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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: December 19, 2016

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
7 Suspected Islamist Militants Killed, 4 Arrested in Chechnya; Experts Say Local Rebellion, Not ISIS Related
According to a report from RBC, seven militants were killed and four detained as a result of a special operation by Chechen police, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram account.

Earlier, RBC reported that five suspected Islamist militants were killed in Grozny during the operation over the weekend on December 17-18.

Three traffic police were killed as a result of an attack by Islamist militants, Novaya Gazeta and RBC reported. The Chechen Department of the Investigative Committee told Novaya Gazeta the three highway inspectors were killed in an attack by several groups of militants. One of the traffic policeman was reportedly murdered immediately after prayers as he left the mosque near the Tashkal neighborhood in the Staropromyslovsky District of Grozny.

Kadyrov Reports Killings of Police and 'Bandits' on December 18; Berates Press for 'Fabrications'

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov confirmed the murder of the three policemen on his Instagram account.

First he posted on his Instagram account on the evening of December 18 that "4 bandits were destroyed and 2 taken to the hospital" after they failed to obey the orders of traffic police. He posted footage of Grozny streets to attempt to prove to his audience that everything was under control, the streets were open (although they appeared deserted) and repairman were fixing a lamp post in which evidently holiday lights had been knocked out.

He then told journalists several hours later that Chechen law-enforers had "successfully concluded an operation on the outskirts of Grozny during which five people were killed," Interfax reported; perhaps one had died in the hospital in the interrim.

Kadyrov then posted another update to Instagram in which he said "7 bandits were destroyed, 4 were detained, including 3 who are in the hospital with gunshot wounds."

He said the operation -- in which he personally took part -- occurred in a mountainous wooded area several kilometers outside of Grozny and denied that it was in Grozny proper in the Staropromyslovsky District. 

Kadyrov took the opportunity to berate the Russian press for how the incident was covered, denying a number of reports that would have placed the attack inside Grozny:

"I must with great regret note that certain media deliberately whipped up the situation, disseminating false information from fictitious sources, knowing in advance that they do not correspond to reality. Thus, one Internet publication with the notice 'Breaking News' reported that on Sunday, in the center of town, an explosion went off and there was gunfire. In fact, there was no explosion and no gunfire on the avenue referenced, no gunshot was heard, all the stores, restaurants, cafes and offices were open. They also wrote that the special operation was conducted in Staromyslovsky District, although it took place several kilometers from the city in a mountainous wooded area where there is not a single building.

I emphasize once again that not a single shaitan [satan] will leave Grozny alive if he has come with a weapon in his hands. This was visibly demonstrated in recent days. I grateful to all the participants of the operation who demonstrated professionalism, courage, firmness, and endurance. They operated under conditions of deep snow, cold weather, ravines and steep inclines. To our friends all around the world I say that Grozny and Chechnya are all quiet, we are preparing for New Year's, we're waiting for you to visit!"

Kadyrov accompanied his post with a clip of soldiers and vehicles making their way across a snowy field. He is shown in a woolen cap and heavy jacket, barking orders to soldiers who jump out of the truck and commence firing. 

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Then four dead bodies are shown of men in camouflage with backpacks and machine guns. If seven were killed, it does not appear as if all the bodies are shown in this clip; possibly they were killed in the previous incident.
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Kadyrov gives a lecture in Chechen and also says in Russian, "We must get rid of the evil spirits," referencing the militants

Weapons which had been seized from the police officer were discovered after the militants were shot dead, he said. 

Interfax reported citing a source in the Chechen operations headquarters that one of the militants was taken alive in Grozny and was already giving testimony.

LifeNews reported initially, citing a law-enforcement source, that only three militants were killed and three who were wounded were taken to the hospital; three others were said to escape.

Militants in Touch with ISIS 

The leader of the militants' attack was Said-Ibragim Ismailov, who was killed in the clash, Interfax reported, citing law-enforcement sources, RBC reported.

Ismailov was killed in Grozny the night of December 17-18, police sources told Interfax. He had earlier been recruited into an extremist group. According  to the source, he received commands over the Internet from a certain "Al-Bari," who is believed to be in Syria. 

Others killed in the firefight with police were Islam Altemirov and Magomed Ilyasov, Novaya Gazeta reported; also killed were Ibragim Mazhayev, Khamatkhan Mintayev, Istamul Mamayev and Akhmad Akhrashev, Caucasian Knot, an independent regional news site, reported.

FSB and Independent Experts Believe Attacked Related to Rebellion Against Kadyrov, Not ISIS 

A high-ranking FSB officer told Novaya Gazeta the attacks were not related to the known "underground" of Islamic militants in Chechnya since this had "long ago been destroyed"; the last police operation was in 2014. He said this appeared more to be the first signs of a rebellion against the Chechen government, a poorly-coordinated armed attack.

A source told Caucasian Knot that police were looking for three groups of militants numbering up to 16 persons. A local resident said the number of policemen killed was four.

Sources told Novaya Gazeta that the militants hijacked a Lada-Priora with hand guns they had seized from police. They then fled into hiding but were discovered near Lorsanova Street in the central area of Grozny. A young girl was said to be in the car with the young male militants. Police were said to have launched a search for three men ages 18-20, and that they were "members of the Islamic State."

Local residents also told Caucasian Knot that relatives and friends of the militants killed were being detained and questions. "Now they can expect great unpleasantness," said one Grozny resident. "Last night, the police were in a real panic," said another. He said his brother, who worked in the police, told him of instructions given not to open their doors, as militants might try to seize their guns.

The attack -- whether in Grozny or its outskirts -- was the largest since December 2014, when seven militants who attacked the Press House in Grozny and also attempted the takeover of a school building were shot dead in a firefight in which 10 policemen were killed.

Since then, clashes between Islamist fighters and police have tended to take place in neighboring Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, not so much in Chechnya, and for the first time in recent years in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Experts told Caucasian Knot that the attacks could be related to people unhappy with the Chechen government for reasons related to economic distress, corruption and brutality more than Islamism.

Journalist and North Caucasus expert Orkhan Dzhemal said usually the militants step up their activity only in spring, when they have the leafy trees as cover. "But to stage an action before New Year's means more agitation, it 'breaks' the holiday, and brings some 'presents," he said.

He believes the "underground" was not totally destroyed but just went into deeper cover. He pointed out that the last fighter in the pro-German Chechen underground active in World War II was not killed until the 1970s. By analogy, "there is no underground that could wage systematic battle but there are people who could activate for the sake of a one-time diversion," he added.

Dzhemal denied that there were recruiters actively coming to the region and "promising cash and paradise." He said instead, some local residents get up early in the morning and announce, "We are the Islamic State."

In August, as we reported, ISIS released a video showing Russian-speakers calling for jihad in Russia; Kadyrov dismissed this as "nonsense." Experts were not as dismissive as Kadyrov, however.

Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial Human Rights Center, recently handed a heavy fine by a court for refusing to register as a "foreign agent," said that the militants actually "had a strange 'tradition' of organizing something in Grozny before New Year's. It is quite possible that it was timed to the end of the year, the holiday, when particularly the media attention would be particularly riveted," he said, referencing attacks in December 2014 and previous years.

Orlov also found the event "strange" -- a group of militants attack and kill traffic police in a vehicle, but then wind up destroyed themselves (translation by The Interpreter):

"I note in particular that this is a large group. The militants virtually behaved like suicide bombers with low effectiveness. This provokes surprise and doubt; either this is a cell that just emerged and didn't  manage to act and didn't understand how to act, or the report is not true. There is a certain unknown; perhaps the real losses among police are being hidden."

He added that the attackers could have been recent recruits, novices who acted ineffectively. "It's stupid and pointless," he commented. He did not believe the attacks of this year and 2014 or other separate attacks were related or organized by the same mastermind. 

On October 28, Chechen police put out a notice of a bounty of 3-5 million rubles for information regarding nine militants in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

Militants Likely to Be Members of Local Underground, Determined to Harm Kadyrov's Image

Aleksei Malashenko, an expert from the Carnegie Center in Moscow said he believed the timing of New Year's was accidental, as no statements were made by them about the holiday, although there may be statements to come. He believes those killed were locals from the local underground, and that while it was possible they were in touch with ISIS, they were not led by ISIS per se.

"The Islamic State has its enough of its own problems; the Chechen fighters have no point for them," Malashenko commented. He also said he didn't think all four New Year's actions were linked or coordinated.

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, head of the International Crisis Group's project on Russia and the North Caucasuys, said the attack was made to harm Kadyrov's image, and the timing was chosen to get the maximum attention. The holidays are a time when summary reports are given and Kadyrov holds competitions to brag about his "endless successes," so this disrupts the holiday, she told Caucasian Knot.

She said the attack was "not a carefully-planned operation."
"Most likely it was a desperate raid of desperate and angry young guys which had an element of a rebellion. They didn't have the goal of planning to kill one specific law-enforcer, they killed those who chanced by or whom it was easier to kill. Their main purpose was to somehow harm Kadyrov, show that there are those who resist him, even at the price of their own lives, to commit something with resonance."
She agreed with Kadyrov's statement that the "underground was practically rooted out," but it's potential to revive was "enormous," she said.
"If the situation in Chechnya does not change radically in the near future, sooner or later we will encounter a powerful armed rebellion of people who cannot live any more in humiliation. I think recruitment by the IS is not primary. The reasons for the armed rebellion are local. Although I don't rule out that young people could sympathize with the IS. It's possible the ISIL members have taken responsibility for these attacks, they are happy to take responsibility for various raids."

She added that people are frustrated and grow radicalized long before they take up arms and could grow angry at conditions in Chechnya and want to take action after absorbing radical ideas for many years.

Kadyrov was "re-elected" to the position of head of the Chechen Republic in the September parliamentarian and gubernatorial elections, amid widespread concerns about fraud. 

Tanya Lokshina, staff person at Human Rights Watch's Moscow office said she believed the timing of the attack was accidental, and noted the divergent figures and details given about the clash which left uncertainty not only about the numbers of militants and police killed or injured but whether civilians were harmed. She noted that a backlash against relatives and friends of the militants would now likely ensue, with homes being burnt down as punishment. Back in 2014, Kadyrov ordered the torching of the homes of those involved in the attack on Grozny, and also expelled some from the republic; as a result 15 homes were destroyed.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Turkish Media Beginning To Report That Assassin Of Russian Ambassador Was A Gulenist

In July there was a failed coup in Turkey, and immediately the Turkish government blamed followers of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and Turkish thought leader who now lives in the United States. Turkey used the crisis to purge tens of thousands of its critics from public jobs and the military and security apparatus. The Turkish government also effectively shut down the free press, squashing news outlets that defied it and threatening the rest to get in line with the government narrative or face possible prosecution.

As Turkish expert Ilhan Tanir explained in August, the post coup environment has radically changed Turkish society, and mostly in ways that distance Turkey from the West:  

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Failed Coup Just Latest Crisis Pushing Turkey Away From West

The effects of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey continue to ripple through the country, and indeed far beyond. It's just the latest event to stress the relationship between Turkey and the West, and as that alliance deteriorates it will have serious repercussions for regional security in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, geopolitical balance, and the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).

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Dec 19, 2016 23:13 (GMT)

Now the Turkish press is already insinuating that the assassin who killed Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov earlier today --  now identified as Mert Altintas, an off-duty member of the riot police -- is also a follower of Gulen. 

Yunus Paksoy is a journalist at Daily Sabah, a major Turkish news agency which has been careful to toe the government line since the coup:

As Ilhan Tanir points out, some Turkish officials were very quick to point their fingers at FETO:

The Russian state media outlet TASS, citing the HaberTurk (literally "Turkish News") news outlet, says that the gunman was dismissed from the police during investigations into this summer's coup, and was a member of FETO, Gulen's organization.

None of this has been confirmed yet. What we do know is that, so far, the Turkish government has quickly linked this assassination with the summer coup, suggesting that Erdogan wants to ensure that his government is seen as working with, rather than against, the Russians.  

-- James Miller, Pierre Vaux

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Turkish Assassin, Member of Local Riot Police, Killed Russian Ambassador Over Syria, Aleppo
Turkish security forces have now confirmed that the man who killed Andrey Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey, was Mert Altintas, a member of the Turkish riot police: 
We don't have a complete transcript of the video of the shooter's speech yet, but we know that he cited Russia's actions in Syria and Aleppo as reasons for his actions. Interestingly, he appears to have also made a connection about what Russia is doing in Syria and the safety and security of Turkey itself: 
We do not yet know how this story will play out in Turkey, nor in Russia. This may heighten tensions between Ankara and Moscow which have lessened since this summer when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have reached common ground on the conflict in Syria. 
-- James Miller
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Assassin Who Killed Russian Ambassador To Turkey May Be Turkish Police Officer, Cites Syria & Aleppo As Motivation

As we have reported, the Russian media reports that Andrey Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey, has been shot dead in Ankara.

The Russian Foreign Ministry now confirms that Karlov is dead.

Video we posted below shows the assassination. A graphic picture appears to show the body of the gunman after a reported firefight with those who responded to the scene.

There are now reports that the assassin is a member of the Turkish riot police, even though he said that he was motivated by Russia's actions in Syria and Aleppo. 

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish Parliament, provides a few more details. 

Abdulrhman al-Masri, journalist for Arab Weekly and a Damascene, notes that the man is speaking Arabic, but with a Turkish accent, possibly indicating that the shooter is not Syrian but is Turkish:

Other Arabic and Syrian journalists and sources have said the same -- the assassin was likely Turkish.

Michael Horowitz, a well known analyst, reports that according to Turkish media the assassin is Mert Altintas, a member of the Turkish police: 

This is still unconfirmed.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Ambassador Shot In Turkey. Russian Media Says He Has Died

Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, has been shot. Various Turkish media reports indicate that Karlov was speaking at an art exhibit in the capital when a gunman shot the ambassador. 

Reuters and CBS have reported that the ambassador has died, citing the Russian state media outlet RIA.

Al Jazeera reports that a gunfight then ensued and the gunman may have been killed:

"There are at least three wounded people who were taken to the hospital," Turkey's NTV television said.

A witness talking to Turkey's CNNTurk television said that the attacker was acting alone.

"He said that I will not leave this place alive," the attacker said, according to the witness.

The attacker reportedly talked about the situation in Aleppo after he shot the ambassador multiple times.

Turkey's state-owned Anadolu Agency said the attacker was killed by the security forces after a gun fight.

The Associated Press adds more detail:

The ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was several minutes into a speech at the embassy-sponsored exhibition in the capital, Ankara, when a man wearing a suit and tie shouted "Allahu Akbar" and fired at least eight shots, according to an AP photographer in the audience. The attacker also said some words in Russian and smashed several of the photos hung for the exhibition. There was panic as people ran for cover. NTV said three other people were wounded in the attack. 

This disturbing video shows the incident where the ambassador is shot and the gunman gives a speech immediately after he is done shooting: 
-- James Miller