Who are you going to believe?” said Richard Pryor, “me or your own lying eyes?” Maria Eismont, a Russian citizen reporting from Djohar (Grozny) for Reuters, described in detail a failed assault on the city on December 16 that left over a hundred Russian soldiers dead. There was no such assault, insisted the prime minister, the minister of defense and the deputy chief of the general staff. It is all just “complete nonsense” and “informational provocation.”
The attack that did not take place and (according to Minister of Defense Igor Sergeev) will not take place is continuing, as is the resistance. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and guerrilla leader Shamil Basaev issued without irony statements vowing that the city’s defenders will fight to the last drop of blood, and that those who don’t will be shot.
The civilians who were in Djohar when Russian forces issued their “leave or die” ultimatum are still there, dead or alive. Over the past week few tried to leave, and some that did were shelled in the safe-passage corridor. The number remaining may be 10,000 or 40,000.
Except for the capital, federal forces are now in control of Chechnya’s steppes and foothills, though not of the mountains. Russian military spokesmen claim to have cut the road south from Djohar to Georgia, which they say served as a supply route for the capital. Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze claims Russian helicopters and warplanes strafed and bombed Georgian territory along the border with Chechnya. Further Russian incursions into Georgia are increasingly likely and could spread the war outside Russia’s borders.
Western reaction to events is mixed. The European Union in a political gesture said it will limit aid to Russia to projects supporting human rights, the rule of law and nuclear safety. The U.S. administration, however, seems becalmed, opposed to sanctions and unable to decide whether it even has the authority to limit Export-Import Bank lending to Russian companies.
Russian reaction to Western criticism is also mixed. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, after receiving another “strong message” from U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, oozed and soothed: “On some issues our opinions coincide, on others they diverge, but what’s important is that this issue should not lead to us growing apart.” But a Foreign Ministry written response to a NATO statement was a bit testier: “The latest outpouring of crocodile tears in Brussels over human rights strikes one as flagrant cynicism… pointless in its content, unacceptable in its essence and deeply immoral in its authorship.”