WAR IN THE CAUCASUS….
In Ingushetia, one of Russia’s smallest and poorest republics, one of every four persons is a refugee. Over 100,000 newly homeless persons have streamed westward into Ingushetia out of Chechnya, fleeing Russian bombs and troops. The 300,000 Ingush cannot cope. Ingushetia’s President Ruslan Aushev expects the number of Chechen refugees to double in the weeks ahead. Another 20,000 Chechen refugees have fled eastward, to Dagestan.
Russian forces, moving far more deliberately in 1999 than they did in the attack of December 1994, claim to have largely completed their occupation of Chechnya north of the Terek river. This is a lowland area, less hospitable to guerrillas than the mountains further south. Some refugees may be forcibly resettled in this region.
The Russian strategy, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid it out last week, is to establish and gradually widen a security zone in Chechnya, using Interior Ministry troops in the van and regular forces toward the rear. All Russian funds for Chechnya, he said, will go into the security zone, where fuel will be supplied, public property maintained and wages and pensions paid. In the rest of the republic, Putin said, there will be no gas, no oil and no money–only bombs to destroy such infrastructure as survived the war of 1994-1996. As winter approaches, the theory goes, the higher living standards in Russian Chechnya should swing the political battle to the Russian side, isolating the guerrillas from the people.
In another contrast with the losing effort of 1994-1996, Russian authorities in Moscow are paying close attention to public relations for domestic and foreign consumption. In every statement, the attack on Chechnya is described as part of a war on terrorism, with the enemy identified as or linked to the still unknown perpetrators of the apartment-house bombings that have killed over 300 Russians in the past two months. More broadly, the enemy is linked to militant Islamic fundamentalism, the force that defeated the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and that continues to foment disorder in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on Russia’s borders. More specifically, the enemy is personified as Osama bin Laden, the easy-to-hate Saudi whom the United States accuses of planning the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Russian leaders describe their military actions in terms that mimic NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia–an aerial assault on military targets and economic infrastructure, with great care taken to avoid civilian casualties.
In the PR campaign, truth and falsehood are fungible commodities. Prime Minister Putin and military leaders say Russian operations are “limited,” directed only at radical field commanders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab and their “Wahabbi” followers. “The Russian government,” Putin said last week, “does not plan to and will not resolve political questions, including questions about the future status of the Chechen republic, with the aid of military force.” When Reuters broadcast what it said was amateur footage of a bus blown up by a tank, with images of the mangled bodies of Chechen refugees, Putin commented, “If there had been such an incident, refugees would not still be fleeing to Russia.”