Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 7

Chechens Prepare to Fight On

by Maria Eismont

President Boris Yeltsin has announced his peace plan for Chechnya but the situation on the ground gives little reason to believe that the conflict can be settled before the presidential election in June. In fact, Chechen militants now have every reason to take steps to demonstrate that they are not defeated, they will not compromise on their basic goals, and that their struggle will go on.

Since June, 1995, when a truce was declared and the two sides sat down at the negotiating table after the Budennovsk events, the military situation in Chechnya has not changed in favor of the federal troops. A number of mountainous settlements taken by Russian troops during the summer 1995 campaign have since been reclaimed by Chechen armed formations. In late July 1995, a military agreement was signed and the Joint Observation Commission began its work. However, the so-called "disarmament of illegal armed formations" in a number of Chechen villages was followed by the creation of self-defense units, with the ultimate result that local militants handed over several submachine guns only to immediately receive them again on a legal basis. This process was accompanied by federal units being pulled several kilometers away from the settlements, which were promptly entered by local fighters who joined the self-defense unit. These fighters then appointed their commander while officials of the local administration (appointed earlier by the pro-Russian Grozny government) either voluntarily left or were taken prisoner by the militants (as happened to the administrative heads of the districts of Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno).

Moreover, as winter approached, federal troops began to leave their positions in a number of mountainous districts due to the impassability of the roads and consequent problems with supplies. With the onset of winter, truck convoys sent to units stationed in the mountains increasingly failed to reach their destinations. According to the testimony of the military itself, the condition of the roads and the danger of attack by Chechen fighters made it more profitable to sell food intended for mountain-based units at local bazaars. The unbearable conditions in which soldiers and even officers of such units found themselves in forced the federal command to relocate some of them to other areas.

By leaving their positions in the mountains, Russian troops often gave militants an opportunity to establish communications between the republic’s mountainous districts. In November 1995, for example, the 506th Mechanized Infantry Regiment abandoned the heights overlooking the villages of the Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno districts and moved approximately 20 kilometers down the canyon to a location near the village of Elistanzhi. The troops thereby lost control of the road connecting the two districts, allowing militants from Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno immediately to establish communication with each other. Thus the militants acquired an advantage over the federal troops, particularly in light of the fact that the notorious Shamil Basayev commands this section of the front.

When a federal airborne regiment was withdrawn from the Shatoi district, it became possible to link by road the Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno districts. The federal regiment had taken Shatoi during the spring 1995 campaign and it had been deployed there ever since. After the signing of a peace agreement at the Grozny talks, Shatoi gradually fell into the hands of Dudaev supporters. Later, however, after a clash erupted in the district during the elections held for the Chechen administrative head, Shatoi was again taken by federal troops. In February 1996, the district administration, representatives of the Zavgayev government, and the command of the federal troops in Chechnya signed a so-called "Treaty of Peace and Accord." The agreement stipulated that local militants would hand in their weapons and leave Shatoi in return for the withdrawal of the Russian airborne regiment. The treaty, so necessary to Zavgayev as proof that the "intra-Chechen dialogue" his government had announced was progressing, in reality played into the hands of the militants. Obviously, the militants handed in far less than half of the arms at their disposal, while the withdrawal of the Russian airborne regiment allowed them to establish communications between the Shatoi, Vedeno, Nozhai-Yurt, Urus-Martan, and Achkhoi-Martan districts — in effect, between all the districts of southern Chechnya. The armed supporters of Dudaev now possess the ability to create a single front along the foothill areas of southern Chechnya, something they have been unable to do since May 1995.

But the favorable situation of Chechen fighters today does not consist only of certain "territorial gains." The numerical strength of Dudaev’s army has also increased. As the supreme commander of the Chechen armed forces, Aslan Maskhadov, recently remarked: "Grozny was defended by 500 men. By summer [1995], we numbered a few more than 1,000, and in the battle for Gudermes [December 1995], approximately 4,000 were involved — and even that is not all of our forces." Even if Maskhadov was exaggerating, the number of Chechen fighters has definitely increased since the summer of 1995. Maskhadov was in fact referring to those fighters who are permanently involved in hostilities, i.e., those who are fighting Russian troops throughout Chechnya. In addition to such "regular fighters," however, many Chechens (their actual number is much greater than the estimated figure of 5,000-6,000) take arms and fight only if Russian troops threaten their home settlements. As soon as their homes are no longer in danger, these men return to their day-to-day occupations. Such people would not fight for distant settlements, but fight desperately and to the bitter end to defend their homes.

The esprit de corps of the Chechen fighters has also strengthened somewhat since the summer of 1995. An authoritative Chechen field commander recalls: "In June, our situation was critical. Two or three more attacks and we would have been finished." After Budennovsk and Pervomaiskoye, however, and in spite of the heavy losses sustained in the latter, fighters for Chechen independence are in better spirits. At a widely publicized press conference held by Basayev and Raduyev in Novogroznensky immediately after Raduyev’s return from Pervomaiskoye, Basayev firmly stated: "Russian troops fought for a whole week with great difficulty against a settlement with 250 militants. We have more than 300 such settlements."

The respite from large-scale hostilities during the summer peace talks and the activities of the Joint Observation Commission allowed the militants to buy arms and ammunition. Apparently, the militants had better success in the latter task than did the federal troops. Recently, a striking difference has become noticeable between Chechen fighters, dressed in warm camouflage uniforms or imported winter flack jackets and soldiers and officers of the federal army, dressed in dirty, faded uniforms which are far too light for the cold mountain winds. Insufficient financing of the Russian Army and the poor food supplies of troops stationed in the mountains increasingly promote the illegal sale of arms by Russian servicemen to Chechen militants. Shamil Basayev once recounted with pleasure to journalists how fighters from his detachment had purchased arms from Russian soldiers at a very good price. "We bought "Mukhas" [disposable grenade launchers] for 15,000 rubles apiece," Basayev recounted. "One can destroy a tank with such a thing."

Chechen militants’ recent foray into Grozny proves that their combat readiness has increased. For Dudaev militants to have entered the Chechen capital in May or June 1995 was out of the question: at that time, federal checkpoints were positioned at every crossroads in Grozny and soldiers opened fire at the slightest noise or rustle. The majority of these checkpoints were dismantled following the signing of the military agreement in July 1995. Doku Zavgayev, who arrived to rule Chechnya shortly afterwards, was in no position to insist that the federal troops guarding the city be reinforced. In fact, Zavgayev repeated tirelessly that peace and calm had been established in the republic. Soon after the peace treaty was signed, however, militants began to penetrate Grozny in small groups; once the treaty was undermined by both sides, no one doubted that they would attempt to take the city.

Recent events in Grozny undoubtedly benefited Dudaev and his supporters and served to inspire Chechen fighters after their series of defeats in Novogroznensky and Sernovodsk. However, while the foray demonstrated that militants can easily enter the city, destabilize the situation, and demoralize Zavgayev’s government and the general public in Russia, the operation also demonstrated that Chechen independence fighters are unable to seize Grozny. The two large Russian military bases (at the Severny airport and in Khankala) are too strong a force for several thousand militants armed mainly with submachine guns and grenade launchers. Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, who commanded the foray, understood this and did not try to seize the city. By all accounts, the foray was intended to demonstrate the strength of the Chechen forces on the eve of the presidential election in Russia, to discredit Zavgayev and to show that his idea of "intra-Chechen" dialogue was dead, as well as to distract federal forces from their operation in Sernovodsk. The militants succeeded in all of these tasks. Having succeeded, they quit Grozny without waiting for the federal command to deploy more troops in the city, leaving the Russian soldiers to search for the odd sniper and to shoot at any sound.

The Grozny operation is very reminiscent of the December 1995 operation in Gudermes, Chechnya’s second largest city, where militants entered the city in order to disrupt the elections for a Chechen head of state that were organized by the Kremlin. Just as in Grozny, the militants entered Gudermes under the cover of night, seized a number of administrative buildings, held their positions for a week, and then left the city on the orders of Aslan Maskhadov without waiting for federal reinforcements to enter Gudermes. Aware of the fact that they could not hold the city for long, the militants preserved the majority of their forces while demonstrating to the federal command their ability to strike at will.

The armed supporters of Dudaev have more or less managed to make the Russian army adopt their method of fighting the war — a war without a definite front line and without open field battles. The Russian army’s superiority in firepower makes it impossible for militants to win an open battle. The militants therefore act in small, mobile groups, proving that they can seize administrative buildings, outposts, or hostages anywhere in the republic. In such a situation, "eliminating the illegal armed formations" appears to be practically impossible. Having been taught to act according to military textbooks — to prepare an operation for several days, to deploy large forces at the site of the offensive, and to launch a lengthy and powerful artillery barrage before storming a settlement — federal troops are unable to take Chechen militants by surprise or to prevent their mobile groups from breaking out of a cordoned off area.

Moreover, the federal army cannot prevent militants from staging acts of sabotage "in the rear" (i.e., in areas controlled by federal forces). In fact, there is no "rear" in this war. Many Russian servicemen say, "Militants are everywhere — it is impossible to distinguish between a militant and a civilian Chechen. During the day, he is an ordinary civilian, while at night he shoots at us from the shrubbery." During the recent foray into Grozny, many civilian residents of the Chechen capital took part in the action against the federal troops. There is no way to discover who participated in the Grozny attack without organizing systematic police terror against all Chechen males, which would only add many thousands of new recruits to Dudaev’s army and further discredit the Russian army in the eyes of the general public.

A Chechen guerrilla war against Russian troops in the form of sporadic attacks by small, mobile groups or even by individual fighters can continue without end. Neither a large army nor powerful arms are needed to organize "two dead and three wounded" for the press service of the federal command to report every day. It is almost useless to fight against such forays. In fact, several dozen militants can make a several thousand strong army contingent very uneasy because there is no guarantee against a Chechen sniper’s bullet. As for large-scale operations like those of Grozny or Gudermes, federal troops are attempting to prevent such battles by launching a campaign to eliminate the principal strongholds of the Chechen separatists, beginning with Novogroznensky and Bamut. But it is no easy task for the federal forces to suppress the resistance of the principal Chechen forces.

It has been out of the question to improve the combat readiness of the Russian Army since it entered Chechnya, not least because an army which is badly supplied cannot be combat ready. The miserable conditions in which the majority of the Russian soldiers find themselves in Chechnya and their feeling of having been forsaken is more efficient than any propaganda by Dudaev or any pleas by Moscow democrats in persuading them of the uselessness of the war. Rather than fight the militants, it has proven easier and far safer to come to terms with them where the opposing sides are in direct contact. Unofficial "nonaggression treaties" signed between a Russian regiment commander and individual Chechen field commanders help save the lives of Russian soldiers, Chechen militants, and Chechen civilians, as well as to promote trade, most often on a barter basis. Such "unofficial agreements" do not, however, guarantee full safety to both sides. The Russian regimental commander who signs the agreement cannot answer for the neighboring artillery unit, while the militants with whom he concludes the agreement cannot guarantee that the Russian outpost will not be attacked by another group of militants from a neighboring village. Nevertheless, the two sides prefer such relative peace to open war.

Occasionally it even comes down to a regimental commander ignoring the orders of his superiors in the federal command. In the Kurchaloi settlement in district of Shali, for example, the local Chechen field commander and the commander of the 245th federal army brigade have conducted negotiations for more than two months now, despite the fact that the Russian commander was long ago ordered to seize the road controlled by the militants. The brigade commander refused to open fire on civilians, who organized around-the-clock sentry duty on the road, because he well understood that the Chechen field commander was serious when he promised "to cut the throats of all soldiers of the brigade at night if they begin military actions."

Federal army regiments deployed in Chechnya, especially those stationed far from Grozny, are virtually unable to conduct large-scale military actions — their only task is to prevent militants from penetrating territories controlled by Russian troops. However, these units fail to fulfill this task well. Anyone with money (or, even better, cigarettes or food) can easily pass through checkpoints guarded by these units. If it becomes necessary to seize a settlement, these units are practically not used. Serious operations are the work of units from the operational reserve, deployed at the military base in Khankala (near Grozny) and in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. The latter units are much more combat ready because they have no problems with the supply of ammunition, food, or uniforms and because they have little contact with the Chechen population.

It was units from Khankala that were assigned to Gudermes in December 1995. However, the fact remains that these "fresh" forces from the operational reserve only took Gudermes after a week of fighting. Moreover, it was not until two days after the militants left the city that Russian units had entered it. Military units from North Ossetia and Dagestan were assigned to the operation to seize Novogroznensky and its neighboring villages. This time the operation involved many more troops than were used in Gudermes. In addition, almost simultaneously with the operation in Novogroznensky, federal army units from Vladikavkaz began moving through Ingushetia towards the Chechen settlement of Bamut — one of the strongholds of Dudaev militants. Simultaneous military actions by Russian troops in the district of Gudermes and in western areas of Chechnya (Bamut and Sernovodsk) demonstrated that the federal military command has decided to use reserve formations from the North-Caucasus Military District more extensively. That is, the command has decided to eliminate the militants by advancing from several directions at the same time.

However, none of the recent operations conducted by federal troops can be deemed successful. Reports that "Russian troops have cordoned off a stronghold of Dudaev militants" were followed by remarks that "a small group of militants managed to escape." Some time later it came to light that this "small group of militants" included the Chechen commanders and the majority of fighters, while the main blow of the Russian Army was once again directed against civilians, for whom a safety corridor was not opened in time.

So it was during the operations in Novogroznensky and in Sernovodsk. Nevertheless, with the seizure of these villages by federal troops, the area of Chechen resistance has shrunk dramatically. By developing the large-scale offensives against territories controlled by the militants, federal troops can force the militants into the mountains in two to three months and thus return to the military situation which existed in May-June 1995. But Yeltsin has now ordered a halt in military operations.

Judging by the most recent events in Chechnya, the strategy of initially using force and subsequently holding negotiations and concluding a peace treaty with the defeated, and hence more agreeable, adversary, has to date failed. There has been no a victory over the militants (who attacked Grozny instead of retreating to the mountains), nor have they grown more agreeable (the recent foray into Grozny is hardly a recognition of defeat). Chechen fighters, moreover, are aware of the fact that peace in Chechnya on the eve of the presidential election in Russia could help to reelect Boris Yeltsin (who is universally hated in Chechnya), so they will do everything possible to derail talk of stabilization of the republic until June. In his conversations with State Duma deputies, Djohar Dudaev has more than once remarked that if peace in Chechnya is good for Yeltsin today, then it is not good for him. Although federal troops have officially ceased to use force against the militants, the militants will violate the truce themselves and do their best to leave Yeltsin with no trump cards for the election.

The overwhelming majority of Chechens believe they "only have to wait until June," when a new Russian president will withdraw Russian troops from Chechnya. Should Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov become president of Russia and order not a troop withdrawal, but even more brutal measures against Chechen independence fighters, however, that might break the moral spirit of the Chechens far quicker than any military defeat.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky

Maria Eismont is a correspondent for Segodnya