From a distance, it looks like a stalemate. And so Russia’s war against Chechen separatists has largely fallen out of the news, off TV screens and to the bottom of political agendas, even in Russia.
But the war in Chechnya rages on quietly. And danger is growing that it could spread--inside and outside Russia.
It has been nine months since Moscow regained control of the vast majority of Chechen territory. Declarations of victory notwithstanding, at least 200 Russian troops still die each month--and 14 were killed Friday alone.
The Russians respond by rounding up the local population in arbitrary document checks, with hundreds, if not thousands, of Chechen men disappearing afterward. Sometimes the men bribe their way out of illegal detention. Sometimes their corpses turn up weeks or months later.
“The resistance is not diminishing,” Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says. “Ever more Chechen men join the rebel ranks, and Russian military reprisals and punitive operations produce nothing but more hatred and staunch resistance.”
In fact, in recent months, military analysts have stopped asking whether Russia can “win” the war--it has become clear that it can’t, if “winning” means a cessation of hostilities.
Instead, analysts accept that Russia is facing a long-term guerrilla war in Chechnya, with the rebels preparing for an extended campaign of terrorism. The only question is whether the insurgency will be low or high intensity--in other words, whether it will look more like Spain’s quiet battle against Basque separatists, or the high-profile terrorist attacks of Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army or those of the Palestine Liberation Organization of old.
“If the Chechens want to go the PLO/IRA route, they have a whole number of options,” says Michael Orr, a senior lecturer with Britain’s Conflict Studies Research Center. “They have a diaspora outside Russia and could attack targets outside of the country, like embassies. The Russians ought to be very worried about this, because they don’t have the doctrine or the resources to deal with it.”
Orr also offers a warning about possible Russian action in the coming months.
“Frustrated by their inability to finish the war, the military leadership may try to blame others for their lack of success,” Orr says. “There are already indications that the generals would like to extend the war to strike at the guerrilla bases that they claim are in Georgia and [the Russian republic of] Ingushetia.”
When Russia began the war in earnest 15 months ago, military leaders were determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of their ignominious first war against the rebel republic, from 1994 to 1996. So they reduced the number of conscript soldiers and spent months bombing the rebels out of villages using their superior firepower, little bothered by the damage they wrought or the high number of civilians they killed.
But although they succeeded in learning the lessons of the first war, they seem to have forgotten those of an earlier conflict--the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, which became a decade-long quagmire.
One of those lessons is that it takes only a small number of guerrillas to paralyze a standing army. Another is that the longer the war drags on, the more civilians turn against an occupying army.
And finally, they didn’t learn that you cannot win a war unless you have a clear political definition of “winning.”
Since last spring, generals have been declaring that the “military phase” of the conflict is over, hinting openly that they’ve done all they can do in the absence of a political settlement. But the Kremlin has spent so much time depicting rebel leaders as “bandits” that it has painted itself into a rhetorical corner--there’s no one left with whom Moscow could negotiate a peace, even if it wanted to.
Meanwhile, public support for the war appears to have been quietly eroding. At the end of November, a poll by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research for the first time showed a greater percentage of respondents favoring peace talks--47% to the 44% who favored continuing military operations.
This month, civilian officials began to show their first signs of frustration with the stalemate. A group of lawmakers took the unpopular step of meeting with representatives of the erstwhile Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov. They were roundly denounced by the Kremlin.
Even so, President Vladimir V. Putin has for the first time expressed dissatisfaction of his own, acknowledging last week: “The main forces of the gunmen were destroyed, but we have not done the most important thing--we have not carried the operation through to the end.”
Moreover, a number of factors suggest that the current stalemate is not that “stale” and may soon, in fact, deteriorate.
For instance, during its blitzkrieg artillery attacks last year, Russia depleted its massive reserves of ammunition, originally stockpiled to fight a full-scale war against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe. It isn’t clear whether Moscow has the financial or production capacity to replace the reserves, raising the question of whether it has adequate artillery to repeat the kind of bombing campaigns conducted last winter.
More dangerous, a severe manpower crunch looms within the Russian forces. Draft evasion has been increasing, and conscripts who do serve get early release for serving in the war zone. The result is that Russia is going through conscripts at an accelerated pace and may be unable to replace their current numbers during the next call-up.
The current forces also rely heavily on contract soldiers, who sign up for short tours of duty in return for hefty combat pay. But news reports that the bonuses have been reduced or simply not paid are likely to reduce the number willing to serve, as will general war weariness. The same applies to elite police forces.
All of this helps explain why the Kremlin is eager to keep attention off the conflict. Chechnya rarely tops the nightly news, except when the rebels stage a particularly bloody attack.
For the most part, the Kremlin exercises media control covertly. Early in the bombing campaign, media spokesmen bombarded journalists with their versions of events. Now these same spokesmen are rarely seen in public. Russian officials have also stopped publicizing the military death toll. In fact, they haven’t provided an official count since October, when it was around 2,700, and they did not respond to requests from The Times for an updated figure.
They also seem to be trying to undermine criticism by accepting it. For instance, Russian officials have stopped dismissing reports of atrocities and wrongdoing by Russian servicemen. Still, progress in investigating such cases remains halting.
Military investigators have opened 35 investigations against Russian servicemen for crimes committed against civilians--up from only 14 such cases in July, according to Vladimir A. Kalamanov, the Kremlin’s human rights commissioner for Chechnya. Only eight servicemen have been indicted; in a letter to The Times, Kalamanov didn’t provide information on whether those were for serious crimes.
Meanwhile, reports of missing and mistreated Chechens have grown to the point where they cannot be ignored. For instance, after denying last summer that a large number of Chechens had disappeared while in Russian custody, Kalamanov has since changed his stance, asking military investigators to account for 360 Chechens whose cases his office has documented.
He also has acknowledged that document checks by Russian forces are too severe and arbitrary, citing the case of the town of Alkhan-Yurt, which has endured at least 10 such roundups this year during which at least 100 residents were detained “without any reason given.”
But these issues attract little attention from ordinary Russians, who prefer to focus on troubles at home. And history has shown that they tend to tolerate higher battlefield losses than Europeans or Americans and show less skepticism of government pronouncements.
So the Kremlin faces a dilemma: accept the stalemate and the likelihood that it will slowly become more unstable and unpopular, or escalate the conflict to try to gain greater short-term military advantage at the risk of international condemnation and military failure.
Either way, the passage of time is likely only to worsen the Russian position and strengthen the rebels. That is, unless the Russians do what they have said is out of the question: negotiate a peace.
“There’s no evidence that in August 1999, anyone in Moscow really considered what sort of long-term political settlement in Chechnya would best serve Russia’s interests, or whether military action was the best way to promote stability in the North Caucasus,” Orr says. “In effect . . . they gambled that they could break Chechen resistance before their own resources were exhausted.
“The critical stage of that gamble has now been reached.”