THE MINEFIELD OF CHECHNYA
By C W Blandy
The Russians regard the self-declared Republic of Chechnya as one of the most serious manifestations of lawlessness and anarchy at present in the North Caucasus, and one which could ignite other similar sensitive areas into ethnic strife or civil war. Within the last two weeks of November 1994, overt actions from outside Chechnya in support of the opposition to President Dudayev have heightened tension, particularly as there seems to be growing proof that Russian armed forces personnel, in either a regular or an irregular capacity have been involved, together with the use of Russian equipment and aircraft in air strikes such as those against the tank unit at Shali and others at Braginskiy, Terskiy, Katayama and Grozny airport. The concentration of troops in bases surrounding Chechnya has given rise to speculation about impending Russian military intervention.
The actions of President Dzhokar Dudayev, President of Chechnya, between his declaration of independence from the Russian Federation in late 1991 to the present time have maintained Chechnya on a collision course with Russia. Not only is there confusion and confrontation in the Chechen Parliament, but there is now a state of open rebellion to his rule in seven out of eleven districts in Chechnya. Furthermore, his actions have caused seething unrest amongst the different peoples who live in the former Checheno-Ingushetia, creating a position of uncertainty in matters of politics and territory for the Ingush, precipitating demands by the Terek and Synzhenskiy Cossacks for their own autonomous districts, and being instrumental in forcing a large exodus of other ethnic groups, including substantial numbers of Russians. Furthermore in the words of opposition leader Umar Avturkhanov:
"The rule of Dzhokar Dudayev, which has lasted for almost three years, has placed the Chechen Republic on the brink of political and economic catastrophe. The Republic's economy and social sphere has been completely ruined and almost no longer functions; unemployment has passed the 50% mark; the little which is produced and brings in revenue is pilfered by the mafioso-functionary clans, and the rest goes to maintain Dudayev's Junta and the inordinately swollen services apparatus, and the people find themselves on the brink of destitution, ... an orgy of embezzlement of public funds ... impoverishment of the Chechen people and furthermore the destruction of the age-old Chechen traditions, the launch of genocide against our own peoples and the spilling of fraternal blood".
Opposition to Dudayev consists in the main of the Interim Council which is based at Znamenskoye, in Nadterechniy district quite close to Mozdok in North Osetia and adjacent to the Prokhladnaya - Gudermes railway line. Under its current leader Umar Avturkhanov, it would appear to be the most authoritative of the groups opposing the anarchy engendered by Dudayev. There are also the so-called Peace Group of Ruslan Khasbulatov, based in Tolstoy Yurt, and the armed groups of Beslan Kantemirov and Ruslan Labazanov. Covert Russian support for the opposition is an easy matter from the Russian base at Mozdok in North Osetia. Annex B provides an outline of the locations of these groups, less Labazanov's, and the extent to which they control the territory of Chechnya together with the axes of assault against Grozny on 26 November 1994 as the opposition campaign reached a new climax. The assault on Grozny was not a total success; a number of Russians were captured, some were said to be serving Russian officers and soldiers.
Each opposition group has its own separate agenda, but there are signs that they are becoming more coordinated as they see the need for cooperation to overthrow Dudayev. Until the recent news of Russian military involvement, through the fog of claim and counter claim, it was becoming apparent that Dudayev was losing support throughout Chechnya.
Elders and religious leaders have spoken out against bloodshed within Chechnya. It is perhaps significant that the district of Vedeno is one where the writ of the Interim Council runs. For it was from the mountain aul of Vedeno that the Muslim hero Shamil pursued his campaigns against Russian imperialism. It is in these areas in the south east of Chechnya and neighbouring Daghestan that Islam has the greatest hold.
However, it is possible that the threat of Russian armed intervention could alter the balance in Dudayev's favour, particularly after the failure President Yel'tsin's ultimatum of 26 November for a 48 hour period (later extended a further 10 days) in which to lay down arms and stop fighting. Chechen public opinion is swinging to back Dudayev against the terms of the "imperialist infidel".
Whilst it is not difficult to deduce on paper that Russian military might be able to crush Dudayev's groupings around the capital, Grozny, other factors induce serious doubts about achieving a clean cut, swift and tidy cutting out operation to neutralise the forces of Dudayev. In addition to the difficult wooded mountainous terrain, which poses differentproblems from the bare hillside of Daghestan and Afghanistan and of which the Russian military has little experience , there are other factors which could certainly debilitate Russian military effectiveness. These are: the historical legacy, the supportive shield of the secretive and disciplined Islamic Sufi Brotherhoods and the very independent characteristics of a mountain people.
There is a legacy of hate and fear of Russia and the Russians amongst the Muslim mountain peoples of the North Caucasus. Not only are there bitter memories of Russian imperialism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, during the relentless southward advance of the Caucasian Fortified Line in the times of Sheikh Mansur and the Long Caucasion War of Shamil III, but also the "present-day after effects" of Stalinist nationalities policies, with their arbitrary administrative entities and massive deportations of peoples. Such are the memories of the Karachai, the Balkar, the Ingush, the Chechen, the Kalmyks and the Meskhetian Turks from Georgia. Both Dzhokar Dudayev of Chechnya and Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia suffered from these upheavals personally; later both became Soviet generals, and both have attained the leadership of their respective nation states.
Now, as in the past, not only would armed intervention by Russia in Chechnya serve to unite the Chechen people, it would also ignite the flame of Muslim resistance throughout the North Caucasus and beyond. The Muslim mountain peoples of the North Caucasus from the Kuban' in the west to Makhachkala in the east may rise in support of Chechen independence through the means and the authority of a "ghazawat" ("jihad", holy war). Already there are volunteers streaming toward Chechnya from as far afield as Afghanistan and more locally from Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Daghestan.
Another deterring factor for the Russians must be the disciplined secretive Sufi Brotherhoods which were and still are wide-spread throughout the north and northeastern Caucasus. These underline the past impervious nature of Islamic resistance to Communism and the Russians. The Sufi Brotherhoods are closely linked to the extended family or clan 'taip' system, which they tend to complement and provide a form of cohesive protection and spiritual strength against external invaders. The Sunni Sufi Brotherhoods have tended to remain within their traditional mountain domain and only resort to taking up the armed struggle if they perceive that their homes, land, culture and their specific way of life as a mountain people are threatened by invasion by an imperialist power of "unbelievers" such as the Russians.
RUSSIAN MILITARY INTERVENTION - FOR AND AGAINST
The Case for Direct Russian Military Intervention
There is no doubt that the continuation of the Chechen 'running sore' reduces the authority of Moscow and consequently damages the viability of the Russian Federation. Until the Chechen problem is resolved the fragile situation in the North Caucasus will not improve. This is particularly true with regard to the dispute over Prigorodniy district between the Ingush and North Osetians. Further delay could also increase Kabardin demands to return to the ethnic frontiers of 1853, seeking the return of Mozdok from North Osetia. The continued agitation of the Balkars to have their own state is another example.
Russian objectives in the Caucasus mirror her historic geostrategic objectives of protecting Russian territory, containing and destroying any malign force or influence, in particular from the vulnerable southern flank, which poses a threat to the territorial integrity, government or internal affairs of Russia. Sabotage of the railway line by Chechen bandits threatens the link to Makhachkala and Baku. Simply, it endangers the maintenance of an outer "buffer zone" between herself and her traditional regional rivals Turkey and Iran. It also endangers her ability to keep the Trans-Caucasus under Russian influence so that Russia can also retain control over raw materials in the region, specifically Azerbaijani and Caspian oilfields.
Little doubt can remain about Russian success to date in achieving her objectives in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, a successful policy in the Transcaucasus is of no avail should serious problems develop in the North Caucasus. In addition, retention of influence in Central Asia is dependent on retention of control in the North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, particularly for the pipeline through-put of oil and gas.
Unlike the West, which tends to operate in the present, Russia operates strategically, primarily in the future and without a fixed timetable. Russia is assuredly making plans with whoever may become leader after the fall of Dudayev, and has probably already identified options as to who the subsequent successor may be after that. Military intervention now could nullify the possibility of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former imprisoned Speaker of the Russian Parliament, becoming the President of Chechnya. It is said that this is one of Boris Yel'tsin's worst nightmares. A continued state of anarchy even in a country as small as Chechnya could be the catalyst for denying Russia her overall objectives in both the Caucasus and Central Asia. Hence there is a requirement to neutralise and expunge the negative aspects of the Dudayev regime.
The Case against Direct Military Intervention
Before the latest escalation of tension in Chechnya, a question was constantly being asked. Why doesn't Russia do something to sort the situation out in Chechnya and restore Moscow's authority? Basically, Russia has no need to do anything. First, by direct military intervention, Russia risks an explosion of anti-Russian venom with the added support and authority that a "ghazawat" brings throughout the North Caucasus. This would surely widen the scope of the present conflict by creating a situation where Muslims from far and wide would flock to aid the Chechens. In the second place, the contradictory forces within Chechnya will eventually see the fall of Dudayev, with the inevitability of a ripe apple falling from a tree. Russia has no need to speed the fall by overt and direct action. By the occasional act of covert assistance and covert timely support to the opposition, Russia will be ready to catch the apple, savour its flavour by reasserting its hold in response to the urgent demands of dire economic need, future investment, development and the creation of material well-being in Chechnya. In the final analysis, in economic terms countries such as Chechnya require Russian support more than Russia has need of them. Therefore, direct military intervention would be counter-productive to Russia's strategic aims in the Caucasus.
The Case for Limited Military Intervention - "Mezhdu Dvukh Ogney"
Unlike the previous well calculated devious operations in Azerbaijan (the rebellions in Gyandzha which removed Elchibey in July 1993 and gave Aliyev a nasty shock in September 1994) and the covert support for Abkhazia which secured the allegiance of Georgia to Russia, the Chechen operation would appear to have been severely miscalculated by the Russian ministerial authorities. It would seem that the covert phase of the operation to destabilize Dudayev by assisting the rebels was terminated prematurely, for it was proceeding extremely well. However, not enough time was given for training and coordination of the military efforts of the Interim Council. It was rushed.
Time has now elapsed which allowed sympathy and support for the Chechen people to grow and Dudayev to fortify his stance and build up his forces. Volunteers are streaming in to defend Chechnya from all over the Muslim World. Chechen volunteers may even return from Moscow. The world has been alerted. Therefore, direct Russian military intervention would be a madness. However, Russia would be totally justified in imposing a containment ring of military forces around Chechnya and the closure of Chechen air space to prevent the arrival of reinforcements to Chechnya.
To prevent this conflict from escalating and to keep the military containment ring in place, more ground forces would be needed. This has the useful effect of demonstrating that the CFE ceilings on Russian military equipment and personnel in the area are unrealistic and inadequate; adding insight to Russia's request of some 12 months standing for a review.
The risks for Russia are very high indeed should she choose a policy of direct intervention into the internal affairs of Chechnya. Equally, having intervened in a bungling proxy method in the attack on Grozny on 26 November 1994, leaving evidence in the shape of Russian officer and soldier prisoners of war in the hands of Dudayev, and also having delivered an ultimatum to Grozny, Russia no longer has the option of doing nothing. A course of military action limited to the imposition of a containment ring preventing the influx of undesirable reinforcements and volunteers for Dudayev would suffice for the moment. This would allow "talks" to proceed whilst the covert operation could once again proceed in silent effectiveness. It would also give a new impetus to Russian security strategy in the international arena.
During the period of Tsarist expansion in the Caucasus during the 18th and 19th Centuries (13):
"Of the two, Chechnya was the most difficult theatre to fight in and it was here that the Russians suffered their gravest defeats and disasters. But Daghestan was the more alien, frightening and psychologically imposing", with the fact that: "However savage the campaigns in Chechnya, where the sharpshooters lurked behind every tree, and the Russian losses were terrible, the land itself was not hostile. There were trees, grass, streams; it was a world they knew. Dying there, the men still felt themselves among friends. Not so in Daghestan, where nothing lived; where an endless labyrinth of precipices and phantasmagoric peaks formed an accursed desolation - a hell, which they had reached before death".