Warpath To Power

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In his first pep talk of the New Year with his cabinet members, Vladimir Putin, Russia's Acting President and odds-on favorite to succeed Boris Yeltsin as the leader of Russia, sternly ordered his minions not to waste time campaigning for the March 26 presidential election. His message was clear; he will follow the same formula for popularity that has served him well so far: prosecuting the war in Chechnya.

That bloody conflict, now dragging into its fourth month, is Putin's war. A combination of propaganda and people's anger over Moscow bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists has made the war intensely popular. But it has also become Putin's most dangerous political minefield. The Acting President and his retainers know well that his popularity and credibility hinge entirely on winning it--or at least giving the impression of winning it. What's more, Putin must have his victory before the election and in recent days the odds of success have begun to grow longer than ever.

Last week, the Russian military began by declaring that the end in Chechnya was near. "The counter-terrorist operation," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev insisted, "is going according to plan." But on Friday, that cheery refrain sensationally faltered. The military command, in an embarrassing bow to reality, announced that the assault on Grozny would be "temporarily halted," and Moscow's top two commanders in Chechnya, Generals Vladimir Shamanov and Gennadi Troshev, would be returned to their former posts and replaced by their deputies--a thinly veiled admission from the General Staff that the federal forces have hit a wall of lead in Grozny.

Moscow's plan was to take Grozny and wind down the war by spring--in time for the elections--leaving the Chechen guerrillas trapped in the southern mountains. But the Russian army still faces stiff resistance both in Grozny and in the mountains, straining its forces and overextending supply lines. Putin and his generals claim that they have learned the lessons of the bloody Chechen campaign of 1994-96. Yet more and more the conflict resembles that quagmire.

The war is also slowly coming home in the form of gruz 200--Russian army slang for corpses. And Putin's public relations machine is faltering. It is becoming harder to hide the gulf between Moscow's upbeat predictions and the bleak reports from Grozny. "Putin needs this war," says Alexander Zhilin, a former fighter pilot and now a defense columnist for the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti. "But most of all, he needs a war with minimal bloodshed." Dispatches on Russian airwaves from the capital, however, depict a lethal landscape: a city where chemical storage tanks have exploded, dispersing toxic clouds of chlorine and ammonia; a city whose main buildings have been booby- trapped, where the defenders have built defensive positions protected by slabs of reinforced concrete linked by tunnels and passages.

Young Russian soldiers tell Russian TV of the "hail of lead" that greets them when they raise their heads above their trenches. They speak of guerrillas who move behind Russian lines with impunity at night. At the same time, the doctors in Military Hospital No. 1458, near the main Russian army base in Mozdok just north of Chechnya, concede they are inundated with wounded. "We are doing all we can, but each day brings us more soldiers who need urgent attention," said Colonel Vladimir Sukhomlinov, head surgeon of the medical service for the troops in Chechnya. Officially, 465 Russian soldiers have been killed and 1,583 wounded since September, but in private officers concede the real losses are two to three times greater.

Despite the upbeat tone of Russian military reports--which foreign journalists are forbidden to check for themselves--the advance has been brutally slow. For weeks, Moscow's forces have tried to shoot and shell their way, block by block, to the heart of Grozny. But the Chechen fighters have been waiting months for the assault. At times their Russian-language propaganda website (www.kavkaz.com) has even complained of the "sluggish" Russian advance on the city. The Chechens move in groups of 10 to 15 men through the maze of streets, courtyards and corridors, or speed from point to point on improvised battle wagons--cars or light trucks with a machine gun or a mortar on the back. Russian troops say that when they identify a Chechen position they call in helicopter or artillery strikes, which means that they are likely to kill civilians sheltering in cellars. Both sides proclaim their concern for the civilians, many of whom are ethnic Russian, mostly old, ill or poor. But neither side is trying hard to help them. MORE

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For the Chechens, Grozny is a meat grinder: a place where they hope to kill as many Russian troops as possible, thus shaking the still firm support for the war in Russia, before moving to guerrilla warfare in the southern hills and mountains. This is what the Chechens did last time, before descending into the lowlands in August 1996 and retaking Grozny in a sudden demoralizing strike. For the Russians, Grozny is the hell they had hoped to avoid. Defense analysts in Moscow now say that Putin, in his rush to meet his political deadline for victory, may have to rely on the more brutal weapons in Russia's armory to take the capital. Such "trump cards," says Viktor Baranets, a retired colonel and military affairs columnist for Komsomolskaya Pravda, are fixed long-range flamethrowers, and even two of Russia's largest strategic bombers--Tu-95s and Tu-160s--that could bury Grozny in minutes. The Russian media say the air force has already used fuel-air explosives which release an inflammable gas that can damage or destroy people and buildings within hundreds of meters. Similar to bombs used against the North Vietnamese advance on Saigon in 1975, the weapons are highly effective, terrifying and indiscriminate.

Putin may simply order that the Russian tricolor be raised over Grozny and proclaim the city "liberated." His predecessors did just that in January 1995, declaring Grozny had fallen even as corpses of Russian soldiers littered its streets and Chechen fighters controlled the night. But even the robust popular enthusiasm for Putin's war cannot mute dissenting voices. "All the sources who report from the war zone, except the official federal press center of course, admitted that the Chechens had retaken Alkhan-Kala and Alkhan-Yurt--two villages southeast of Grozny," Izvestia wrote last week. "It has become clear," the daily added, "that declarations of victory by the Russian forces in the Staropromyslovski district of Grozny ... were not true." General Shamanov reluctantly conceded on the private ntv channel that the federal forces would have to "repeat military operations in Alkhan-Yurt"--an admission that Chechen rebels still operated in the village. As the Chechen fighters continue to step up their nocturnal ambushes, the Russian forces will be forced to repeat their sweep of the so-called cleansed zones. One Interior Ministry staffer, fresh from visiting Chechnya, is blunt: "Those villages were virtually empty when the troops cleansed them. Then, several days later, they suddenly became full of able-bodied men."

At the same time, strains are emerging in the purported Russian-Chechen fraternal partnership that Putin and his generals have made a central theme of the war. "Putin is counting on the theory of the Good Chechen," says Zhilin. "But if he's expecting the pro-Moscow Chechens to rise up and overthrow the bandits, good luck to him." Leading the way, in more of a crawl than a charge, is a hastily assembled pro-Moscow Chechen militia of 400 men under the command of Beslan Gantamirov, a former mayor of Grozny. Gantamirov, who until recently was serving a sentence for embezzling reconstruction funds during the last war, is not off to an auspicious start. First he failed to deliver on a promise that Grozny would fall by Dec. 20. Now reports from Grozny claim his men have suffered heavy losses.

Another leader of the pro-Russian Chechen camp has also been causing trouble. Malik Saidullayev, a wealthy Chechen who ran a Moscow lottery before being named head of the pro-Russian Chechen State Council, recently predicted it could take months for Moscow to "cleanse" Grozny. He also charged that Russian soldiers ran amok in his native village of Alkhan-Yurt, looting and, as Western human rights groups allege, killing civilians. Last week, the General Staff curtly disowned Saidullayev, denouncing him for disseminating "disinformation."

Even as the two sides battle for Grozny, the thoughts of both Chechen and Russian commanders are moving south, to the mountains that have always been the safest haven for Chechen fighters. The two top Chechen commanders, Shamil Basayev and the Saudi-born Khattab, have fortified bases there with, Moscow claims, some 8,000 men. Putin has tried to cut Basayev and Khattab's lifeline--for weeks, his generals have claimed that high in the southern mountains a brigade of Russian paratroopers had blocked the Argun gorge, eliminating a key supply route from neighboring Georgia. Last week, the generals announced they had intercepted eight trucks of weapons destined for the Chechens. Still, Basayev and Khattab's men have managed to hold their craggy perches and the Chechen trail through the Argun gorge remains open for traffic.

As the war took a familiar turn, Putin was careful to keep the core of the old Yeltsin clique on the payroll. In a sign of the lack of change at the top, Putin announced that Nikolai Aksyonenko, a cabinet member who is widely seen as a proxy for the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, would stand in as Prime Minister when Putin's presidential duties became too burdensome.

As the economists tally the cost of what the Kremlin calls a "victorious little war"--$148 million a month, according to former premier Yegor Gaidar--ugly reports from Chechnya are cropping up even in the Moscow media most loyal to the Kremlin. This has not altered Putin's sunny mood--in public, at least. But as Russian soldiers crawl further into the fire of Grozny, and even the most heartily pro-Russian Chechens disappoint him, Putin may find himself in a discomforting paradox. He could sail to victory at the polls in March, only to face an ugly war in the south still unfinished.

With reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow