Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 21

Recently four well-informed Russian commentators, situated at different points on the political spectrum, have written, in independent conclusions, that the war is going badly for Russia, and that the regime’s chances of defeating the Chechen separatists appear to be bleak at best. Some predicted that a catastrophe might be at hand.

One of those most pessimistic is the well-known military journalist, Pavel Felgenhauer, a “democrat,” who writes on the pages of the Moscow Times (May 24): “The war in Chechnya is unwinnable. Disaster is imminent, and officials are scrambling to get out of the line of command to avoid responsibility for defeat and the mounting casualties. The FSB is probably eager to hand the affair over to Interior, though it is less certain whether the Interior Ministry would accept it.” The present situation, Felgenhauer points out, eerily recalls the events of 1996: “Just before the Russian defeat in Grozny in 1996 that ended the first Chechen war, there were also a number of command structure changes. Perhaps the present bloody stalemate is also nearing the breaking point.”

In his article, Felgenhauer notes that, once the FSB took responsibility for the antiterrorist operation in January of this year, rebel attacks, rather than abating, actually “increased in scope and effect, with federal forces suffering more than fifty men dead and wounded each weak.” Despite the fact that the FSB claims to know the precise location of the rebel leaders, they have been unable to capture them. The Russian occupying forces have repeatedly taken actions which turn Chechen civilians against them: “Average Chechens genuinely hate the occupying federal troops, which continue to detain, torture and sometimes kill civilians alleged to be rebel supporters. In fact, by all accounts, life in Chechnya [under the occupation] is worse today than it was in 1999, when unruly warlords ruled the land before the Russian intervention.”

Writing in the May 22 issue of Novye Izvestia, journalist Valery Yakov–one of the most distinguished Russian war correspondents during the previous 1994-1996 conflict and also a “democrat”–takes note of Sergei Yastrzhembsky’s prediction (discussed above) that the war could go on for a “long, long time.” Chechnya in Yastrzhembsky’s view, Yakov writes, represents just one of many smoldering hotspots in the world, “which should be viewed as an inevitable form of the development of civilization.” In point of fact, however, counterterrorist operations in other countries “do not last for years [with] heavy use of aviation, artillery, missile launchers and armored vehicles. An operation which does last for years under these circumstances is called a war.” And the current war, Yakov warns, “could last forever.”

Since the time that the FSB took command of the operation in January, it has failed, Yakov stresses, to secure the allegiance of Chechen civilians. “[Nikolai] Patrushev [director of the FSB] has so far failed to change the most important thing-the punitive nature of the war, where federal troops respond to any isolated provocation or explosion with all the firepower they can summon, regardless of civilian casualties; and where looting and mass arrests continue during the so called mopping-up operations” (Translation from WPS Monitoring, May 22).

A third commentator, journalist Lavrenty Pugachev, who appears to be a political centrist, writes in his essay “Invisible Threat,” posted on the online daily on May 21, that those conducting the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya have failed even to come close to understanding their opponent, or, even more significantly, the rapidly evolving Chechen civilian mentality. At a recent meeting attended by more than 5,000 Chechens in a refugee camp located in Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia, Pugachev observes that the speakers no longer address their appeals to the federal center or to Russian politicians. All appeals are now addressed exclusively to Chechen leaders.

The Russian leadership, Pugachev underscores, has failed to understand that the war has sparked rapid changes in the Chechen mentality. “A war,” he writes, “as a rule, consolidates a nation, forces it to forget pre-war contradictions and conflicts.” The longer the Chechen resistance continues, and the longer Russia “proves incapable of killing the leaders of the separatists-thereby admitting its own powerlessness,” and the more often “people who did not take part in the fighting end up in the filtration camps (while the rebels walk about in freedom),” the more rapidly will the Chechen character change. In this respect, the Chechen refugee camps–which have now been existence for two years–are playing the role of smelting pots for “the formation of a new Chechen people.”

In the refugee camps, Pugachev remarks, there has been formed a new way of life which does not necessitate daily employment. “In these camps they very quickly forget about clans and former extended family ties. But one must say that they are united in their assessment of who the enemy is. They deem Russia to be the enemy.” It is often forgotten, Pugachev continues, that “in these camps is growing up a generation which, in their lifetime, have never seen anything except war. For this generation, the Russians are enemies by definition. This generation also knows that, despite its enormous advantage in resources, Russia has been unable completely to defeat the rebels.” Knowledgeable observers, Pugachev writes, believe that the Chechen refugee camps are now playing a role similar to that of the Palestinian camps. “If that is so,” he concludes, “then Russia will soon be confronted with a monstrous problem.”

Valery Solovei, the last commentator whose views we will treat–his article “The End of the War Is Not Visible” appeared in the May 11 issue of Vek–is a moderate-turned-“hawk,” who wants Russia to secure a decisive victory in the conflict. As an intelligent observer of the war, however, Solovei realizes that that is unlikely to occur. When FSB director Patrushev holds his meeting with President Putin on May 15, he writes, “alas, he will have nothing to boast of.” The intensity of the sabotage and terrorist activity in Chechnya has gone up, not down, since the FSB assumed control of the operation. “The best-known leaders of the bandit formations continue to walk about in freedom, even though the director of the FSB has announced that their location has been established.” Over the course of the past two years, the Russian military leadership has consistently estimated the nucleus of the rebels to be 1,500 fighters. “The constancy of that figure testifies to the fact that the illegal armed formations have succeeded in setting up a rotation of people, a part of whom are regularly taken out of the republic for rest and recuperation.” The penetration of “mercenaries and arms” into Chechnya continues. The rebels have even recently managed to acquire a new effective type of mine.

A key to the problem, Solovei writes ruefully, is that today’s secret police are not the legendary chekisty of yore. “When, after the Patriotic War, the NKVD fought (and very effectively) with the partisan underground in Western Ukraine and the Baltic, the special operations were strengthened by the might of well instructed and prepared divisions of [political] commissars, by [NKVD-controlled] tanks, artillery and aviation.” Today, unfortunately, the chekisty do not have such weaponry, and indeed the agency itself has not recovered from the wrenching reorganizations of the 1990s.

As for the MVD forces, Solovei continues, the units of the OMON and the internal troops deployed in Chechnya are not capable of effectively carrying out police functions and, moreover, “they have recommended themselves in the eyes of the local populace, to put it mildly, in not the best way.” Another problem has been the traditional rivalry existing between the chekisty and the army which has led the latter to prefer “occupying themselves with organizing their own garrisons and checkpoints,” rather than taking the fight to the enemy.

One development which has been “literally catastrophic in its consequences,” Solovei emphasizes, has been the cutting back after the New Year of the number of soldiers who are paid “battle wages.” “From Chechnya there has begun an increasing outflow of experienced military contract soldiers; the soldiers and officers have lost the material stimulus for participating in the campaign.” True, President Putin did attempt to get this threatening situation under control during his April visit to Chechnya, but his visit may have come “too late.” “The sense of psychological superiority which the Russian army possessed in the beginning stage of the second Chechen campaign has turned out to be lost.” Today the federal forces “more and more sense themselves on the defensive side, do not understand the meaning of their being in Chechnya, and see that they have been forgotten by Moscow.” “Precisely thus, five years ago,” Solovei warns ominously, “there began the road to the shameful Khasavyurt peace.”

Solovei also underlines that, despite all its efforts, Russia has not succeeded in ensuring the loyalty of a weighty majority of the Chechen populace. A key element of the problem has been Russia’s failure to introduce order into the republic. Chechens who cooperate with the federal authorities find themselves facing a real danger of assassination.” Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties highlighted in his essay, Solovei believes that the situation in the republic is presently at a static point. It could get better or it could, he is prepared to admit, rapidly deteriorate.

To conclude, four well-informed commentators coming from different points in the political spectrum believe that things are not going well for the Putin leadership in Chechnya. And, moreover, they caution, the situation could, quite conceivably, take a sudden, rapid turn for the worse.