Russia Rolls In for War2K

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We were wrong about Chechnya. The current Russian campaign is not just a repeat of the debacle of 1994-96 when Russian troops were ignominiously forced out of the breakaway republic. Moscow wants this offensive to be its millennium message to the world--a signal that, after 15 years of chaos and self-doubt, Russia is back on the world stage, ready to protect its interests at any cost. This time Boris Yeltsin's courtiers and Russia's military command are not interested in a small, victorious war to lift morale. Nor do they merely hope it will propel Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a Yeltsin loyalist and the military's darling, into the presidency. Their aims are much more ambitious: to restore Russia's traditional dominance in the Caucasus and force the westward-leaning republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan to rethink their enthusiasm for NATO. In doing so, the hawks in Moscow are creating an anti-Western ideology that bodes ill for the future.

The millennium message may turn out to be less impressive than Moscow hopes. Reports that slip through the cracks of a ruthlessly effective information blockade hint at the beginnings of a long and gruesome guerrilla war. But the Russian military is bitterly determined to finish the job. Refugees say the army is hitting populated areas even harder than during the last war, and with no warning. The generals are trying to smash the resistance from a safe distance with air power and artillery. If necessary, they are willing to depopulate the republic. The most important element of the new strategy, though, is to allow no witnesses. The media played a crucial role in turning people against the last war. Moscow is resolved not to let that happen again. Military commanders have publicly accused Western journalists of aiding the Chechens and have reduced their access virtually to zero. The Russian media are almost completely muzzled.

Up to 100,000 people, mostly civilians, may have died in the last war. If the casualty toll is lower this time, it will be because there are few Chechens left in the republic. Some 206,000--over half the pre-offensive population--are now in camps in surrounding areas, mostly the tiny republic of Ingushetia, whose own population of 315,000 is not much greater than the refugee influx.

In official propaganda the West is rapidly becoming the villain of the Chechnya offensive. Official reports note ominously that Chechen guerrillas wear Western-made uniforms. Top officials declare that the U.S. and the West want to keep Russia out of the Caucasus so that it can control the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea. Military spokesmen drop hints that two other Caucasus republics, Georgia and Azerbaijan, are secretly helping the Chechens.

In theory the refugees will be allowed back to Chechnya once the situation is stabilized and the secessionist regime of President Aslan Maskhadov is defeated. But they may find they have little to return to. The Russian deputy premier in charge of Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, recently offered the personal opinion that Chechnya's capital, Grozny, may be too heavily damaged to rebuild. And Moscow's attitude to reconstruction was illustrated earlier this month when Yeltsin pardoned and released from prison the former mayor of Grozny, Beslan Gantamirov. A sworn enemy of the present Chechen leadership, Gantamirov has a considerable following in the republic. He was, however, serving time for the theft of funds sent to rebuild Chechnya after the last war.

All the indications are, however, that a good deal of destruction remains to be done in Chechnya before reconstruction programs can begin. There are signs that Chechen guerrillas are reasserting their presence even in northern Chechnya, an area Russian troops claim is firmly under their control. In a report last week remarkable for its grim frankness, the daily Kommersant reported an area singled out by the army as a model of military-civilian cooperation. In fact, Kommersant said, "The army and police control populated areas only in the daylight hours. At night the bandits are masters." Sources close to the Russian army, meanwhile, say they suspect the official Russian military death toll is drastically understated. Much in this war, however, will depend on how far the Chechens have changed since the last war--whether years of misrule and anarchy have sapped their commitment to independence. Brilliant in war, Chechen president Maskhadov has been a failure in peacetime. He has abdicated power to field commanders--often a euphemism for gunmen--whose sole interest has been the accumulation of wealth. An epidemic of kidnappings has served the Russian cause admirably: journalists cannot cover the war in Chechnya for fear of being held for ransom under hideous conditions. But some Russian military sources say they believe that Maskhadov still controls a well-organized, highly motivated and largely undamaged fighting force. If that is the case, any Russian victory in the Caucasus will be short-lived at best. And Moscow will ultimately be shown to have been wrong about the war.