War in the Caucasus
The Chechen tragedy continues

DJ reproduces this with thanks to the STRATEGIC COMMENTS of the International Institute for Strategic Studies

By EARLY DECEMBER 1999, Russia's latest campaign in Chechnya was showing signs of success. The operation, which began on 23 September, was planned more effectively than the bungled intervention of 1994, and more Russian troops are involved. Chechen resistance fighters abandoned Chechnya's second city, Gudermes, without strong opposition, and dozens of villages have also fallen. Russian forces have advanced deep into Chechnya from the north, east and west.

Demoralisation and division on the Chechen side is one reason for the Russian success. Ordinary Chechens are weary of the anarchy that has prevailed since the defeated Russians withdrew following the war of 1994-96. They are also hostile towards many of the Chechen commanders because of their involvement in crime, and their failure to support Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in January 1997 with 65% of the vote.

In particular, Shamil Basayev, a famous commander in the last war who was prime minister briefly in 1997, is now hated for his alliance with Arab-led Muslim extremists, the 'Wahabis'. Their joint invasion of Russian Daghestan in August 1999 partly provoked the Russian attack on Chechnya. Maskhadov still enjoys popular support, but his failure to impose order and expel the Wahabis has drawn accusations of weakness. All these factors could deter ordinary Chechens from fighting the Russians.

However, civilian deaths from Russian bombardment are infuriating the Chechens. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the Russians have suffered some stinging local defeats. Moreover, the Russian offensive has yet to face its greatest test - attacking the capital, Grozny, and the neighbouring town of Urus Martan. In 1994-96, heavy losses and repeated reverses in Grozny helped to turn the Russian people against continuing the war.

Threats and calculations

Russia's decision to intervene in Chechnya again was a response to two specific developments. The first was the series of incursions into Daghestan by Chechen and Islamist fighters under the combined command of Basayev, Saudi-born Wahabi Habib Aburrahman Khattab, and Daghestani Islamist leader Hajji Bahauddin. The second was the wave of bomb attacks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia in September 1999, which killed some 300 civilians. It was never convincingly proven who was responsible for these blasts, but Russians blamed the Chechens and Islamists. As a result, Boris Yeltsin's government ordered a fresh invasion of Chechnya.

Threats from Chechnya since the 1996 Russian withdrawal have come from two sources. Neither was instigated by Maskhadov, but both reflect his failure to control the country. The first was an upsurge in kidnappings of both Russians and foreigners by various Chechen warlords. By early 1999, these had claimed more than 1,300 Russian, Daghestani and Ingush victims, many of whom were tortured or murdered. These incidents have heightened Daghestani anger with the Chechens, and lessened the likelihood of assistance to them from other Caucasian peoples.

The second feature was the establishment of Khattab's extremist Wahabi forces in Chechnya. In 1997, these formed an alliance with Basayev with the explicit aim of driving Russia from Daghestan, and ultimately from the whole North Caucasus. In 1998, the groups began attacking Russian troops and policemen in regions neighbouring Chechnya. Khattab's militia is small, but its presence infuriated the Russian establishment, and deepened Russian public paranoia about supposed Islamist conspiracies against their country.

However, it also appears that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a group of Russian generals headed by the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Khvashnin, wanted the campaign for their own reasons. For the generals, the attack would avenge their humiliation by the Chechens in 1994-96, and change the world image of a decaying Russian army.

Putin, meanwhile, clearly saw a successful Chechen war as a route to victory in the June 2000 presidential elections. Chiefly as a result of the war, Putin's popularity in opinion polls has risen enormously. Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov - who had appeared set to win the presidency as candidate of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc, has been eclipsed.

These developments have encouraged speculation that pro-Yeltsin forces may have been behind the bombings in Moscow. A murky incident in the city of Ryazan fed this suspicion when an unexploded bomb was later attributed to an 'anti-terrorism exercise' by the security forces. However, the history of Islamist terrorism, and Khattab's reported links with terrorist Osama bin Laden, also make a Wahabi bombing campaign entirely plausible.


The campaign began with a Russian air bombardment of Chechnya. A full-scale invasion followed a week later on 30 September, involving up to 100,000 Russian troops from the army, marines, interior ministry and special forces. It is not clear whether the initial intention was to conquer and occupy all of Chechnya. It may have been only to capture a 'security zone' north of the Terek River, territory that had previously been part of Russia proper. This area was overrun rapidly and with few casualties which, along with the operation's domestic popularity, may have persuaded the Russian generals to press on. By early November, Moscow was committed, both militarily and rhetorically, to the 'restoration of constitutional order' in the whole of Chechnya.

Severe limits on the Russian and Western media have encouraged public support in Russia for the campaign. By contrast, during the war of 1994-96, most of the Russian independent media was critical of the campaign. Even state television, by showing film of casualties and suffering among Russian soldiers and Chechen civilians, helped to undermine Russian morale. Western journalists could visit the Chechen side with ease.

This time, the danger of kidnap by Chechen bandits has deterred journalists, whether Western or Russian, from visiting Chechnya. The kidnapping of leading Russian journalists over the past two years has turned even previously pro-Chechen media against the Chechens, and the attack on Daghestan and terrorist bombings have completed this process. As a result, the majority of the Russian media now supports the war, and tends to repeat state propaganda.

With no independent witnesses in Chechnya, it is difficult to clarify events on the ground. Russian official figures, in early December, put army fatalities at more than 450 since the operation began; other estimates are as high as 1,000. Reports from Chechnya suggesting that two company-sized Russian units may have been destroyed near Urus Martan and on the mountainous Daghestani border could not be confirmed. Nor could a later report of a major counter-attack on the Russian-held town of Novogroznensky, near Gudermes.

The Russian strategy has focused on heavy bombardment, often targeting villages from which fire has been directed at Russian forces. When necessary, elite troops have then seized the areas. However, Russia has also conducted indiscriminate, although sporadic, bombing throughout Chechnya, perhaps to drive out civilians and create a 'free-fire zone' where Chechen fighters can be identified and destroyed.

As a result, more than 200,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia, with tens of thousands more displaced inside Chechnya. Since the entire civilian population of Chechnya before the war may have been as little as 500,000, the fighters could find themselves without a civilian population to feed and support them. However, callousness and disorganisation have led Russian planes to bomb roads out of Chechnya, thereby forcing refugees back into the country.

This strategy has led to numerous civilian casualties, although considerably fewer than alleged in much of the Western media. As of 20 November, Human Rights Watch had counted 182 wounded people in hospitals in Ingushetia. As the Chechen hospital system has collapsed, this may represent a significant proportion of the casualties up to that date. If so, this would suggest a civilian death toll by then numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Casualties among the Chechen fighters are probably few, but will rise sharply when the Russians invade Grozny.

War without end?

Despite their early successes, an enormous task confronts the Russians. First, they need to capture Grozny and Urus Martan in the face of fierce Chechen resistance. The guerrillas appear determined to make a stand against the Russians in these towns, and will exploit the advantages of built-up areas to inflict heavy losses.

On 6 December, the Russian command warned the remaining Chechen population of Grozny to leave the city - using a 'safe corridor' supposedly left open for this purpose - or face massive bombardments. This suggested that a Russian move to storm the city was imminent in mid-December.

If successful, the Russians will then have to conquer the other towns and large villages lying between Grozny and the mountains and, finally, the mountains themselves. Although smaller than the mountains of Daghestan, these are heavily forested, and better ground for guerrilla fighting.

To crush the Chechen resistance with minimal losses, the Russians have put the majority of troops, including all their best personnel, in the front line. As a result, demoralised, badly trained conscript units hold the reserve line and the roads leaving Chechnya. If a Chechen force can penetrate the Russian front line - and in 1994-96 they were masters at this - they could wreak havoc in the Russian rear lines. They might even be able to re-enact Basayev's devastating raid into Russia in June 1995.

Such an attack would seriously embarrass the Putin government. Given the depth of Russian hostility to the Chechens, however, a defeat would not necessarily create pressure for negotiations and a political solution. On the contrary, it might increase determination to crush Chechen resistance, whatever the cost in Russian lives.

If morale holds, Russian forces can probably conquer the whole of Chechnya and break up any large armed groups. Final victory, however, will remain a distant dream. The threat of guerrilla attacks will force Russia to keep a large army in Chechnya indefinitely. After defeat in the field, Chechen and Islamist militants will almost certainly turn to terrorism in Russia itself, a threat that Moscow's chaotic security forces are in no state to meet.

Ordinary Chechens' fury with their own commanders notwithstanding, the Russian bombing campaign has revived hatred of Russia, and of Chechens seen as Russia's stooges. At present, Russia's intention seems to be to present former Mayor of Grozny Bislan Gantemirov as a possible pro-Russian ruler. However, most Chechens consider him a traitor, while the Russians themselves imprisoned him in 1996-99 for embezzling their reconstruction funds during the last war.

To stabilise its rule over Chechnya, Moscow must find Chechen leaders willing to cooperate, but respected by their own people. Russia's offensive has made this task almost impossible. Maskhadov may want to be rid of Basayev, Khattab and the other warlords who have opposed his rule and destabilised Chechnya, but he cannot be seen to collaborate in the slaughter of his own people. The current Russian-Chechen conflict shows signs of enduring for as long as that of the nineteenth century - which lasted almost four decades.