Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 8

Contradictory reports continue to flow out of Chechnya. Chechen government officials claim that their fighters continue to control the towns of Shali, Argun and Gudermes (see the Monitor, January 10). In addition, Momadi Saidaev, head of the Chechen forces’ operational headquarters, claimed that they plan to continue to counterattack as long as Moscow refuses to recognize the futility of its attempts to solve “the Chechen problem” by military force. Meanwhile, Russian military officials claim that federal troops control the three towns in question.

It is difficult to know where the truth lies in these contradictory reports. The only thing that seems certain is that the federal forces in Chechnya did manage to re-take Shali: Yesterday evening, the NTV television company broadcast footage taken in the town which showed this to be the case (NTV, Radio Liberty,, January 11).

Ultimately, however, the real question is not whether the federal forces managed or fail to retake the three Chechen towns. What is significant is that Chechen forces–in launching counterattacks on Argun, Shali and Gudermes on January 9–demonstrated to the Kremlin that it cannot count on a quick military victory, and that the current war will most likely be as bloody as the 1994-1996 campaign. Indeed, recent events have been virtual duplicates of what took place then: Federal forces were then able to seize control of the Chechen lowlands with little to no resistance, and only began to suffer significant casualties as they moved into the republic’s southern mountainous regions. It is also noteworthy that the Russian forces in this campaign appear to have been totally unprepared for Chechen counterattacks, just as they were during that of 1994-1996. As the newspaper Izvestia noted, everyone in Chechnya knew that the rebels were preparing counterattacks on Argun and Gudermes, yet the federal forces took no preventative measures. Almost exactly the same thing happened in March and August 1996, when rebel forces mounted a counterattack on Grozny [now called Djohar]. In addition, the system of roadblocks and military headquarters set up by the federal forces this time is almost exactly the same as that employed during the last war. It is logical to presume—and entirely likely–that the latest rebel counterattack will not be the last (Izvestia, January 11).

It appears that the Russian military leadership has sensed that the events of the last several days were a kind of breaking point, and have thus decided to regain the initiative not through improving their performance on the ground, but through indiscriminate use of massive airpower. Indeed, they have dropped their early talk of “pinpoint strikes” against the guerrillas, and Russian Air Force Chief Anatoly Korpunov announced that “vacuum bombs”–also known as fuel-air explosives–will be employed. A vacuum bomb destroys all life forms within several dozen meters of the blast (NTV, January 11).