- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

We are about to hear more about "the fall of Grozny" and Russia's "victory." Forget it.

This piece could have been written months ago by those of us who have studied, taught and fought counterinsurgency warfare. The conclusion would have been the same as now: Russia will be humiliated in Chechnya, just as they were in Afghanistan (1979-1988) and Chechnya 1 (1994-96) and the United States and our allies were in Vietnam (early 1960s-75) and for most of the same reasons.

One major reason is that large conventional forces cannot be used successfully against determined insurgent forces fighting instinctively in their own territory. The analogy is using a sledgehammer to swat hornets that attack from all directions at times of their own choosing and, one sting at a time, kill a much larger, supposedly "more powerful," attacker.

To continue the analogy, the apparent solution is to find the hornet nests and smash or spray them with bug killer if you can find them. But hornet nests are exceedingly hard to find in a large area where many of them may be located in trees, bushes, tall grass or underground, and destroyed nests can be vacated and rebuilt elsewhere. Of course, the larger attacker can decide to occupy large expanses of territory and methodically smash and spray all conceivable locations where hornets might have nests no matter how long it takes, or how many stings lead to deaths. But this assumes that the attacker has the resources available for a long campaign, has a clear objective, has reasonable measures of progress toward the objective and a clear vision of what a real "victory" would look like, and can maintain the support of the people "back home."

The Russians are in over their heads in Chechnya. The rebel hornets have countless numbers of nests dispersed all over Chechnya and in neighboring areas where sympathizers hide them and help resupply them. The rebels (whoever they are) keep on the move, generally laying low and dispersed during daytime, and assembling at night in relatively small sting formations such as an ambush of Russian motorized or foot patrols, sniper attacks, mortar attacks, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile attacks against low-flying helicopters, or mine-laying teams. The stings can also be psychological operations to destroy the morale of inexperienced Russian soldiers, to reassure Chechen locals whose support they need over the long haul, or to attract international sympathy for the rebel cause for example, in Europe and the United States.

Even though neither Russian interim President Putin nor his generals have a clue about what "victory" in Chechnya would look like if they ever got there, they plod along applying ever-larger sledgehammers (air strikes, artillery barrages, rocket strikes, fuel-air munition strikes) to destroy towns and cities and an occasional, small rebel unit if they are lucky enough to find one. All this is typical of past Russian operations in Afghanistan and typical of the old U.S. "search and destroy" operations in Vietnam that were notoriously ineffective. Soon, the Russians tell us, they will have forced the rebels out of Chechen towns and cities, including the capital, Grozny, and will occupy all of them and restore order. Sounds like past U.S. "clear and hold" operations in Vietnam under the "Accelerated Pacification Campaign" that some still claim could have led to victory over time. The "some" clearly were wrong.

Time is not on Russia's side. The fledgling Russian democracy is about to go through a wrenching, all-too-familiar, American experience.

(1) The Russian and foreign media have been going crazy with their exclusion from "the combat zone" in Chechnya, and the Russian leadership has been forced to slowly open up to media teams who now see that the story the Russian government apparatus has been feeding them is a sham and they are reporting accordingly. Just as the American media blew apart Gen. William Westmoreland's Vietnam story that "Light is as at the end of the tunnel," Russian and foreign media are reporting that Russian government stories about victory at hand are bogus.

(2) Russian military "body bags" are coming home in alarming numbers, despite official government claims to the contrary, and the media are reporting it to an increasingly disillusioned Russian public.

(3) Reports of "draft dodging" among Russian youth are mounting, accelerating a worrisome trend for Russian armed forces that have been underfunded for years.

(4) Russia's neighbors to the west in Europe are mounting increasingly loud protests against the immorality of Russia's aggression in Chechnya and threatening to cut off badly needed loans and other aid to Russia.

(5) Finally, Russian elections are right around the corner. Mr. Putin's widespread support in Russia is largely based on the tough stance he has taken about supporting the military, and about serious prosecution of the war in Chechnya. He must soon show clear progress toward an undefined objective in Chechnya.

You can bet your bottom dollar that, despite sharply increasing Russian casualties, Mr. Putin will declare "victory" when Russian forces finally occupy Grozny.

And it will not mean a thing except that a big hornet nest has been smashed. Then, just before the Russian election in March, the rebels will come from everywhere to sting with a savage vengeance where Russian troops, hunkered down to protect towns, bridges and roads least expect it. One wonders where the Chechen rebels will get the weapons and ammunition they will need over the long haul. The Afghan rebels got them from western sources.

There is no way the Russian Federation can win in Chechnya. Either their conventional forces will be slowly stung to death on the ground or Russian voters will mandate through their legislature that forces be withdrawn. Either way, we'll learn once again that you don't try to swat hornets with a sledgehammer.

I wonder whether Vladimir Putin ever read about President Lyndon Johnson, who saw "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam until the spring of 1968 when he decided not to run for office again because U.S. and allied forces could not win, and because his country was being torn apart at home over a counterinsurgency war, which had become a "quagmire."

William Taylor, a Vietnam combat veteran, is senior adviser for international security affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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