Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 13

The April 24 issue of the weekly Moskovskie Novosti carries an article by well-known military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who sees Chechnya as representing Russia’s Algeria. In his recent State-of-the-Nation address to the Russian parliament, Felgenhauer recalls, President Putin asserted that it was no longer important how many “bandits and terrorists” there were in Chechnya. What was important was to determine “where they are.”

The problem with this statement, Felgenhauer noted, is that there is absolutely no problem in determining where the separatists are located in Chechnya. “Chechnya,” he pointed out, “is by Russian standards a small republic–160 kilometers long and 80 kilometers wide.” Moreover, “the military actions are not being conducted throughout the entire territory [of the republic]. The mountain third in the south is relatively peaceful… In the barren mountains there is little food, and aviation can reach its targets. And in the even more barren steppes north of the Terek [River], quiet in general reigns.”

Where, then, is the military activity occurring? “In Grozny,” Felgenhauer responds, “and in the thickly settled hilly lowlands region. In the area between the Terek ridge to the north and the foothills of the Caucasus mountains to the south–that is, in a narrow ribbon of territory thirty kilometers wide and sixty kilometers long, extending from Samashki in the west to Kurchaloi in the east. In this zone, there is a pair of forests smaller than Izmailovsky Woods Park in Moscow, and there are bushes here and there. There are also villages and cities.” It is in this territory, “comparable to the size of the city of Moscow,” that separatists are fiercely contesting the 80,000-strong Combined Group of Federal Forces. The concentration of Russian forces in the zone of conflict is 1,000 or more soldiers per square kilometer.

The dilemma for the Russian forces, Felgenhauer went on, “consists in the fact that the separatists are actively supported by a significant part of the populace while, it appears, the overwhelming majority sympathize with them. World experience has shown that, in such a situation, military successes can by themselves resolve nothing.” New fighters emerge to take the place of partisans who are killed.

In an effort to break the ties linking the Chechen resistance to the mass of the population, the Kremlin, Felgenhauer recalled, has for a second year now been spending money on a “normalization” of the economic and political situation in the republic. As the Russian Audit Chamber has reported, these funds often “disappear.” But the situation has in fact somewhat improved, with some pensions being paid, some jobs being created, some refugees returning and so forth. “However, the more thickly settled the populace of Chechnya becomes, the more the human resources of the rebels will increase.” The rebels, too, will inevitably receive a part of the federal funds allocated for Chechnya.

What has happened, Felgenhauer concludes his analysis, is that “a closed circle of violence” has been formed, such as France once faced in the case of Algeria. “If cleansing operations are not conducted, then the rebels grow impudent, but if they are conducted, then the poorly trained, undisciplined soldiers of our unreformed [Russian] armed forces behave themselves so repugnantly and aggressively with the inhabitants that the operations serve only to strengthen the resistance.”

Moving on to the subject of Algeria, Felgenhauer writes: “In its time Algeria was for France, like Chechnya is for Russia, considered to be a part of sovereign national territory and millions of French people lived there. The French forces confidently controlled a majority of the country…. But General Charles de Gaulle–who was no pacifist–understood that, in continuing an endless and hopeless war, France was being transformed into a third- or fourth-rate power, and he decisively withdrew from Algeria, even though they had to evacuate the entire French populace, as well as a large number of Arabs who were adherents of France.”

The situation in Chechnya is similar. “As long as senseless and hopeless attempts to ‘return Chechnya to the political and legal space of Russia’ continue, Russia will never become competitive, and no one will consider her to be a ‘solid and predictable business partner.’ Our country will never be recognized as a full-fledged ally by civilized, wealthy countries, when every day all who wish to do so can see what kind of armed forces we have in reality, and how they are trained and armed.”

The crux of the problem, Felgenhauer summed up bluntly, is that Russia’s present leaders are dim and benighted. “Putin and his team of reformers, it seems, have up till still now not grasped the direct connection between economic growth and the foreign policy authority of a country with the unrealized military reform [of Russia] and the situation in Chechnya. But one who doesn’t get it will have to stay back yet another year in school.”

To conclude, Felgenhauer believes that De Gaulle’s high intelligence and political courage served to rescue France at a time of acute national crisis. Russia, by contrast, does not seem to have a De Gaulle.