Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 29

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said yesterday that the main phase of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya’s foothills and mountainous regions will begin in two days. The main focus of the operation, he said, will be the Argun and Vedeno gorges, where 5,000 to 7,000 rebel fighters are concentrated. The main forces to be deployed are airborne and marine units, as well as those from the ground forces with experience fighting in mountainous regions. According to Valery Manilov, deputy head of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, some 50,000 troops will remain in the republic for the purpose of completing the operation. There are currently around 100,000 Russian troops in Chechnya (ORT, Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 10).

Fighting is already underway in the republic’s mountains. Russian troops are trying to block Chechen units which managed to escape from the lowlands and the Russian air force has been bombing mountain villages. According to refugee accounts, large numbers of civilians have been killed, and Russian soldiers have been looting and burning homes (Radio Liberty, February 9).

The Kremlin, apparently mindful of the large number of Russian troops lost in Chechnya’s mountains during the 1994-1996 campaign, has decided to change tactics. It is now trying to destroy the rebels mainly from the air. Russian Air Force chief Anatoly Kornukov said that federal aviation will use 500-kilogram and 1.5-ton fuel-air bombs against the guerrillas. According to Kornukov, such ordinance “is not regulated by any conventions.” Fuel-air bombs discharge combustible gas, and the resulting blast and fireball can penetrate narrow mountain crevices (Russian agencies, February 9).

While the Kremlin has begun its military operation in Chechnya’s mountains, it may run into the same problems it encountered during the last war there. In 1995 and 1996, federal forces only formally controlled towns and villages in the lowlands. At night, the rebels attacked Russian check-points deep inside Russian-occupied territory. This history has already begun to repeat itself. On February 9, Chechen fighters hit Russian check-points in Achkoi-Martan (in western Chechnya), in the capital Djohar and even in the village of Chervlenaya (some 25 kilometers north of the capital)–that is, in territory which has been under federal control for more than a month. It is highly likely that federal troops will now be forced to fight on two fronts.