Argun's no Stalingrad
Date: December 9-15, 1999
The battle for Stalingrad was the turning point of World War II. The Russians held their ground, withstood the Nazi German assault on Stalingrad and halted the Nazi advance into Russian territory. The tide was turned and the hitherto invincible German army began a long retreat back to the fatherland.
The Chechen people fighting to preserve their unilaterally-proclaimed independence from the Russian federation are hoping to emulate these Russians from two generations ago: Argun has emerged as their Stalingrad. But few international observers believe that Chechen separatists have a chance to beat back the Russian forces that are closing in on the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Argun is a key target in the Russian drive to encircle Grozny. Russian forces appear to have blocked the main roads in and out of the Chechen capital and continue to bomb Grozny as part of their campaign to wipe out rebel forces entrenched in the city. Colonel Yuri Em, who commands the operation in Argun, was quoted by ITAR TASS as saying that Argun is the "key to Grozny," and that it also "opens a gateway to the mountainous part of Chechnya". He said that Chechen separatists had built "serious" fortifications in Argun, and that Russian troops were running into stiff resistance.
Russian forces appear unprepared for a full-scale ground attack on Grozny, nor do they want to venture into what one Russian commander described as the "rebel-infested" mountains of southern Chechnya. Ground battles would almost certainly lead to heavy casualties among Russian troops and a repetition of the catastrophic military disaster of the bloody 1994-96 Chechen war would be an intolerable cost to the Russians -- one that Moscow is anxious to avoid.
The Russian military command said on Saturday that an estimated 2,500 rebels have assembled in the southeastern corner of Chechnya and are planning to invade again the neighbouring Russian autonomous republic of Dagestan.
The Russians are trying to recruit Chechens to fight alongside the Russian troops, and Russian commanders have been giving automatic rifles and uniforms to a pro-Moscow Chechen militia led by Bislan Gantamirov, who in 1994 led a Moscow-backed militia that was defeated by separatist Chechen fighters. A former mayor of Grozny, Gantamirov was serving a prison term for embezzlement when Russian president Boris Yeltsin recently pardoned him and named him head of a Moscow-backed Chechen anti-independence government. Gantamirov said he would encourage Chechen separatist leaders and their followers to defect to his group, but did not say exactly what military role the force would play.
On Monday, Russian planes rained flyers on Grozny with an ultimatum to rebel fighters and civilians still remaining in the city to "leave or be destroyed". The Russian command warned that anyone still in Grozny had until Saturday to flee before federal forces unleashed a massive artillery and air bombardment to cow the city into submission. It said a safe corridor would be open until 11 December to let civilians escape.
Since Monday, Russia pressed ahead with its air campaign, targeting the rebel stronghold of Urur-Martan and the villages of Vedeno, Shali and Shari-Yurt.