By Nabi Abdullaev
The federal forces in Chechnya are now facing a new stage in the military conflict. Trench warfare is coming to an end: Only a few villages in the remote mountainous regions are not yet under formal Russian control. It is just a matter of time before these villages fall to the federal troops, given that Russian air power and artillery are being employed on a large scale against them. But recent events show that this will by no means signal an end to the conflict. Indeed, the struggle between the Chechen separatists and federal forces may become even more desperate and bloody. The recent massacre in Djohar, the Chechen capital, of OMON special police officers from suburban Moscow, the ambushes in Argun and Vedeno canyons, the blowing up of the main gas pipeline supplying Dagestan and Northern Chechnya, are vivid reminders of the fact that now a guerilla war is now truly underway.
In the beginning of March, the rebel field commander Khattab, who is of Jordanian extraction and remains the most irreconcilable of the Chechen warlords, officially declared the beginning of the new phase in the military operation of Gazi-Magomed, who was the spiritual leader of the anti-Russian movement in Dagestan and Chechnya two centuries ago.
Sergei, 27, an officer of the OMON, the Russian Interior Ministry’s elite unit was guarding Gerzel, a Chechen village in the Gudermes region of Chechnya, complained: “As we [the police detachments] take over the villages from the regular army, the attitude of the local Chechens changes. Their politeness and friendliness–which they showed when they asked the federal troops not to bomb them, swearing that they had themselves had swept all of the bandits from their hideouts–has evaporated. These bandits are their own relatives. They just hide their weapons and pretend to be a peaceful population. I never trust them.”
Dmitri, 26, Sergei’s partner added: “We always walk in groups. When we meet the local men, they grin suggestively, and their teenagers look at us they way wolf-cubs would. Sometimes they even dare to spit under our feet. We try not to react these provocations.”
“Are you afraid of them?”
Sergei paused and then sighed: “To tell you the truth, we are.”
The quick and relatively safe–in terms of the human casualties–advance of the Russian troops in Chechnya, especially by the Eastern group, headed by pliable and compromising General Gennady Troshev, can be explained by Troshev’s liberal approach. He tried to cooperate with the Chechen locals and to win them over to his side. The top Russian authorities supported this trend: One of the final laws adopted by the last Russian State Duma was to grant amnesty to the Chechen fighters who gave up their weapons by the end of January 2000. The deadline was later extended to May. Operations by Russian law enforcement agencies against the separatists and their accomplices in villages already under federal control (so-called “zachistkas”) were worthless. The Russian military press-services reported only isolated instances of the hunting rifles and ammunition being discovered.
The fact that the federal forces have no detailed concept for their “antiterrorist operation” in Chechnya is already clear. According to Russian sources, some 100 Russian soldiers were killed in ambushes in Chechnya during the first week of March. These figures, according to one Chechen rebel website (www.qoqaz.net), are vastly underestimated. The same source cites 750 Russian soldiers as killed in that period. Meanwhile, Russian military officials claim the separatists lost up to 1,000 men.
The “information leaks” from the Russian military command regarding developments in Chechnya are contradictory. Military press centers refuse to confirm information that Russian state agencies such as ITAR-TASS and Interfax–not to mention international agencies such as Agence France-Presse–claim to have obtained on the scene or from military intelligence.
Many Russian military officers admit, off the record, that the reason their troops are not safe in federally controlled territory of Chechnya is the poor performance of police and Interior Ministry forces. Their usual refrain: “They cannot handle the situation properly themselves. They call the regular army for help and we have to divert the forces attention from their main targets.”
The fact that the conflict is evolving into a guerrilla war, in which the Chechen rebels pretend to be peaceful peasants during the daytime but attack Russian checkpoints and garrisons at night, will inevitably change the Russian’s military tactics in the republic. Trench warfare is inevitably evolving into a punitive police operation. More than fifty Chechens, for example, were arrested in the Chechen capital of Djohar and charged with participating in the lethal attack on the Moscow OMON. No solid evidence was made public, however. This strategy will certainly lead to a increase in deaths among Chechnya’s civilian population–scanty as it is now–because both Moscow and the troops see this as the social base for the guerrillas.
After every Chechen guerrilla attack the Russian military command promises new, harsher “zachistkas” in Chechen settlements in order to neutralize the possible “fifth column” within them. Such strong measures may worsen the relations between the federal forces and the Chechen “self-rule” structures, even though the latter are puppet like structures set up by Moscow. The psychological tension is bound to increase.
“We are always on the brink of nervous collapse,” said Sergey, the OMON officer. “Sooner or later, somebody’s psyche will not be able cope with it. I am afraid to imagine what will follow.”
Zaira Magomedova, a Dagestani journalist from the independent weekly Novoye Delo, used the same words. “We are always on the brink of nervous collapse,” he said. “What if the separatists conduct their guerrilla operations here, in Dagestan? Or elsewhere in Russia? Remember Budyonnovsk, Kizlyar and Pervomaisk. The terrorists there took hundreds of hostages during the war of 1994-1996 and dictated their will to the Russian [military] command. Today, similar operations are the only way for the Chechen fighters to seize the initiative from the Russians.”
Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.