GROZNY, Russia—Police waged hours-long gunbattles with Islamic militants who attacked Chechnya’s capital Thursday, leaving at least 20 people dead and underscoring Russia’s vulnerability just as President Vladimir Putin used patriotic and religious imagery in his state-of-the-nation address to defend his standoff with the West.
The clashes in Grozny, the city’s biggest in years, dented a carefully nurtured image of stability created by Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed strongman after two separatist conflicts. The new violence raised fears of more attacks in Chechnya and widening unrest in the rest of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region.
The Kavkaz Center website, a mouthpiece for Islamic militant groups operating in the North Caucasus, carried a link to a video message by an individual claiming responsibility for the attack. The man in the video said he was operating on orders from Emir Khamzat, reportedly a nom de guerre of Chechen warlord Aslan Byutukayev. The claim could not immediately be verified.
The insurgents in Chechnya and other Caucasus regions want to create an independent state governed by their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Some Caucasus militants have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join up with the Islamic State group. IS has vowed to launch attacks in Russia, but there have been no indications to date that it has followed through.
The fighting in Grozny began about 1 a.m., when roughly 10 gunmen riding in three cars fired on traffic police who had stopped them for a check, killing three officers. Some of the militants then holed up in a nearby office building and exchanged gunfire with police who quickly cordoned the area.
The battle left the 10-story Press House, which housed local media offices, gutted by a blazing fire that also spread to a nearby street market. Some gunmen fled to an empty school nearby. It took police more than 12 hours to kill 10 militants, according to Russian authorities, who also reported that 10 officers were killed and 28 wounded.
Russian state television showed video footage of police officers firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the three-story school, its windows left shattered and charred.
The gunbattles were still raging when Putin began delivering his address in an ornate Kremlin hall, and the Russian leader sought to cast the violence as a legacy of what he described as foreign support for Chechnya-based insurgents in the past.
“We remember high-level receptions for terrorists dubbed as fighters for freedom and democracy,” he said.
While Putin stopped short of directly blaming the West, his statement clearly referred to Western criticism of heavy-handed Russian tactics during two separatist wars in the region.
Without naming any specific countries, Putin claimed that separatist rebels had received “information, political and financial support” and even assistance from unspecified foreign special services, adding that some foreign powers “would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment.”
Putin has used such rhetoric more frequently since the Ukrainian crisis, which strained Russia-West ties to a degree unseen since the height of the Cold War.
In his hour-long speech before a fawning crowd of senior officials and lawmakers, Putin accused the West of provoking the Ukrainian crisis to contain and weaken Russia. He described the standoff as a battle for Russia’s survival.
“If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival,” he said.
Putin defended the annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea as a move to protect Russia’s spiritual roots, noting that Prince Vladimir, who converted the Kievan Rus to Christianity, was baptized in Crimea. He argued that Crimea has “sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.”
On a defiant note, Putin warned that Moscow will not stand down in an argument with the “hypocritical” West, which he said hurt itself with anti-Russian sanctions. “It’s pointless to talk to Russia from a position of force,” he said.
Shortly after his speech, he met with Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to praise him for quickly defeating the attackers.
In a message Thursday on his Instagram account, which Kadyrov uses to issue public statements, he posted a picture showing the lower half of an apparently dead gunman lying beside a sniper rifle. It was not immediately clear, however, whether the image was indeed that of an attacker.
“Not one bandit managed to get out,” Kadyrov boasted.
Kadyrov has used generous Kremlin subsidies to rebuild Chechnya after two separatist wars and has relied on his feared security force of former rebels like himself to stabilize the province. International human rights groups have accused the Chechen strongman of rampant abuses, including arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killings. Kadyrov also has imposed some Islamicrestrictions on Chechnya, including mandatory headscarves for women in public.
Militant attacks in Chechnya have become rare, and Thursday’s fighting marked the worst bloodshed since 2010, when a group of gunmen raided the provincial legislature in Grozny, killing seven people and wounding 17 others. In October, a suicide attack outside a Grozny concert hall killed five policemen and wounded 12 others as the city celebrated Kadyrov’s birthday.
The insurgency in Chechnya began as a secular separatist movement amid the Soviet collapse, and in 1994 Russia sent its military to end the mutiny. Rebels fought the Russian force to a standstill, but a second war in 1999 erupted when rebels invaded a neighboring Russian province and Moscow sent the army back in.
A military crackdown succeeded by years of brutal rule by Kadyrov has quietened Chechnya, but an insurgency dominated by Muslim extremists has spread across neighboring provinces.
From The Associated Press. AP writers Nataliya Vasilyeva and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.