JCL 4717 Reynolds/Chechnya
- Johnson's Russia List
31 December 2000
Los Angeles Times
December 31, 2000
Death Is the Only Victor as Chechen War Drags On
Caucasus: Analysts say Russia faces a long-term conflict. The only question
is how intense the fighting will become.
By MAURA REYNOLDS, Times Staff Writer
MOSCOW--From a distance, it looks like a stalemate. And so Russia's war
against Chechen separatists has largely fallen out of the news, off TV
screens and to the bottom of political agendas, even in Russia.
But the war in Chechnya rages on quietly. And danger is growing that it
could spread--inside and outside Russia.
It has been nine months since Moscow regained control of the vast
majority of Chechen territory. Declarations of victory notwithstanding, at
least 200 Russian troops still die each month--and 14 were killed Friday
The Russians respond by rounding up the local population in arbitrary
document checks, with hundreds, if not thousands, of Chechen men disappearing
afterward. Sometimes the men bribe their way out of illegal detention.
Sometimes their corpses turn up weeks or months later.
"The resistance is not diminishing," Russian military analyst Pavel
Felgenhauer says. "Ever more Chechen men join the rebel ranks, and Russian
military reprisals and punitive operations produce nothing but more hatred
and staunch resistance."
In fact, in recent months, military analysts have stopped asking whether
Russia can "win" the war--it has become clear that it can't, if "winning"
means a cessation of hostilities.
Instead, analysts accept that Russia is facing a long-term guerrilla war
in Chechnya, with the rebels preparing for an extended campaign of terrorism.
The only question is whether the insurgency will be low or high intensity--in
other words, whether it will look more like Spain's quiet battle against
Basque separatists, or the high-profile terrorist attacks of Northern
Ireland's Irish Republican Army or those of the Palestine Liberation
Organization of old.
"If the Chechens want to go the PLO/IRA route, they have a whole number
of options," says Michael Orr, a senior lecturer with Britain's Conflict
Studies Research Center. "They have a diaspora outside Russia and could
attack targets outside of the country, like embassies. The Russians ought to
be very worried about this, because they don't have the doctrine or the
resources to deal with it."
Orr also offers a warning about possible Russian action in the coming
"Frustrated by their inability to finish the war, the military
leadership may try to blame others for their lack of success," Orr says.
"There are already indications that the generals would like to extend the war
to strike at the guerrilla bases that they claim are in Georgia and [the
Russian republic of] Ingushetia."
When Russia began the war in earnest 15 months ago, military leaders
were determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of their ignominious first
war against the rebel republic, from 1994 to 1996. So they reduced the number
of conscript soldiers and spent months bombing the rebels out of villages
using their superior firepower, little bothered by the damage they wrought or
the high number of civilians they killed.
But although they succeeded in learning the lessons of the first war,
they seem to have forgotten those of an earlier conflict--the Soviet Union's
ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, which became a decade-long quagmire.
One of those lessons is that it takes only a small number of guerrillas
to paralyze a standing army. Another is that the longer the war drags on, the
more civilians turn against an occupying army.
And finally, they didn't learn that you cannot win a war unless you have
a clear political definition of "winning."
Since last spring, generals have been declaring that the "military
phase" of the conflict is over, hinting openly that they've done all they can
do in the absence of a political settlement. But the Kremlin has spent so
much time depicting rebel leaders as "bandits" that it has painted itself
into a rhetorical corner--there's no one left with whom Moscow could
negotiate a peace, even if it wanted to.
Meanwhile, public support for the war appears to have been quietly
eroding. At the end of November, a poll by the Russian Center for Public
Opinion Research for the first time showed a greater percentage of
respondents favoring peace talks--47% to the 44% who favored continuing
This month, civilian officials began to show their first signs of
frustration with the stalemate. A group of lawmakers took the unpopular step
of meeting with representatives of the erstwhile Chechen president, Aslan
Maskhadov. They were roundly denounced by the Kremlin.
Even so, President Vladimir V. Putin has for the first time expressed
dissatisfaction of his own, acknowledging last week: "The main forces of the
gunmen were destroyed, but we have not done the most important thing--we have
not carried the operation through to the end."
Moreover, a number of factors suggest that the current stalemate is not
that "stale" and may soon, in fact, deteriorate.
For instance, during its blitzkrieg artillery attacks last year, Russia
depleted its massive reserves of ammunition, originally stockpiled to fight a
full-scale war against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe. ***
It isn't clear whether Moscow has the financial or production capacity to
replace the reserves, raising the question of whether it has adequate
artillery to repeat the kind of bombing campaigns conducted last winter.
More dangerous, a severe manpower crunch looms within the Russian
forces. Draft evasion has been increasing, and conscripts who do serve get
early release for serving in the war zone. The result is that Russia is going
through conscripts at an accelerated pace and may be unable to replace their
current numbers during the next call-up.
The current forces also rely heavily on contract soldiers, who sign up
for short tours of duty in return for hefty combat pay. But news reports that
the bonuses have been reduced or simply not paid are likely to reduce the
number willing to serve, as will general war weariness. The same applies to
elite police forces.
All of this helps explain why the Kremlin is eager to keep attention off
the conflict. Chechnya rarely tops the nightly news, except when the rebels
stage a particularly bloody attack.
For the most part, the Kremlin exercises media control covertly. Early
in the bombing campaign, media spokesmen bombarded journalists with their
versions of events. Now these same spokesmen are rarely seen in public.
Russian officials have also stopped publicizing the military death toll. In
fact, they haven't provided an official count since October, when it was
around 2,700, and they did not respond to requests from The Times for an
They also seem to be trying to undermine criticism by accepting it. For
instance, Russian officials have stopped dismissing reports of atrocities and
wrongdoing by Russian servicemen. Still, progress in investigating such cases
Military investigators have opened 35 investigations against Russian
servicemen for crimes committed against civilians--up from only 14 such cases
in July, according to Vladimir A. Kalamanov, the Kremlin's human rights
commissioner for Chechnya. Only eight servicemen have been indicted; in a
letter to The Times, Kalamanov didn't provide information on whether those
were for serious crimes.
Meanwhile, reports of missing and mistreated Chechens have grown to the
point where they cannot be ignored. For instance, after denying last summer
that a large number of Chechens had disappeared while in Russian custody,
Kalamanov has since changed his stance, asking military investigators to
account for 360 Chechens whose cases his office has documented.
He also has acknowledged that document checks by Russian forces are too
severe and arbitrary, citing the case of the town of Alkhan-Yurt, which has
endured at least 10 such roundups this year during which at least 100
residents were detained "without any reason given."
But these issues attract little attention from ordinary Russians, who
prefer to focus on troubles at home. And history has shown that they tend to
tolerate higher battlefield losses than Europeans or Americans and show less
skepticism of government pronouncements.
So the Kremlin faces a dilemma: accept the stalemate and the likelihood
that it will slowly become more unstable and unpopular, or escalate the
conflict to try to gain greater short-term military advantage at the risk of
international condemnation and military failure.
Either way, the passage of time is likely only to worsen the Russian
position and strengthen the rebels. That is, unless the Russians do what they
have said is out of the question: negotiate a peace.
"There's no evidence that in August 1999, anyone in Moscow really
considered what sort of long-term political settlement in Chechnya would best
serve Russia's interests, or whether military action was the best way to
promote stability in the North Caucasus," Orr says. "In effect . . . they
gambled that they could break Chechen resistance before their own resources
"The critical stage of that gamble has now been reached."
*** I wonder how many tons of "massive reserves of ammunition" were
depleted bombing Grozny, and other towns and villages. How can
stockpiles of ammunition that were meant to fight a gigantic war with
NATO have been dropped on a little nation for months? It seems like
it should have gotten "massive attention" from the world media and
world political leaders.