, and where there is the most effective interaction. With the Kabardino-Balkarians being increasingly effective, as witnessed in the politically-significant Baksan attack, and with the republic still being used as a haven for Chechen rebels sometimes to lie low and lick their wounds, the voices of the Kabardino-Balkarian insurgents do have some weight. The rumours are that they were unimpressed by Vadalov, unwilling not so much to swear allegiance – that was never on the table – but not even to maintain their existing relationship. That may have been enough to unsettle some of the other key Chechen rebel leaders and also to encourage Umarov.
Whatever the truth of the matter, though, it is hard to see any of this working out well for the rebels. Umarov is further damaged – he ay be able to claw back his resignation (although that remains to be seen), but the effect will have been further to undermine his already-shaky authority. Vadalov may find himself excluded or worse, at a time when the rebels can hardly afford to sacrifice experienced commanders, or driven to schism. If the FSB did have a hand in all this, they have reason to be pleased; if they did not, then they probably have all the more reason to raise a glass to the Chechen rebels’ ability to further their self-destruction.