- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

Improved tactics and a surprisingly weak response from Chechen guerrilla fighters account for the Russian military’s ability to move within striking distance of capturing the breakaway republic’s capital of Grozny, analysts say.
Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, commander of Russia’s forces in Chechnya, told a Russian military newspaper Thursday that he expected to have full control of Chechnya by mid-January, using the same combination of aggressive artillery bombardment and cautious infantry advances that have marked the campaign so far.
“Within a mere two weeks, three at most, we are planning to establish full control of the mountain areas of Chechnya,” Gen. Kazantsev reportedly told the newspaper.
Russian forces pressed ahead in the face of yet another condemnation of their tactics by a senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow and fallout from reports that Russian forces massacred as many as 41 Chechen civilians in the village of Alkhan-Yurt, near Grozny.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, in Moscow for talks with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, said Russia’s tactics in Chechnya had resulted in “indiscriminate killing and driving people from their homes.”
Russia was treating Chechen civilians as “terrorists and enemies,” Mr. Talbott said, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Separately, Nikolai Koshman, the chief Russian civilian administrator in Chechnya, reversed himself and said an investigation was needed of the disputed events at Alkhan-Yurt. Eyewitness accounts released by Western human rights groups said Russian soldiers went on a rampage after the town fell after heavy fighting.
A Defense Ministry prosecutor’s office said a criminal investigation of the incident has begun. Between 23 and 41 civilians are said to have been killed in the attack.
The siege of Grozny will be a key test of Russia’s new military strategy. The Chechen capital is where Russia’s first war against Islamic rebels in the historically rebellious province came to grief. Heavy casualties in street fighting in Grozny during the 1994-96 war forced President Boris Yeltsin to seek peace and grant the territory de facto independence.
This time, according to U.S., Russian and Chechen sources, Russian forces have turned to a pound-and-surround strategy, using helicopter gunship strikes and heavy artillery bombing to soften up rebel strongholds and occupying towns only after Chechen guerrillas have succumbed or withdrawn.
Russia’s military, still stinging from what many officers believe was their “betrayal” by the government in Moscow in the past war, has committed some 100,000 troops to the latest fighting, more than three times the deployment of the last campaign.
“It is very different and much more destructive than the last war,” said Lyoma Usmanov, the highest-ranking diplomat of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic in the United States.
“It’s a smart policy because there is not so much risk for the Russians,” he said. “But it has nothing to do with humanity.”
Gen. Kazantsev indicated in an earlier interview Wednesday that the capture of Grozny would follow the pattern of recent successful sieges of key Chechen towns.
“There is and can be no question of any storming” of the city, he told the Interfax news agency from Russia’s southern army base in Mozdok, just across the border from Chechnya.
But even with the success of Russian strategy to date, military analysts are not convinced the army can establish effective control of Chechnya in the long term, or put an end to debilitating low-grade guerrilla strikes by Chechen forces.
An estimated 8,000 well-trained Chechen fighters are said to be in Grozny, and an early Russian probe into the city was routed.
Russian officials also admitted to fighting off a Chechen incursion force along the republic’s northern border with Dagestan supposedly an area already under firm Russian control.
Russian forces also made strong gains early in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, only to withdraw in the face of a withering hit-and-run campaign carried out by Afghan guerrillas.
Even if Grozny falls, analysts say Russian forces have little hope of subduing Chechen guerrilla forces based in redoubts in the country’s mountainous south, especially with winter settling in. And Russia’s military success to date has had the ironic effect of uniting Chechnya’s squabbling warlords.
Russia’s low casualty rate just 357 admitted deaths for Defense Ministry forces so far and the overwhelmingly favorable media coverage of the war inside Russia, could change quickly if the current campaign bogs down into another ugly guerrilla war, cautioned Jeff Thomas, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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