In Chechnya, the Russian government is locked in a deadly struggle with a rebellious, stubborn, and surprisingly fierce Muslim people. It is a struggle that neither side can afford to lose and that neither can win without devastating consequences—to themselves, to the region, and possibly to the future of Russia.
After almost three months of war, the badly mauled Russian army has established a tenuous presence in about three quarters of the Chechen capital of Grozny. But the cost has been enormous: over 5,000 dead Russian soldiers, perhaps as many as 15,000 civilian dead, most of them ethnic Russians, hundreds of thousands of refugees, billions of dollars in physical damages to the city, billions more in military costs, and incalculable damage to the prestige of Russia, its military, and its president, Boris Yeltsin.
As I write, the battle and, more importantly, the war, is far from over. Observing the fighting from both sides for three weeks in January and February, I was able to see how Chechens have maintained a stubborn hold on the city’s southeast corner, which is on a plateau and is protected by a strategic hill that gives the Chechens good observation and firing positions to counter Russian advances. The rebel forces are well armed and committed to fighting to the last brick. There is no doubt that the Russians can eventually “take” this part of the city, too, but they will pay an enormous price if they do.
For the Chechens have never played the game by Russian rules. Instead of bringing in thousands of fighters to defend the city, the Chechen commander, General Aslan Maskhadov, decided to keep his forces small and hard-hitting. The core rebel forces in Grozny have never numbered more than about 1,500 men. They operate in three-man hit teams—two riflemen protecting a fighter with anti-tank rockets. The strategy is deceptively simple: infiltrate the teams to the city’s intersections, then wait for the Russians, pin down the first soldiers that arrive, but don’t kill them. Then when reinforcements come, almost always in armored personnel carriers, destroy them with a phalanx of rockets. Each APC carries ten soldiers plus three crewmen. It doesn’t take long for the casualties to mount.
In the meantime, most of the Chechen army is not even in the city; General Maskhadov knew that the Russians could easily surround the capital and cut it off—the treeless plains are just too flat and lacking in cover to permit a lightly armed force to resist tanks and mechanized infantry. Had he kept a large force in the city, it would have been trapped, and resupplying his fighters would have been impossible. The rebels would have been slowly pounded or starved to death. Instead, he kept the large, and growing, Chechen forces south of the city, training and preparing for the next phase of the war. By now they number some 40,000 fighters. And to tie the Russians down, he keeps a constant level of force in Grozny by infiltrating through the Russian lines the dozen or so replacements that are needed each night.
Until the beginning of March the Russians still hadn’t caught on. They continued to pound the rebel-held quarter with thousands of guns, rockets, and bombs day and night, and to waste the lives of their soldiers in capturing a few abandoned, bombed-out buildings, so as to advance their lines each day. To put the intensity of firing in perspective, the highest level of firing recorded in Sarajevo was 3,500 heavy detonations per day. In Grozny in early February, a colleague of mine counted 4,000 detonations per hour. Only in early March did the Russians diminish their shelling and adopt a strategy of starving out the local population.
The shelling was futile and, ultimately, self-defeating. Apart from the small number of Chechen fighters, few Chechens are left in the city. Virtually all the civilians left are ethnic Russians, perhaps as many as 30,000, mostly elderly pensioners unable to escape while the city was being surrounded. It is ironic that the Chechen rebels are fighting the Russian army to protect a section of the city full of Russian grandmothers. When the full truth of the battle comes out, it will be apparent that most of the civilians who have died since the middle of January are also ethnic Russians. That disclosure could bring down the Yeltsin government.
The Russian army has proclaimed the battle all but won. It’s safe, they say, for civilians to return to rebuild the city. Buses have even been organized to take them back to Grozny. A new city administration has been appointed by the Yeltsin government to restore order and put the town back together. Peace is virtually at hand.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Russians have a presence in the city, but they control nothing. Chechen fighters move freely about the city by day and by night. They know the tunnels and conduits well—the Chechen commander in the city was a land surveyor and in charge of information for city planning. A principal leader of the Chechen hit teams that operate on the northern, Russian, side of town is a former contractor who built much of Grozny’s gas and water system. They have intimate knowledge of the city and its hidden arteries. During my trip to Grozny, a Chechen commander showed me how he could, if he wanted, pop up within a hundred meters from the Russian military commandant’s office and put a rocket through his window.
Everything the Russians must do to hold the city and protect their positions causes more damage. For example, they know that to get people to return, they must restore water, the sewer system, and gas to the city. But those lines run underground in the same conduits that the Chechen fighters use to move around the city. So the Russians are systematically blowing up those same conduits to limit the Chechens’ movements. They must literally destroy the city and its infrastructure in order to capture it.
In the end, what will they have captured? A pile of rubble which even then they are likely to have trouble controlling. And the cost? If they continue to attack the Chechen-held areas and don’t allow humanitarian agencies to evacuate the remaining noncombatants, the ultimate death toll may rise to as many as 35,000, largely Russian, civilians, and perhaps 7,000 soldiers. More people have been killed in three months of fighting than the 15,000 to 20,000 Soviet soldiers lost in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan.
How did this happen? Chechnya is a small, landlocked republic on the plains and hills at the foot of the northern range of the Caucasus Mountains. It is a small place, about the size of Connecticut, less than 1 percent of the land area of Russia, with about 1.2 million people. The region was captured and annexed to Russia in the middle of the last century but only after 150 years of determined resistance. The tsarist forces were able to defeat the Chechens only by driving them into the barren Caucasus Mountains, burning their fields, and cutting them off from food supplies. Even then, the Chechens continued a sporadic resistance for the next half century.
After a brief flirtation with the Bolsheviks, the Chechens tried to revolt against the newly formed Soviet Union in 1920. They tried again in 1929 but the rebellion was quickly suppressed by the Red Army. In 1944, their greatest tragedy occurred. Stalin, worried that the Chechens and the neighboring Ingush might support the Germans if they reached the Caucasus, forcibly deported virtually the entire population to Kazakhstan and Siberia. During the deportation and exile, hundreds of thousands died in the harsh conditions of middle Asia where no adequate preparations had been made to receive them. When Khrushchev finally allowed the survivors to return in 1956–1957, they found their lands and their homes occupied by the people from the neighboring region of Ossetia and by Russian colonists. Virtually every Chechen adult over the age of thirty-two was born in exile. Perhaps this accounts for the high percentage of hardened, dedicated Chechen fighters in their thirties and forties.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Chechens reacted swiftly. The Chechens, under their newly elected president, Dzhokar Dudayev, declared their unilateral independence and proceeded to set up a separate state. As the Chechens say, the business of Chechnya was business—in all its forms. Dudayev allowed the local Chechen economy to deteriorate and unemployment to rise; but he and his associates grabbed some planes from Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, and began trading with the newly independent, former Soviet states to his south and east. He also established links to Iran and Turkey and soon a variety of goods were entering Chechnya marked for destinations further north in Russia. Opium, heroin, and hashish were among the more profitable commodities sent northward. Dudayev and his colleagues were also able to engage in the profitable business of exporting arms. As the Russian army pulled back from the Caucasus and Central Asia, large amounts of its equipment were sold illegally to the Chechens, who then offered them to anyone with cash. Apparently, Muslim nations supporting Bosnia were among their better clients. Some of the arms now used by Bosnians may well have come through Chechnya.
For three years the Russian government ignored Chechnya’s declaration of independence and its other embarrassing activities; Russia had other problems. But by mid-1994, Dudayev had gone too far. He was courting Muslim radicals in Iran and the Middle East, toying with declaring an Islamic state and imposing Shariah law, and continuing to send millions of dollars worth of untaxed goods into Russia’s markets. Yeltsin began to examine his choices.
Many factors influenced the events that followed. Clearly the Russians thought three years of Dudayev’s disastrous economic policies and the hardships they brought on the Chechen people would be enough to persuade them to abandon Dudayev in a showdown with Moscow. They counted on the corrupt government to quickly cave in to a Moscow-backed coup. When that failed, they believed that the Russian people, who generally have deep contempt for the Chechens as the perceived kingpins of the Moscow underworld, would support a quick military intervention to bring them to heel. They also believed that the Chechens would flee in the face of the Russian army. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev publicly boasted that he could take Grozny with a regiment of paratroopers in two hours.
How wrong he was. Now the Russian army is bogged down in a fruitless combat for an objective that is ultimately meaningless. Capturing the capital won’t win the war any more than capturing the presidential building did. In a guerrilla war, only fools fight for cities. Putting more troops into the city only increases the number of targets.