As Grozny Crumbles, Chechens Face Future

  • Share
  • Read Later
This could be where it gets bloody, although by now the battle for Grozny may be mostly symbolic. Chechen forces repelled a Russian armored assault on the center of their besieged capital Wednesday, with the AP reporting that guerrilla fighters had killed a number of Russian troops and left a column of tanks and armored personnel carriers burning in the streets. Russia took heavy losses when it stormed Grozny in the 1994-1996 war, and the capitalís outnumbered and outgunned defenders are hoping to make the Russians pay a heavy price for taking the city. Despite the specter of mounting casualties, the political logic of the war may require that once the battle for Grozny has begun, Moscow must see it through to the finish.

European governments are moving hastily to cobble together negotiations to avert a bloodbath, although Moscow is sending mixed signals over whether it's prepared to talk to the Chechens. But with even Malik Saydulayev, head of the new Chechen puppet government created in Moscow, calling for talks with more moderate Chechen commanders, some form of deal may be in the works. Russia has plainly won this phase of the war, forcing the guerrilla army of President Aslan Mashkadov to retreat from every urban center in the country other than the capital.

The capture of Grozny may put a symbolic seal on Russiaís victory, but that victory remains partial. After all, guerrilla wars arenít won by capturing territory, and the Chechen forces have retreated mostly intact from the Russian advance. They're already making life difficult for Russian forces by night in many of the areas under Moscow's control, and a protracted guerrilla war against fighters based in the mountains of the south will mean mounting Russian casualties in exchange for few tangible gains. That gives Russia an incentive to try and divide the Chechen resistance with concessions to the moderates, while seeking to isolate and neutralize hard-liners. With Russian parliamentary elections only five days away, success in Chechnya has fueled the unlikely rise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the pinnacle of political popularity. But he won't want this war dragging on into next summer, when he goes to the polls in the hope of succeeding President Yeltsin.