I provided an introduction to the mountains of Chechnya in a previous post, but with this post, we’re getting into the most restricted area where a lot of heavy activity went down in the recent Chechen Wars (and still does now). I’m referring to the region of Chechnya that borders Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge…
The eight-mile-long Pankisi Gorge is infamous even in the turbulent Caucasus region as a lawless corridor for smuggling weapons and jihadis into Chechnya, just a few miles to the north and the east (And, as an interesting aside, it is also one of the few places in Georgia where the Islamic call to prayer can still be heard).
Although the Pankisi Gorge has historically been known for the moderate Sufi Islam of its Kist community, extreme Sunni Wahhabism has been making inroads with the younger generations. It is not difficult for the youth of the valley that makes up the Pankisi Gorge to become disillusioned by the high unemployment and dismal prospects of the area and to become susceptible to the slick propaganda of the sort produced by the Islamic State. As such, it is perhaps of little surprise that no small number of angry young men have made their way west from the Pankisi Gorge and Chechnya through neighboring Turkey and into Syria in recent years.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, one needs special permission to venture into the mountains past Shatoy. However, to head close to the Pankisi Gorge, one needs extra special, super-duper permission. Needless to say, this permission is not easy to obtain. However, we inadvertently tricked the Russians into giving us this permission.
We were originally scheduled to fly out of Dagestan at the end of our visit to the region. Yet, when we showed up at the airport, we discovered that the airport had been shut down. Perhaps not shockingly, we didn’t make our flight. As such, we suddenly found ourselves with more time to kill in the North Caucasus and so we returned to Chechnya to eventually fly out of Grozny.
We had previously applied for permission to visit the area near the Pankisi Gorge, but the Russians did not want us up there and so when they finally gave us the permission after a lot of pressure, the date on our permit was for the day AFTER we were scheduled to leave. However, we didn’t leave on our originally scheduled date and so ended up having a valid pass to approach the Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen side. With a valid pass in hand, we were granted grudging access to enter at the checkpoint covering the start of this route.
The Russians like to maintain the pretense that everything is fine in Chechnya and so, of course, visitors are welcome. The reality on the ground is somewhat different.
Something one will notice visiting any part of Chechnya is that there are damaged and abandoned homes and buildings everywhere. The route to the Pankisi Gorge is, of course, not an exception to this as the abandoned home peeking out of the encroaching forest below demonstrates…
The route to the Pankisi Gorge through Chechnya is a closed military zone. During the two “Chechen Wars” civilians were “evacuated” by Russian forces and were not allowed back even to visit until many years later – after they had been “rehabilitated” to Russian satisfaction. As it stands today, we saw several Chechen civilians in the restricted zone – one was cutting firewood and a couple of others were looking after hives of bees – but still no sign that any civilians had been allowed to return to live in this area:
On the way in shortly after the main checkpoint that restricts access to the Pankisi route… The checkpoint is staffed entirely by Russian military personnel and, aside from being quite surprised to see us, they most emphatically did not welcome any manner of photography. So, no pictures of the imposing checkpoint, I’m afraid, but this is just after it and so you can at least see the terrain I’m referring to:
This route has been strategically significant for ages as evidenced by the crumbling watchtowers overlooking key points along the road such as river crossings or bottlenecks in the canyon:
An interesting sight here… Up on the ridgeline, you can faintly make out a white board with a large number “4” painted on it in black. This was one of many numbers placed upon ridges that we passed on the way in. They serve to designate sectors that act as easy visual reference points for those calling in artillery or mortar fire or whatever else might be available onto rebel targets:
The road in – the only road – to Pankisi tracks along the Argun River:
And, it must be said, the Chechen scenery is really quite beautiful:
The few flat areas – where the canyon walls don’t plunge directly down to the river – are used for military purposes. One finds foot bridges crossing the river in such places and frequently helicopter landing pads. The helicopters, aside from ferrying in troops and supplies, have been used quite effectively to “leapfrog” Chechen rebels infiltrating into Chechnya from their Georgian sanctuaries. If Russian troops come into contact with Chechen rebels, radio calls will be sent out and helicopters will rush additional Russian troops to a point in front of the direction the rebels are moving in to either set up an ambush or to serve as a blocking force that pushes the Chechen rebels further into a chosen kill zone:
But in most areas, it is sheer cliffs and difficult terrain:
The terrain makes for difficult combat patrols for the Russians or infiltration by the rebels, but as there are so few paths and so few mountain passes that can be crossed – especially when loaded down with equipment – devastatingly effective ambushes are a not uncommon occurrence (for both the Russian military and the Chechen rebels):
There are essentially two rulers playing in Chechnya today and one is reminded of the old expressions about too many cooks in the kitchen or too many chiefs and not enough braves… Of course, the first of these is Vladimir Putin. The second? You’ll recall, dear readers, our past discussions of Akhmad Kadyrov, who launched his career in the early 1990s as Chechnya’s chief mufti, supporting the war for independence from 1994 to 1996. However, when war broke out again three years later, he switched sides and supported Moscow instead. For this, he was rewarded with the presidency (but it was not a post he enjoyed for very long as he was assassinated in unusual circumstances). Ramzan Kadyrov — one of Akhmad’s three sons and the only one who remains alive today — assumed his father’s vacated position and built up a strong and widely feared personal militia, composed mainly of former fighters, which came to be known as the “Kadyrovtsy.” The Russians have their own command structure in Chechnya and the Chechens have theirs. I imagine this is an arrangement that may end badly someday, but for now it seems to be holding with the Russians doing the professional soldiering and the “Kadyrovtsy” doing most of the dirty work that comes with keeping a country such as Chechnya in line (although the FSB is suspected of involvement in carrying out some of the more sophisticated dirty work).
The difference between checkpoints in Chechnya exemplifies this dual power structure I have described and this is particularly so on the route to the Pankisi Gorge. The initial Russian checkpoint I described above, at the start of this road, was very formal and professional. By contrast, this checkpoint below, many miles in from the main Russian checkpoint, was a bunch of guys standing around a shack – guys with guns that wouldn’t hesitate to kill you – but still just a bunch of guys standing around compared to the military professionalism of the Russian soldiers. Perhaps it is a “make work” scheme or a way for the Chechens to feel as if they have some role in events here… Don’t kid yourself though – this sector it too important for the Russians to let the Chechens have free rein here and it is most assuredly the Russians that call the shots in this area:
Closer to the Georgian border, while stopped to deal with a flat tire, I scouted out the canyon walls and noticed this structure above us:
It was a scramble to get up to it, but when I finally did, I realized that it was an overlook position built by the Russians:
When I arrived at the entrance I froze. Wires were running all through the crude structure and I immediately thought, “Oh fuck, I’ve blundered into an IED or some sort of trap.” However, after several seconds of careful assessment, I realized that the wires inside were simply holding the “scarecrow” in front of me in place. Only, instead of scaring crows, this was designed to scare Chechens. So, it is a “scareChechen” and an effective one if I am any indication:
The position had been abandoned for at least a couple of years, but it was well hidden and, as the picture that I took out of the front of the structure shows, provided an excellent overlook of the road below:
By this point in the journey, we are quite close to the Georgian border and, more significantly, to the Pankisi Gorge:
As you can see on the approaches to the formidable mountains shown above, the trees start to disappear and the landscape changes to an alpine setting… This section I am showing here is near to where Roddy Scott crossed over before the Chechen fighters he was with were ambushed by Russian paratroops in Ingushetia on September 26, 2002 (Roddy Scott was murdered by the Russians after the firefight was over).
I have written about Roddy before, but to briefly recap: Roddy was a much-loved journalist who threw himself wholeheartedly into bad situations and would spend weeks or even months in extremely rough conditions with extremely rough characters (embedded with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, for example) in order to return to the world with great pictures and a unique perspective on the players involved.
If one reviews Roddy’s pictures from this final journey, one can see that he and his group crossed over similar terrain from the Pankisi Gorge as that pictured below (although there is more snow in Roddy’s pictures because we visited later in the year and after a relatively dry year):
The end of the road for us was at a Russian military base situated at a bend in the Argun River and, not coincidentally, right on the path of anyone wishing to enter Chechnya from the Pankisi Gorge along this route:
Interestingly, on a ridge across from the Russian base, is a medieval necropolis established so that the sick could be sent there to die during a massive epidemic that hit the region:
Just behind the Russian base are these mountains that mark the border with Georgia:
This road runs between that gap in the mountains and the next stop is the Pankisi Gorge itself… Some Russian soldiers told us that just a little farther ahead, a cliff above the road had been dynamited to create a landslide blocking access for anyone not on foot:
Today, rebel activity in the Chechnya/Pankisi Gorge region has shifted somewhat from the route I profiled here to Chechnya’s Galanchozh Valley. The Galanchozh Valley is inaccessible as it has no roads and the Russians still have little control over this part of Chechnya. Further, there are a significant quantity of landmines in the Galanchozh Valley and so the Russians are, understandably, not eager to send in large numbers of troops in such conditions.
Chechnya’s Galanchozh Valley also leads to the border with Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge and so it was not a terrible burden for the rebels to simply shift their infiltration routes to the next valley over. This, however, is not to suggest that Chechen rebels no longer make use of the route shown above. They still do – just not as much as before.
By the way, if any readers are curious about what the Georgian/Chechen border was like during the recent Chechen Wars:
Although he crossed over in a different area, Robert Young Pelton does a great job describing what it was like crossing into Chechnya during this period in his book The Hunter, The Hammer and Heaven. Guess what section is The Hammer? If you guessed Chechnya, give yourself a gold star.
Beautiful… But very rugged terrain.
Tough area to fight in if you are “non native”.
I would say that the rugged areas of Afghanistan (familiar to Russians / Soviets as well as American / NATO) pretty clearly yet more rugged.
Yes, that is certainly applicable in Afghanistan as well…
do you think the rebels are still active?
Yes, there are still rebels in the mountains of Chechnya and, especially, in Dagestan. There was a suicide bombing down the street from where we stayed just the day before we arrived. These things tend to run in cycles if you look at the history of the region. The last generation was pretty much wiped out. Many of the current generation ended up in Syria and Iraq. Those that survived Syria and Iraq will return with a great deal of knowledge and experience that will be shared with the next generation. The underlying sources of tension in the region have not changed and so, in time, a critical mass of young, pissed off men will fuel the next bout of violence on a large scale.
Yeah I am pretty attuned to how the region works and its history I just thought with the arrest of Vadalov, Gaziev etc the rebels were perhaps no longer active in the mountains anymore. I know the current jihadists will return to the North Caucasus to fight though.
It is certainly a low point in the cycle right now, but there are small groups of rebels out in the forests still. Yes, they are lacking strong, charismatic leadership and large numbers at the moment, but the circumstances and underlying sentiments that drive these cycles have not been altered. So, it is something that is always simmering beneath the surface. To be more specific, there were clear pockets in the remote areas up in the mountains that still remain as “no go” zones for government forces. They don’t talk about it and try to keep any mention of such places swept under the rug, but they exist.
I’d love to see those mountains one day. There are some pretty battle hardened Chechen fighters in Syria who could be returning home soon that could heat things up for sure
great article and pics though im so jealous of you man haha