Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 22

Over the last two days, some 120 Chechen fighters have voluntarily surrendered to Russian forces in Djohar, the Chechen capital, leaving the city along a corridor specially created for them (Russian agencies, January 30-31). It is the first instance of Chechen rebels voluntarily surrendering in either this or the 1994-1996 conflict. One should not, however, overemphasize the importance of the surrender. A majority of those who capitulated were seriously wounded. Moreover, according to the Russian military command, more than 1,000 rebels are defending the capital, meaning that the percentage of those who surrendered is not all that high (NTV, January 30).

At the same time, the Russian military reported yesterday that its forces had managed to push into Minutka Square in the city center, taking control of a third of it, according to some reports, or even all of it, according to others (Russian agencies, NTV, January 31). While these claims have not been independently verified, they suggest that the federal forces are finally making headway against the rebels in the capital, who have been mounting intense resistance. There were also reports that rebels were in increasing numbers abandoning the capital for the republic’s southern mountains and other points. A British newspaper today reported that some 2,000 rebels led by field commander Shamil Basaev had managed to escape through the federal forces’ circle around the capital to the town of Alkhan-Kala, twelve kilometers away, and that Basaev, who had been wounded, was operated on in the town’s hospital. Russian sources denied the report concerning his operation (The Independent, Russian agencies, February 1).

The fighting in the capital over the last week has been very intense. On January 27, Radio Liberty’s correspondent in Chechnya described fierce fighting around the Yuzhny railway station, which lies just 500 meters east of Minutka Square. Both sides reported heavy losses. Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, reported last week that some 100 Russian soldiers had died and 300 had been wounded in the fight for Djohar, while the Chechen side claimed higher federal losses. The Russian military command reported that its artillery and tanks were hitting the upper floors and roofs of multi-story apartment buildings in the capital, from which Chechen snipers were operating. Troshev admitted that the federal forces will have to conduct a special operation to flush the snipers completely out of the high-rises. Troshev also admitted that the prolonged siege of Djohar would force the military to reduce the intensity of its attacks on the republic’s mountainous southern region (Radio Liberty, NTV, January 27).

It is not coincidental that Moscow decided last week to admit that 1,173 Russian soldiers have been killed and some 3,500 wounded since the Chechen military operation began last August. Until last week, it was admitting to only 600 deaths. The revised count was undoubtedly a result of increased pressure for more transparency concerning casualty figures (Russian agencies, January 26).

It is clear that even if the Russian forces manage to take control of the entire republic, this will not cardinally alter the situation there. In an interview last week, Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, the new head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s “internal troops,” admitted that once the federal forces have taken control of Chechnya, a guerrilla war will be launched against them. Tikhomirov said that the Russian military will have to study closely both the experience of Soviet troops in western Ukraine following the end of World War II–the special operation to destroy guerrillas led by Stepan Bendera–and other countries’ experience in combating guerrilla movements.

Against this background, it was not surprising that during a meeting of the government last week chaired by Acting President Vladimir Putin, it was decided that expenditures for the defense industry should be increased. Putin did not attribute the need for the increase to the Chechen war, saying instead that it was necessary to overcome the collapse of the country’s military potential. It is clear, however, that the Russian army has demonstrated its weakness in both the current and the 1994-96 Chechen campaigns (NTV, January 27).

It is worth noting that the weakness of the Russian army stems not only from poor provisioning, but also from an absence of basic discipline. Federal forces in the Chechen capital have reportedly engaged in looting, even targeting local ethnic Russians. According to Radio Liberty, during the fighting in Djohar, some Russian soldiers manning artillery positions were so drunk that they were incapable of aiming their weapons accurately (NTV, Radio Liberty, January 27).