Truth Becomes A Key Victim Of the Battle In Chechnya
By David Hoffman
When two Western journalists reported last month that 100 Russian troops were killed in an attack in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military, General Valeri Manilov, denounced the reports as "lies and disinformation."
After a top general threatened publicly to tear off his shoulder boards if Russia began peace talks with the Chechens, General Manilov denied that there were any disagreements or splits between the Russian top command and civilian leaders. "Outright lies, slander and disinformation," he said.
When reports suggested that the toll of Russian dead was reaching the level of tens every day, the Defense Ministry issued a press release saying these were deliberate lies.
So goes another war in Chechnya - the information war.
Ever since hostilities flared last summer between Russia and Chechen rebels, both sides have been fighting an information and propaganda battle, flinging charges and countercharges back and forth.
That war has kept pace with the development of information technology. Chechen fighters, often isolated from journalists in the besieged capital or in the southern mountains, have been using an Internet site as their major platform. They have posted on the site what they claim are secret Russian documents, which the Russians say have been altered from the originals or forged.
On the Russian side, the military and the government have carried out a propaganda campaign that reflects what they feel was a lesson of the last war in Chechnya, in 1994-96, when public opinion turned against them. The Russians have fiercely denounced any information or sources that conflict with their own version of the war.
Acting President Vladimir Putin, the prime minister and longtime KGB officer, who has won popularity by pushing the war, has been a key point man in the propaganda effort. His carefully chosen language, sometimes "spin," sometimes obfuscation, has shaped public opinion about the conflict.
For example, before he became acting president, Mr. Putin said:
"For the first time in many years, I have been able to prevail upon the military leadership to allow journalists into Chechnya. To let them be on site, so that they would see for themselves and inform the public of what they see."
"We simply have nothing to hide," he declared.
But the word about allowing journalists into Chechnya apparently did not reach those Russian troops who detained seven Western journalists, including a correspondent for The Washington Post, on Dec. 29 and flew them out of the battle zone. Even access to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya has been severely restricted.
Asked in September what would make this military campaign different, Mr. Putin said, "The difference is that this time we will not thoughtlessly send our boys to absorb hostile fire. We will act with the help of modern forces and means and destroy the terrorists from a distance. We will destroy the infrastructure."
He added: "There will be no frontal assaults any more. We will be protecting our men."
In fact, Russian forces, which now number about 100,000 in Chechnya, have been engaged in frontal assaults against the Chechens.
During a counterattack last week, 26 soldiers were killed in a 24-hour period, the highest single official death toll.
Russian statistics often do not include soldiers who are hit in battle but die in hospitals.
"There are no statistics in this country, there are only lies and big lies," said Maria Fedulova, a leader of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, that has challenged the official counts.
Based on reports from its regional members, the committee said it estimated that 3,000 soldiers had been killed, compared with the 926 reported by government officials.
Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Kremlin Security Council and a close associate of Mr. Putin, told reporters earlier this month: "One must admit the obvious fact that along with the real fighting there is a virtual war under way - a media war."
"Lies come out of Chechnya every day," he added.