Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 227

It does not seem that the international community’s negative reaction to the Kremlin’s ultimatum to Chechen fighters in the Chechen capital of Djohar is having much immediate effect on the Kremlin’s plans. The condemnation is not baseless, given that Moscow seems to be carrying out its military operation in the North Caucasus without taking civilian casualties into account. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has alleged that Russian troops have already used chemical weapons against Djohar, killing fifteen and wounding forty. While such reports have not been confirmed, Russian media have begun reporting outrages committed by federal forces in Chechnya. Nezavisimaya gazeta, one of the newspapers controlled by the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, which of late has been openly supporting the military campaign in Chechnya, reported today that members of the Russian Interior Ministry’s OMON special forces have been extorting local markets in areas of Chechnya which are under federal control. The newspaper reported instances in which local inhabitants, including women, were murdered (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 8;, Associated Press, December 7).

Moscow continues to deny large-scale loss of life among Chechnya’s civilians. General Viktor Kazantsev, commander of the united group of forces in Chechnya, stated that there is no “humanitarian catastrophe” in Djohar. According to Kazantsev, federal aviation has been carrying out pinpoint air strikes. In a response to U.S. President Bill Clinton, the general denied that he has given an ultimatum to the inhabitants of Djohar, saying that he had simply warned the Chechen fighters in the capital that they must end senseless resistance and that the warning was motivated by humanitarian concerns. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin supported Kazantsev’s version, saying that he had not heard any “ultimatums” and that Russia’s military leaders had simply expressed their “concerns over the fate of civilians in Grozny.” According to Putin, the main purpose of the military command’s warning is to avoid loss of life both among Russian troops and civilians in Chechnya (ORT, Russian agencies, December 7).

However there is reason to doubt Putin and the generals. During the 1994-1996 military campaign in Chechnya, the Kremlin also spoke of “pinpoint” strikes against Chechen fighters, while in reality–as the Monitor’s correspondent, who was in the Chechen capital during that period, can attest–the bombs which fell on the capital for the most part hit residential neighborhoods. It is probable that the number of civilian casualties are even higher in the current campaign, given that Moscow, in an attempt to minimize losses among its forces, is bombing from a greater distance, which decreases the accuracy of the strikes. As a correspondent for Nezavisimaya gazeta noted, while the bombardment during the first Chechnya campaign left carcasses of apartment buildings, the current campaign is leaving the capital in total ruins (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 8).

It is already clear that despite the pressure from the international community, the Kremlin is determined to see its military campaign in Chechnya through to the end. Prime Minister Putin declared that negotiations with the Chechen side are possible after “terrorists who are guilty of the deaths of Russian citizens not only in Dagestan, but in large Russian cities” are handed over to the federal authorities (ORT, Russian agencies, December 7). Putin again held the Chechens responsible for the apartment building bombings in Moscow and Vologdonsk last September, even though the Kremlin has yet to produce any evidence proving that claim. Putin, in all probability, is fully aware that neither Chechen President Maskhadov nor anyone else in Chechnya is capable of handing over the field commanders Shamil Basaev, Salman Raduev or Khattab, whom Moscow views as the main terrorists. This suggests that the Kremlin is not really interested in negotiations, and indirect confirmation of this is the fact that Putin referred to Maskhadov as “the so-called president of Chechnya,” even though Moscow recognized the legitimacy of the January 27, 1997 elections that brought Maskhadov to power. Putin also said that Maskhadov had sent his family out of Chechnya to another Russian region and that the family is now in the protective custody of the Federal Security Service (Russian agencies, December 7).