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 …