Ruthlessness is No Solution
Date: January 10, 2002
For two years Russian soldiers have been fighting in the streets of Grozny. There have been lots of casualties -- on some days up to a hundred dead -- and many more wounded.
Thousands of bombs and shells, including highly destructive incendiary bombs, rained down on Grozny, and in the end there was not a single house left undamaged in a city that once had as many as half a million inhabitants. After almost a month of nonstop bombardment the morale of the Chechen rebels broke and they retreated in disarray, losing in the retreat many times more men than during the siege itself.
Some rebel units were completely wiped out, and many rebel leaders were slain or badly wounded. Russian generals were talking of victory being at hand.
Victory in Chechnya now seems as far off as ever. Russian troops are still mopping up or "cleansing" the towns and villages that they have "cleaned" many times before in search of rebels. This week a special operation was conducted in the town of Argun to the northeast of Grozny -- a town that was captured without a fight by the army in the fall of 1999.
Many Chechens are killed or arrested during these cleansing operations. Some Chechens disappear while in the custody of the military or special forces -- most apparently killed without trial or tortured to death, their bodies then ditched somewhere or secretly buried.
All the dead and most of the arrested Chechens are declared by the Russian authorities to be rebels or terrorists. In fact, many of them may indeed be part of the resistance.
Chechnya is not large -- 80 kilometers wide and 160 kilometers in length. Most of the country is barren mountains or barren hills and steppe. There is some scrub and several small woods the size of New York's Central Park. At the beginning of the 1990s there were as many as 1 million people living in Chechnya. After a decade of devastation and killing there are several hundred thousand inhabitants left, with hundreds of thousands more living as refugees in neighboring Ingushetia.
The Russian occupation force in Chechnya is more than 80,000 strong. However, sustaining such a large field force for more than two years has seriously strained the financial and logistical capabilities of the military. Plans have been announced to begin a partial withdrawal of troops, leaving only units from the North Caucasian military district to continue the suppression of the Chechen rebellion.
Today, the Russian forces in Chechnya are trying to decimate the resistance in anticipation of a possible withdrawal in the spring. Russian generals are also doing their best to take advantage of the harsh winter in the North Caucasus, with the cold and heavy snow making it harder for the rebels to melt into the countryside than in summer, forcing them to take refuge in villages.
Successful and ruthless operations by U.S. troops in Afghanistan have also inspired Russian commanders. If U.S. soldiers are allowed to wipe out entire villages in revenge attacks, kill hundreds of innocent civilians "by mistake," cause mass hunger and deprivation by deliberately attacking and destroying International Red Cross stockpiles of relief supplies, then who can possibly scold Russian generals for war crimes in Chechnya? Today the West has given Moscow total carte blanche to do whatever it pleases.
But sheer ruthlessness cannot stop popular rebellions and is particularly counterproductive in fighting terrorists, as the United States may soon discover as it celebrates its Afghan victories. The Russian predicament in Chechnya is probably even worse.
Russian troops are undisciplined, badly trained and poorly commanded. Their weapons are basically the same as those used by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They have no modern communications or night-vision equipment and no GPS positioning equipment to pinpoint targets.
There are some Soviet-made precision-guided weapons in the Russian inventory, but army officers and soldiers are not trained to use them properly. Marauding and random violence by undisciplined servicemen only stimulate more Chechens to join the resistance after every cleansing operation. In a province as small as Chechnya occupied by so big an army, the resistance can survive only because it is the people.
Since 1995, this is the fifth winter offensive by Russian forces in Chechnya. They did not succeed before and are unlikely to succeed ever.