Russian army says to cut size of its Chechen force

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s Ministry of Defense plans to cut the size of its Chechen battalions, a general has said, two months after a stand-off with soldiers loyal to Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader.

Groomed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin to be Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov called for the Ministry of Defense to disband the battle-hardened Vostok battalion and sack its commander after the roadside stand off in April.

The Vostok battalion is commanded by Sulim Yamadayev -- one of the few Chechens powerful enough to rival the 31-year-old Kadyrov. Reducing its strength would bolster Kadyrov’s power.

Russian General Vladimir Shamanov told the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda the Ministry of Defense had decided to cut the number of soldiers in the Vostok and Zapad battalions after Kadyrov accused them of murder and kidnapping.

“As a result the defense minister has decided to re-examine the personnel of both units, to reduce their numbers by 30 percent and not to send them any more conscripts to them,” he said in an interview on the newspaper’s Web site

Another newspaper, Kommersant, said each battalion contained about 600 men.

Shamanov is head of training for the Russian military and had previously said the Vostok battalion would not be disbanded.

He declined to say whether Yamadayev was still commander of the Vostok battalion.

The battalions are currently patrolling as peacekeepers between Georgian forces and rebels in the Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and they have been described as the most battle-ready Russian soldiers.

They often fight rebels in the mountains but have also clashed with forces loyal to Kadyrov. In 2007 news reports said that four members of the Zapad battalion died in a gunfight with Kadyrov’s soldiers.

In return for leadership in Chechnya, Kadyrov had to rebuild the republic destroyed by two wars. His soldiers had to track down and defeat the remaining rebels.

Kadyrov and Putin have built up a personal link, but analysts say Russia’s federal security commanders have less faith in Kadyrov whom they mistrust as a former rebel.

When Putin moved from being president to prime minister earlier this year, analysts wondered whether the switch would affect Kadyrov’s authority.

But over the last few weeks Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has appointed Kadyrov to be one of seven regional leaders on his advisory board and Putin has pledged $5 billion of federal money to rebuild Chechnya, cash Kadyrov has demanded from central government for a long time.