Chechnya: Russia's `East Timor'

By Boris Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke


In the East there is a proverb: ``Don't brag when you're on your way to war''. Russian President Boris Yeltsin's generals have obviously never come across this saying.

They still have not won a major battle in Chechnya; in fact, there has not yet been a single serious encounter. Nevertheless, the media have relayed boasts that thousands of Chechen fighters have been killed, while admitting that it has not been possible to find the bodies. On other channels, meanwhile, reports tell of aircraft bombing friendly troops, and of chaos in carrying out the simplest activities.

This year's operation in Chechnya began with a saturation media campaign, to the refrain of ``we will not repeat the mistakes we made in 1994''. However, neither the soldiers nor the politicians show signs of having made a serious analysis of the 1994-1996 war.

General Pavel Grachev's strategic plan in 1994 centred on making a single powerful thrust, in order to break through to the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the shortest possible time. Grachev then aimed to capture the city and smash the Chechen armed forces and political structures before the Chechens could organise themselves to conduct a partisan war.

>From a strictly military point of view, this was the only way to proceed. But, as always, the execution of the plan was miserably inept. The assault on Grozny failed, and a lengthy siege of the city began.

This allowed the Chechen president at the time, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, to prepare a military and political base for prolonged resistance in the mountains of southern Chechnya. The failure of the initial plan doomed the Russian army to a drawn-out war that was impossible to win with the forces and money available.

After the war, the Russian generals convinced both themselves and the politicians that the reasons for the defeat were irresolution in the government, and broad popular hostility to the conflict. Accordingly, they concluded that before relaunching the war, they needed to gain unanimous support among the political elites and to gag the mouths of critics.


Show of muscle

In the resumption of armed operations, the lessons of NATO's Kosova campaign have been reinterpreted in Russian fashion. The population has been swamped with propaganda. Opponents of the war have been either denied access to the mass media or intimidated into silence.

Surveys indicate that support in Russia for the conflict is by no means as universal as is claimed. Nevertheless, the psychological substrate is one of profound public apathy.

Among Russians, the image of the Chechen fighter, courageously battling the despised Yeltsin regime, has faded. Contrary to the claims of war propagandists, this is not so much because people have learned something they did not know earlier, as because the past three years really have brought changes in Chechnya. With the republic effectively independent, prominent Chechen field commanders have turned into corrupt criminal bosses, closely linked to the worst elements of the Russian elite.

For big-time Russian criminals, the existence of Chechnya as a territory within Russia's nominal boundaries, but outside the control of the Russian state, has created phenomenal opportunities. The republic has provided a sanctuary for operations ranging from contraband and money-laundering to drug-running and, increasingly, kidnapping. Even people sympathetic to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov understand that against this alliance of Russian and Chechen criminal business, he is quite powerless.

In the course of the 1990s, the brazenness of Chechen bandits has been made part of the political folklore of Russian television viewers. So too has a supposed fascination of Chechens with explosives. When a series of bombings took more than 300 lives in Russian cities in the late summer and early autumn, Chechens were immediately blamed, though the connection was never proved.

Russian tanks then began rolling over the Chechen border. The notion that the invasion was aimed at thwarting crime and rooting out terror, however, is naive. The key reasons why the generals have again been set loose against Chechnya need to be sought inside the Kremlin walls.

For Yeltsin and his notorious ``family'', the fact that Chechnya is a criminal haven is not necessarily cause for attacking it. But the fact that Chechnya is nominally Russian, and outside Moscow's control, is different; Chechen independence has been a long-running advertisement for the feebleness of the Kremlin's authority. As the presidential fortunes continued to wane during the spring and summer, the attractions of making a show of muscle in Chechnya increased.

By this time, the Yeltsin regime's political supporters and clients -- the people who might keep the ``family'' out of jail -- were clearly unelectable. There was a pressing need for another of the president's made-to-order crises, an emergency that would make it possible to introduce censorship, ``consolidate'' the nation around the government, and cancel, postpone or falsify the presidential elections due for next year. When ``Chechen'' bombs began demolishing Russian apartment buildings, the fit with the regime's political needs was almost too perfect to be true.


Western backing

For the Western governments that trumpeted their outrage at the actions of the Serbian military in Kosova, Russian actions in Chechnya have always been a delicate matter. There is no sign, however, that the Russian authorities erred when they concluded that Western friends would stick with them through another Chechnya campaign -- no matter how grim the body count.

For Western leaders to voice more than guarded concern would raise the question: where was their indignation during the slaughter of 1994-1996? And although there are influential circles in the West that would be relieved to see Yeltsin leave power peacefully in mid-2000, none would welcome the traumas of a forced early resignation.

All these calculations, however, are liable to turn to dust if the Russian army is again humiliated in Chechnya. The problem for both the Russian authorities and their Western mentors is that in one variant or another, a repeat of the 1996 debacle is all but certain.

Grachev's strategy in 1994 was correct in textbook terms, but the one adopted in 1999 is not even that. The army is moving slowly toward Grozny, without involving itself in major battles.

The Chechen fighters are being ``forced out'' of their positions by artillery and air strikes. After each such strike (and in many cases, before it), the fighters retreat. The army then claims a victory and advances a few kilometres, until coming upon the next knot of resistance. The Chechen formations withdraw in good order, and the reports from the military propagandists of massive losses among the enemy appear less and less convincing.

The Russian bombardments would have some effect if the Chechens were trying seriously to hold a front according to the rules of the first and second world wars. However, they are conducting a partisan struggle, and their aim is not to halt the Russian advance, but to make it slow and expensive. Their successes so far have been undeniable. The Russian strategy that allows this, one suspects, is dictated not by subtle planning but by a mortal fear of the enemy.

The generals who are conducting the Chechnya campaign have obviously not read the works of Mao and Che Guevara on partisan warfare. But while in their military academies they could not have failed to study the history of the 1812 campaign in which the Russian army defeated Napoleon. In 1812, the French slowly moved deep into Russia, while the weaker Russian armies under Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov slowly retreated, avoiding a decisive battle. After the French had captured Moscow and declared themselves victorious, partisan warfare began throughout the entire territory they had occupied.

Abandoning the burnt-out and uninhabitable Moscow, the French emperor fled. The key difference with the present Chechen campaign is that Napoleon, understanding the situation, tried to force the Russians to an all-out battle, while today's Russian generals are scared to risk anything more than a skirmish.

It is clear that Maskhadov will not be able to surrender Grozny, Gudermes or Bamut without a fight, for the same reasons that Kutuzov could not yield up Moscow without first having fought at Borodino. But as with Moscow in 1812, no-one will set out to hold Grozny at any price; the aim of the Chechens will be to keep the attackers relatively confined and immobile, while causing them continual, debilitating losses. The Russian army, meanwhile, will be forced to storm Grozny without taking account of its losses, since this is the only way it can demonstrate its victory.

Any new failure during the assault on the Chechen capital will have a profoundly demoralising effect on the army, while the capture of the city will not make the slightest difference to the overall course of the war. The Chechens have undoubtedly made their plans on the basis that at a certain point they will abandon Grozny. Because of the slowness of the federal forces, the defence of the city will be even less important for the Chechens than in 1994.

It is not hard to predict what will happen after that. The army for some reason thinks it will be hard for the Chechens to spend the winter in the mountains (although Dudayev's fighters, who were much less prepared for a partisan war than Maskhadov's units, nevertheless survived the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96). Meanwhile, no-one is thinking about how the Russian army itself is going to cope with winter in Chechnya. The military supply system is in an appalling state, far worse than in 1994, while the devastated Grozny -- in a precise analogy with burnt-out Moscow in 1812 -- will not provide winter quarters for a huge army.

So far, the Russian forces have not been entering population centres, fearing contact with local residents. But the army cannot spend the winter in the open, and nor can it leave Chechnya. Since the fighters have not been defeated, but have simply withdrawn, they will return as soon as the army departs. Consequently, the army will have to remain indefinitely, trying to control literally every village. The Russian forces have neither the military strength nor the financial resources for this.


A population off-side

There is little reason to doubt that three years of independence have left the Chechen population bitterly disappointed. Dudayev promised that Chechnya would be prosperous, democratic, secular and socialist. By 1999 the Chechens had received poverty, chaos and the uncontrolled rule of corrupt warlords, along with religious extremism, to which Maskhadov has made repeated concessions.

The assumption in the Kremlin has clearly been that by comparison, Russian rule will seem attractive. However, there is a good deal of wishful thinking here. Chechens recall not only the outrages of the past three years, but also the nightmare of the preceding Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, the chaos that the Russian armed forces have created at the pass-control points between Chechnya and Ingushetia, together with the corruption and racism of the Russian civilian and military authorities, are likely to alienate many Chechens who might still feel sympathy with Russia.

The rocketing of market-places, the bombing of columns of refugees and other ``technical errors'' will hardly make the army more popular. On the contrary, the Chechen fighters will once again seem as heroes, especially since new field commanders will quickly emerge, free of responsibility for the mayhem wrought by their predecessors. The new war will create new leaders.

In any case, the Russian authorities will be unable to either rebuild Chechnya or create jobs there. For the present, Moscow is simply continuing the destruction. This means that for young people in Chechnya there will be no other occupations apart from shooting at moving targets dressed in the uniforms of the Russian army.

The failure of the second Chechnya campaign will become more or less obvious by spring. One can only guess at the scale of the catastrophe. There are a number of possible variants from a drawn-out, ruinously expensive war against ``invisible'' partisans to a total rout of the army and disintegration of the command structure, as happened to the French in 1812.

Revolutions and reforms in Russia have regularly begun with lost wars, and the present Chechnya campaign may well set off new shocks in Russia itself. The unanimous support which the political class has given the war means that if the army is defeated, a deep political crisis will ensue.

Defeat could act as a turning-point for social consciousness, with large numbers of people moving from apathy to protest and resistance. Or Russian society, which has meekly endured many humiliations, may reconcile itself to this one as well.

Whatever the case, the Russian generals are continuing to march, with a good deal of bravado, into the traps that have been set for them. The denouement will be bloody and convulsive, accompanied by calls for a broad suppression of dissent to allow the crusade against ``terrorism'' to be redoubled.


Independence for Chechnya!

On the left, there must be no equivocating; the Chechens have the unconditional right to independence. Russian leftists face a dual challenge: even before taking the fight against the war to the government, they will have to wage a sharp political struggle to secure their own forces around the anti-war position, resisting chauvinist disorientation.

This task will not be made easier by the fact that there is only one progressive thing about today's Chechen leaders: the fact that for contradictory and (quite probably) fleeting reasons, they are heading a struggle that has an undoubted liberating dynamic and that is directed against people who are much more dangerous enemies of the international working class than the Chechen leaders themselves.