Does Russia Have a Way Out of the Chechnya Quagmire?

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The current war in Chechnya was meant to exorcise the ghosts of Russia's ignominious defeat there in 1996; instead, its threatening to reincarnate that disastrous campaign. The reason may be not so much that the Russians aren't fighting well, but that they're fighting the wrong war.

Wednesday's decision by Moscow to set up "filtration points" and detain every Chechen man between the age of 10 and 60 on the basis that he may be a rebel fighter may be a sign that Russia has already lost this war politically. And it is in the conduct of politics, rather than the deployment of air power and artillery, that counterinsurgency wars are won or lost.

Moscow has defined this war as an attempt to weed out a hard core of militant separatist guerrillas from within the wider Chechen population, and destroy it. Russia blames those militants for terrorist attacks in Russia and attempts to foment a separatist rebellion in neighboring Dagestan, as well as for the atmosphere of chaos and criminality that has prevailed in Chechnya over the past three years. But Moscow's methods in the field have been those of conventional warfare, bringing overwhelming force to bear in order to capture territory. And the art of guerrilla warfare is not to hold territory when faced with overwhelming odds, but instead to allow an enemy in, and then through constant ambushes and surprise attacks make the cost of holding that territory unacceptably high.

"Latest reports suggest the Chechens have used the same strategy as in the last war," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "They recognized the superior firepower of the federal forces and retreated all the way to Grozny. But some of their men simply went underground, waiting for the right moment, and that moment came last weekend when they struck in a coordinated attack that has embarrassed Russia." For weeks the Chechens had been harassing the Russians forces behind their own lines at night. Then, realizing the disarray at the top of the Russian chain of command signaled by last Friday's temporary suspension of the assault on Grozny, the Chechens on Saturday broke through Russian lines and seized a number of towns and villages near Grozny occupied by federal troops, inflicting serious casualties and making a point about the limits of Russian control.

The breakout from Grozny, the territory's capital, which Moscow has failed to capture despite the pre-Christmas bravado, infuriated Russia's generals and alarmed the Russian public. The tenor of media reports, which had for the most part been bullish on the war, suddenly began to shift, and Russians began invoking memories of the last war. "There's a palpable shift in attitude from the beginning of the campaign," says Meier. "They swept across the northern plain with the wind at their backs and were boasting of a quick and easy victory. But three months later, the bravado is gone, the high morale of the early weeks has proved to be rather shallow and, of course, the body count is rising."

The falloff in Russian confidence may have been inevitable, since the early successes of the war came in the absence of much Chechen resistance. That allowed Moscow to project the idea of a "clean" war in which Russian casualties are kept to a minimum and the militants are routed by cannon and air power. "But in the end, Putin faces the same problems as his predecessors in the last war," says Meier. "You can pursue the strategy of bombing and shelling from a distance only so far. It hasn't worked in Grozny." It's now clear that the capital can't be seized without Russia accepting heavy casualties, and that forced a pause last week as the Russian commanders and politicians searched for a political and military strategy.

The mess has heightened the infighting among the Russian military command. The army blamed the troops of its traditional rival, the Interior Ministry, for the lapses that led to last weekend's Chechen successes. That, together with a cacophony of mixed signals from the Kremlin over how to conduct the campaign, will further sap the already diminished morale of the Russian forces. And Russia's economic woes continue to have an impact on the situation. Says Meier, "There are still stories appearing in the media every week of Russian officers in Chechnya selling weapons to the enemy."

Domestic political support for the war effort is crucial to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's efforts to use Chechnya as a stepping-stone to the presidency in the March election. Right now, it's holding steady. "Polls reflect that Russians still strongly support the war despite rising concern over setbacks," says Meier.

But the history of counterinsurgency warfare suggests that defeating the Chechen guerrilla forces requires a political strategy to win over the bulk of Chechnya's civilian population. Following Mao Zedong's analogy that guerrillas are fish and a sympathetic civilian population is the water in which they swim, the art of counterinsurgency is to poison the water by turning civilians against the guerrillas. And Russia had reason for optimism going into the campaign. "Many Chechens are opposed to the Islamic militants like Shamil Basayev and Khattab, who the Russians claim to be targeting," says Meier. "Even more may have been prepared to support Russia in the short term, if only to put an end to war and chaos." That much was clear from the interventions, in some towns, of local elders to persuade the Chechen fighters to withdraw in order to end Russian bombardment.

However, Russia's indiscriminate bombardment of major cities, as well as reports of looting and an alleged massacre in the town of Alkhan-Yurt, have sapped much of the goodwill that may have existed in parts of the Chechen population. And Moscow's response to the Grozny breakout — the decision to treat all Chechen men as potential enemies — further diminishes Moscow's hopes of finding any significant support in the Chechen population. "In the first war Moscow set up 'filtration camps' to ostensibly separate civilians from militants, and there were widespread reports of torture and beatings," says Meier. "Now the Chechen population fears the Russians are planning the same thing all over again." Frustration may prompt Russia to pursue more brutal and indiscriminate measures, which makes it more likely that the Chechen population will become alienated from Russian forces rather than from the guerrillas — in other words, the waters will become hostile less to the fish than to the fishermen. And, as guerrilla wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan have shown, without winning over the civilian population it's extremely difficult for even the best-armed conventional armies to prevail against a committed guerrilla army fighting on home ground.