By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — March 11 marked three months since federal Russian forces pushed into the rebellious republic of Chechnya in the north Caucasus region. At the time, Russian defence minister General Pavel Grachev boasted that a single paratroop regiment could seize the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the space of two hours.
Now the Russian authorities know better. The brief war through which Russian President Boris Yeltsin meant to reassert his authority in the self-proclaimed independent republic has brought Yeltsin's own regime to the brink of ruin.
An assault on Grozny at new year was driven off with heavy casualties, exposing the Russian army as weak and blundering. The planned lightning attack turned into six weeks of bloody street fighting. Deaths among federal troops in Chechnya, officially admitted at more than a thousand, may well be twice that figure.
Grozny itself was bombed, rocketed and shelled to the point where scarcely a building escaped massive damage. Almost a quarter of Chechnya's population has been forced to flee the republic, creating a vast refugee problem. Respected economists argue that the cost of the military operations alone may already have totalled US$5 billion — enough to destroy the government's tight-money budget projections.
For Yeltsin, the political cost has been to place the legitimacy of his rule in dire question. When the war turned out to be savage and extended, Yeltsin's long-suffering supporters among the liberal intelligentsia quit his cause in droves. In surveys, the Russian president's approval rating plunged to a dismal few per cent. Absolute majorities considered he should resign.
For Yeltsin's backers in Western capitals, the war proved an acute embarrassment. The European Union postponed the signing of a new trade agreement indefinitely, in protest at massive violations of human rights. The International Monetary Fund, however, was not deterred from supplying Russia with $US6.3 billion in new loans.
Still the war continues. Every week there are more dead, wounded and homeless, as fresh towns and villages are turned into mini-Groznys.
The north and west of Chechnya are now mainly dominated by Russian forces, while the east and south are largely under the control of groups aligned with Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. In the first week of March, occasional clashes were still occurring on the outskirts of Grozny.
The Russian side has made no serious effort to seek a negotiated solution, despite statements by Dudayev that he is ready for unconditional talks. Indeed, the Russian authorities have blocked the possibility of high-level discussions by issuing an order for Dudayev's arrest.
Knowing the weakness of their demoralised, under-funded army, and sensing that the Russian public would not tolerate large numbers of additional casualties among federal troops, the Russian commanders have avoided conventional anti-guerilla tactics. Instead of the intensive search-and-destroy patrolling urged by the textbooks, they are using heavy armaments in a war against the civilian population.
Helicopters equipped with loudspeakers and leaflets have been used to order the population of Chechen towns to expel guerilla fighters from their midst or face bombardment. If army commanders judge that the demand has not been met — something impossible for the residents to prove beyond doubt — punishment is collective; the towns are turned into rubble.
The settlements reported to have been pounded by heavy artillery in recent weeks include the towns of Bamut, Samashky and Achkhoi-Martan, together with a number of villages in the latter district.
The Russian strategy is evidently to clear Chechen fighters from a series of strongholds east of Grozny — in particular, the towns of Argun, Gudermes and Shali — and then to push south toward the Caucasus mountains. There is nothing minor about the scale of the fighting projected, or the potential carnage; Gudermes in particular is swollen with refugees and currently holds as many as 100,000 people.
Even if these towns are destroyed, and their residents killed or scattered, the Russian forces will still be a long way from victory. At huge expense, they will have driven the main forces of Chechen fighters into rugged, heavily forested regions from which they will be able to mount attacks indefinitely. Grachev reportedly admitted late in February that "several more years might be needed to eliminate all the bandits [sic] in Chechnya."
Even in areas the Russian authorities consider pacified, the actions of their forces often guarantee that the resistance fighters lack neither collaborators nor recruits. Ill-trained, often ill-disciplined, and conscious of being on hostile territory, federal troops have been involved in a long list of ugly incidents.
The liberal Moscow daily Segodnya on February 22 noted accounts of soldiers arbitrarily shooting up village streets and killing livestock. Looting by Russian troops has been considerable. Human rights sources speak of many cases of ill-treatment of Chechen prisoners.
Journalists who have spent time with the Chechen fighters describe them as coming from a broad spread of backgrounds and professions. Many feel no committed allegiance to Dudayev, simply recognising him as the central figure in the liberation struggle. Seeking to reinforce his legitimacy, Dudayev has encouraged a degree of popular organising in the districts under his control.
In Shali on March 9, he chaired a Congress of the Chechen People, convened on traditional lines from among village elders. This gathering ordered a general mobilisation, instructing each village to provide troops and finances, and also decreed the introduction of Muslim sharia law. Islam, however, is not considered an especially strong force in Chechnya, especially among younger people; the main social cement of the resistance movement is anti-Russian nationalism.
For the Chechen people, the coming months will be a time of suffering to be compared only with such terrible events of the nation's past as the deportations ordered by Stalin in 1944. According to a delegation from Russia's Agrarian Party which visited Chechnya recently, the republic's agriculture has been almost totally destroyed, and widespread hunger is likely later this year.
Sources close to the Russian Health Ministry predict an outbreak of cholera in Chechnya during the summer at least as bad as that in neighbouring Dagestan last year. Anthrax and plague are also present. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross charged on March 1 that Russian authorities were blocking relief aid from reaching much of Chechnya.
Although Russians are overwhelming hostile to the war, a high level of antiwar activism has not yet emerged. Some of the most consistent protest activity has come from the Russian Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. On International Women's Day, March 8, members of this organisation began a two-week journey to the Caucasus. The women plan to march the last 250 kilometres to Grozny.
Despite the unpopularity of the conflict, there is enormous confusion in Russia as to its rights and wrongs. However, this is beginning to change. In Moscow News on February 24 the highly regarded economist Andrei Illarionov was among the authors of a full-page article arguing strongly for recognition of Chechen independence.
At least in some quarters, Russians are overcoming their heritage of great-power chauvinism, and are coming to terms with the national feeling of the peoples they have traditionally oppressed.