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.
Now that the war is continuing, what will happen? The Chechens have grouped a large portion of their forces in a defensive line in the towns south and east of Grozny (see map). The Chechens expect the Russian commander, Colonel General Anatoly Kulikov, to try to capture the town of Gudermes and cut the road east to Dagestan. That would slow, but not stop, the movement of supplies and reinforcements from the zones populated by Chechens in the Dagestan republic. But to secure their position, the Russians will have to drive the remaining civilian population east of Grozny into Dagestan, yet another tragedy for the Chechen people and another stain on the Russian government.
Then the Russians must turn south. The towns that make up the next front on which they will have to fight are large settlements between Urus-Martan and Shali. These are villages that became relatively prosperous during the last twenty years as Chechen oil-field and construction workers in Russia sent cash back to their families. Much of the money was invested in housing and the towns expanded along the east-west road so that at some points it is difficult to tell where one town stops and the next begins.
The houses in these towns are brick structures with tin or tile roofs, and are much larger than the typical rural houses in other parts of Russia. The compounds in which they are built often have more than one shelter and many outbuildings for family members—polygamy is still practiced among many Chechens. When the Chechen refugees fled Grozny, they headed for their ancestral towns and almost 200,000 of them have been given shelter by relatives and friends in this region. Every compound is crammed with refugees, with three, four, or more families often living in a single compound; most have at least twenty people, and many have fifty or more. Thus when the Russians attack south of Grozny, the effects are likely to be extremely bloody. The houses offer little protection; unlike the apartment blocks of Grozny, only a few buildings have solid basements and there are no safe places to hide. Aerial bombing will be particularly devastating. An unprecedented modern humanitarian tragedy could be in the making.
I have no doubt that the Chechens will fight for the towns as fiercely as they fought for the capital. Nonetheless, they will eventually have to withdraw most of their forces further south, this time to the Caucasus Mountains. At some point, they must also try to move the village population in that direction as well. Therein lies the next humanitarian disaster. The mountains offer very little in the way of protection or security. They are very narrow: it is only about thirty miles from the beginning of the foothills to the Georgian border in the heart of the mountain range. The mountains have been denuded of trees during centuries of sheep grazing so there is little natural cover. There are only a few small villages—sheep stations really—and little space to sequester the hundreds of thousands of people who are likely to flee in that direction. Without shelter, the people would have to live on the lower slopes where they would be exposed to Russian attacks. Once in the mountains, the Russians could easily cut them off from food. (The soil on the slopes is not fertile and the refugees could not grow enough to sustain many people.) Supplies could be brought in from Dagestan or Ingushetia, assuming they are not drawn into the war, but the amounts would be minimal. Therefore, the final Chechen strategy may be to push the civilian population higher into the mountains on the Georgian border, where the refugees are likely to freeze, and to try to shame the international community into taking action on their behalf.
The Russians’ strategy is not as clear. As I write on March 9, they are still trying to consolidate their hold on Grozny. (When I asked one Russian general what the army would do next when they got out of Grozny, he replied, “We’ll never get out of Grozny.”) So far, they have limited their attacks on the southern towns to aerial bombing and long-range artillery attacks. With a few exceptions, these have been fairly sporadic and not concentrated. But at some point, they must confront the Chechen forces massed in the south.
Undoubtedly the Russians can inflict major damage on the Chechens. The question for Yeltsin is how far he is prepared to go—specifically, how much misery is he prepared to inflict on the civilian population in order to win. And is he prepared to risk the international condemnation that will surely accompany a Russian campaign in the south? For, to win, the Russians will have to force half a million or more people into the mountains, cut off their food supplies, and starve them into submission.
A grim possibility is that this war cannot be contained. In the east, the war might spread to Dagestan. The Russians must close the routes bringing supplies into Chechnya, and to do that they need to form a barrier of troops to the east. But if they draw such a line along Chechnya’s border with Dagestan, there will still be a large Chechen population east of the line, not only the Chechens who live in Dagestan but 60,000 hostile refugees as well. Thus the only way they can set up an effective barrier is to run it through the middle of Dagestan—immediately drawing the war into that territory.
In the west, Russian helicopters and tanks have fired on villages in Ingushetia when Ingush civilians tried to block Russian military convoys. The Ingush are “vainakhs“—brothers—of the Chechens. They speak the same language, have the same traditions, and, as has been noted, share the same tragic history of deportation and displacement by Russia. Once a part of the Chechen-Ingushetia autonomous republic, the Ingush people elected to stay with Russia instead of joining Dudayev in proclaiming independence. Their leaders have tried to keep the war from spreading to their land but there is among them a sense of inevitability that war will come. Ingushetia is itself saturated with refugees, over 100,000 from Chechnya plus 80,000 Ingush who were forcibly expelled from the Prigorodny region around the capital of Ossetia in 1992. There is a pent-up animosity on the part of the Ingush toward the Russians for their lack of support against Ossetia during the last three years. Everyone is arming for a showdown.
Further west, the Ossetians, Russia’s main allies in the region, are alarmed over the arming of their Ingush rivals. They fear that in a wider war, the Ingush would move to retake the Prigorodny region, so they, too, are getting ready for a fight. And recently, west of Ossetia, there have been anti-Russian stirrings among the Muslims in Kabardin-Balkaria.
The costs of the war to Yeltsin and the Russian government have been high: approximately 400,000 people have been displaced and the number is growing. For some people, it is the second, third, and even the fourth time in their lives that they have been forced to move. The direct financial costs of the war are staggering. Cash must be diverted from important economic projects, and if the war goes on vital foreign aid may be withheld.
The political costs are also high. Virtually no support for this war is to be found among the Russian public. Despite their loathing of the Chechen mafias, most Russians intuitively know that war is a mistake. The war is attacked not only by human rights advocates and the factions opposed to Yeltsin; there is strong disagreement over it among some of Yeltsin’s few remaining backers. Democrats oppose the war on moral and legal grounds; nationalists oppose it because the army is killing Russian civilians. And within the army, resistance is strong for many reasons including the damaging effects of the war on the troops and their morale, its cost in men and equipment, and the damage it is doing to the army’s image among the Russians. Particularly telling is the extraordinary movement by thousands of soldiers’ mothers who travel to the war zone demanding to see their sons. As soon as they find them, they pull them out of the ranks and try to take them home. Not even officers are immune from their mothers; a lieutenant colonel of artillery was unceremoniously pulled off the firing line at-Grozny.
Moreover, the desertion rate of soldiers bound for the war zone is high. While few soldiers have deserted from the battlefield, many have jumped off the troop trains and convoys bound for Chechnya. The army is clearly afraid to confront the situation directly and publicly; it has set up an office in Moscow where deserters can turn themselves in and apply for reassignment to other units without prejudice.
Among senior officers there is also widespread dissatisfaction with the war, or at least the way it is being conducted. Two general officers refused orders to attack Grozny. A member of the Russian general staff refused to accept a command in Chechnya. And beginning on February 17, the generals commanding the forces in Grozny on their own authority ceased firing for several days to try to force their superiors and the politicians to engage in discussions to end the war.
The cease-fire and the way it came about is instructive. Most of the generals on the Russian side know the rebel generals; some were even deputies and former students of General Maskhadov. In the crazy patch-work of post-Soviet Russia, President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia and his vice-president, Boris Agapov, are still serving as general officers in the Russian army. They quietly got the two sides talking and eventually arranged a truce. The field commanders did everything they could to make it hold. But the general staff in Moscow and hard-liners among Yeltsin’s inner circle imposed conditions that were impossible for the Chechens to meet—for example, that they surrender their heavy weapons without a corresponding gesture on the part of the Russians—and refused to negotiate. Before any alternatives could be explored, the cease-fire ended. General Grachev ordered the army back into action on the grounds that there were no military reasons to halt the fighting. He ignored the consequences for 20,000–30,000 civilians, many of them Russian, trapped in the Chechen-held zones.
News from Chechnya has dropped off dramatically since the fighting resumed. The Russians have limited the access of journalists and the Russian encirclement has prevented reporters from reaching the rebel-held zones. It seems clear that this conflict will continue, and doubtful that the Russians and Chechens will be able to work out a settlement by themselves. Dudayev has said that Chechnya might accept an autonomous status that is short of full sovereignty, but Yeltsin has shown no interest in granting anything of the sort. The US should now engage in efforts to encourage negotiations and stop the war. Not to do so will send the wrong signals to the Russians and lead to an ever greater human tragedy, one that ultimately would undo the economic and political gains that Russia has been striving to achieve during the last five years. The US and other Western powers cannot afford to let Chechnya become another Bosnia. The dangers to hundreds of thousands of people and to the future of the former Soviet Union are too great.
—March 9, 1995