Friday, January 5, 2001

Geoffrey York

Ferocious Chechens keep plaguing Putin

MOSCOW — As he handed out awards to his soldiers, Vladimir Putin was supremely confident of a military triumph that still eludes him in the savage Chechnya war.

"We have achieved serious progress this year," the Russian President told his men at the awards ceremony last month. "The bandits' main forces have been destroyed. We haven't done the key thing, we haven't put an end to it, but we will restore law and order there."

Even as Mr. Putin was lavishing praise on his soldiers, however, the Chechens were proving his claims of progress wrong. In a single 24-hour period earlier that same week, the Islamic separatists launched 28 attacks on Russian positions. Using bombs, artillery, ambushes and sniper fire, the rebels killed 10 Russian soldiers and wounded 19 more.

The very day Mr. Putin was handing out awards in Moscow, the Chechens killed another 14 soldiers in bombings, grenade attacks and other assaults on military bunkers and convoys. The next day, they killed another 11 soldiers. And a few days later, just before New Year's Eve, they launched more attacks that killed 14 Russian soldiers and wounded 23.

These were not isolated outbursts. The rebels have sustained these deadly guerrilla assaults almost daily, month after month.

More than 15 months after the current war began, the Chechens continue to kill Russian troops at the same rate: an average of 200 soldiers a month.

Only a few weeks ago, Russian commanders proclaimed that "large-scale combat operations" had ended, and the Kremlin said the "military phase" of the Chechnya campaign was drawing to a close. "Organized resistance is now crushed," Mr. Putin boasted.

In reality, the Chechnya quagmire is deeper and muddier than ever before. Opinion polls show that Russian support for the war is eroding. A growing number of politicians are criticizing the conflict. And the Russian news media, previously loyal supporters of the war, have begun to question the Kremlin's tactics.

"The war in Chechnya is hopeless, with no end in sight," said Nikolai Fyodorov, a regional governor from Russia's Volga River heartland. "It is also criminal because it is partly a civil war. The anti-terrorist operation there was a complete disaster."

Even the Kremlin's political boss in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, has predicted that the guerrilla war could continue for another 10 or 20 years. He has called for the withdrawal of all Russian troops from the region.

Mr. Putin's military forces are now preparing for a risky new strategy that tacitly acknowledges the failure of the previous campaign. Many analysts say the switch of strategy is a desperate step with little chance of success against the resilient Chechen fighters.

Under the Kremlin's new strategy, small units of 40 to 60 troops would be deployed in about 200 Chechen towns and villages. The units' task would be to guard houses, search for guerrillas and prevent them from infiltrating the villages at night.

They would also protect the local pro-Moscow civilian administrators, who are frequently targets of rebel attacks. And the units would send out reconnaissance teams to chase down the rebels.

Analysts heaped ridicule on this strategy.

"How many servicemen must be stationed in each Chechen village in order to control the situation in a population centre swarming with rebels?" the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta asked.

"Obviously a platoon would be slaughtered before many nights have passed. A company would not last long either, experts believe. Thus, a garrison capable of holding out in a large Chechen village must be equivalent in size at least to a battalion with reinforcements."

Counterinsurgency campaigns around the world have proven it is "practically useless" to station small units of troops in villages, the newspaper said. "It leads to the fragmentation of forces and is effectively a switch to 'strategic' defence," it said. "When they are in population centres under the close observation of numerous voluntary helpers of the separatists, the troops will not be unable to take so much as a step without the rebels immediately knowing."

The Kremlin's insistence that the rebels are nearly defeated is "somewhat exaggerated," the newspaper added.

A Western diplomat in Moscow was equally skeptical.

"Some military experts say it is suicide," the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the new strategy. "These units will be sitting ducks. Everyone knows this is not adequate for dealing with guerrilla forces."

The Kremlin has tried to hand over an increasing share of its military tasks to pro-Moscow ethnic Chechens. Most of the military checkpoints on the roads to Grozny, for example, are now controlled by such forces.

But the experience of Afghanistan and Vietnam shows that the strategy of handing over military duties to local sympathizers is unlikely to defeat a determined guerrilla force. And the pro-Moscow Chechens, poorly trained and badly equipped, are often easy prey for guerrilla attacks.

In one of the more daring attacks, a group of rebel fighters crept within 50 metres of the headquarters of the pro-Moscow mayor of Grozny last month. As they prepared to storm the building, a gunfight erupted. Two rebels and two pro-Moscow police officers were killed.

The mayor, Bislan Gantamirov, complained that the Russians had failed to provide enough troops to secure the capital.

"The fighters feel free," he said. "They are swarming all over the city. In Grozny, there are a few thousand soldiers, and it seems that there are even more rebel fighters."

In another incident, eight Chechen civilians were killed at a university in Grozny when the Russians accidentally shelled the building with mortars during a battle with rebels who had infiltrated the Chechen capital.

Polls suggest that the war is less and less popular among Russians. For the first time, the number of Russians favouring peace negotiations is greater than those who want to keep waging war on the rebels. One poll found 47 per cent in favour of peace talks and 44 per cent in favour of war. Another poll found that the percentage of Russians who oppose the military's actions has increased from 22 per cent to 34 per cent since last January.

Perhaps recognizing this declining support, Mr. Putin is emphasizing a new effort to win the hearts and minds of the Chechen people.

"The spotlight now will be on social rehabilitation and economic recovery," he told Russian journalists last month.

"The long-suffering Chechen people should, at long last, see and understand and support the efforts undertaken by Russia to restore normal life in that region," he declared.

Although he continues to oppose any direct negotiations with the Chechen rebel leaders, Mr. Putin allowed a group of parliamentarians to meet a Chechen rebel envoy in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia last month.

One of the parliamentarians, Boris Nemtsov, said the Russian forces in Chechnya are increasingly demoralized and resorting to alcohol, drugs, prostitutes and the looting of civilian homes.

"A guerrilla war is impossible to win," Mr. Nemtsov said. "We are bogged down in Chechnya and we are bogged down for a long time."

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Created: January 11, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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