Dagestan: Between a Quickie and a Quagmire

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Russia’s war on the Islamic militants in Dagestan isn’t another Chechnya or, in Western terms, another Vietnam. But with Moscow’s military brass insisting that they are just two weeks from polishing off the insurgents without having to risk a quagmire-like ground war, a chorus of local experts has a reminder: It ain’t Kosovo either. "It can't be done with air power alone, and the troops are not good enough to take the ground," Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst with the newspaper Sevodnya, told the New York Times. "The Russian military has learned nothing from Chechnya and is totally unprepared for this war." That’s not what the optimistic Russians say; the rebels are heavily outgunned and do not, as the Chechens did, have either the support of the local citizens or their government. The rebels can’t win — but they won’t lose easily. "A fixed schedule like those two weeks smacks of the threats at the beginning of the Chechen war, to take Grozny in two hours with one regiment," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich. "And look how that turned out — a secession."

Russia’s already underpowered military has forked over its best remaining paratroopers to the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo. And the Dagestani rebels (actually imports from neighboring Chechnya) know the terrain and are proving difficult to root out of the region's myriad nooks and crannies. Local sentiment, just as it was in Kosovo, is fickle; if the Russian army tries to bomb its way through this one, it runs the risk of turning the inhabitants against it when homes and villages start going up in smoke. Then there’s the problem that the NATO allies had better luck avoiding – confusion among the "good guys." On his way out the door, prime-minister-of-the-month Sergei Stepashin moaned that with the Kremlin installing revolving doors, no general wanted to take charge of the Dagestan war and risk embarrassment (a feeling Stepashin knows well from Chechnya). Now ex-spook Vladimir Putin is at the helm, having been confirmed today by the Duma, and it’s his mess now. The smart money says two weeks is far too short an assessment – unless you’re talking about Putin’s term. "If Putin wins the war in two weeks, he will be seen as a hero," says Zarakhovich. "If he fails, he is finished."