The Russians are not doing as well militarily in Ichkeria (formerly the Caucasus republic of Chechenya) as they claim, nor are the Chechen fighters doing as badly as the Russian media reports. What Moscow is clearly winning is the propaganda war, having learnt the important lessons from its former enemies in the west. Russia is waging two wars: one in Ichkeria and the other in Moscow; it is the latter that provides the rationale for the former. Russia’s Caucasus war is also facilitated by the near-total silence from an impotent Muslim world.
The gangsters who rule the Kremlin are involved in a sinister battle to succeed Boris Yeltsin, the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed president of Russia whose premature obituaries have had to be withdrawn several times. Vladimir Putin, appointed prime minister last August and expected to succeed Yeltsin, has found the Caucasus adventure an opportunity to raise his profile and position, but this is a risky undertaking. The Russian army has occupied the northern third of Ichkeria, which is flat; the Chechens could not hold this areas without heavy weapons and armour.
The Chechens are urban and guerrilla-fighters; they hope to draw the Russian army into the capital Johar-Gala (known as Grozny to the Russians, which not surprisingly means ‘a terrible place’, reflecting their experiences there over the centuries), and beyond into the southern Caucasian mountains to give a good account of themselves.
At the time of writing, the Russians have not ventured into Johar-Gala. Their commanders have been making threatening noises, vowing to wipe out the ‘bandits and terrorists’. Only a foolhardy commander would risk such an undertaking if the Russians have learnt anything at all from their experiences of 1994-1996. When the Russian army invaded Johar-Gala in December 1993, the Chechens allowed them to come to within 100 yards of the presidential palace before opening fire. Russian soldiers were mown down like weeds. The Russians have learnt not to repeat the same mistake, relying this time on long-range artillery and massive aerial bombing raids, despite their aggressive words in Moscow.
These have resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and forced 250,000 to flee to neighbouring Ingushetia. This is a humanitarian catastrophe for a small country like Ichkeria (total population 1.3 million), but it has had little military significance. Although Russian soldiers have not had much contact with Chechen fighters, according to their own admission, the army has suffered at least 462 dead and more than 1500 wounded; the true figures may well be much higher. And despite Moscow’s tall claims about eliminating the Chechen fighters, there have been few casualties among them.
Russian soldiers serving at the front present a less rosy picture even if Moscow’s propaganda has lifted the spirits of a dreary public at home who have had so little to cheer about in recent years. According to soldiers’ accounts, the military operation appears less successful, the military less shiny and the long-term prognosis less promising than portrayed by the country’s leadership. Those interviewed by western correspondents have said Russia’s offensive has managed to destroy everything in sight ï except large numbers of guerrillas, who, the soldiers say, move relatively easily through a terrain they know far better than their opponents.
“We have accomplished nothing,” says lieutenant-colonel Alexander Tolmachyov, who works as a military journalist and has spent several weeks in the combat zone. “There are thousands of terrorists there, but by bombing we don’t reach any result. We have dropped enough bombs to destroy five armies, and still, we accomplish nothing” (quoted in the Los Angeles Times, November 22, 1999). Similar sentiments have been expressed by parents of soldiers killed or wounded, who have questioned the wisdom of the entire operation.
Even Russia’s control of the northern third of the country is only partial. At night, the soldiers sit nervously in trenches or tents, fearful that they will be picked off by snipers. Soldiers are underfed and suffer from low morale, which the heavy bombing raids against civilians have done little to improve. They are also are short of gloves, hats, blankets and other warm clothing, essential items during the bitter Caucasian winter.
In this game of cat-and-mouse, the Chechens can afford to wait. In fact, they prefer the winter months as they are familiar with the terrain and can take on the Russians who would be hunkered down in their trenches, not daring to venture out in the bitter cold.
The war has also helped to unite the Chechens, who had become divided since their last victory in August 1996. Having defeated their common enemy, differences emerged over the running of independent Ichkeria; winning the war and then losing the peace is a common enough experience among Muslims. The Chechens, however, should know better since they have been fighting the Russians since 1783, when Imam Mansour had first risen up to challenge the Russian invaders.
The Russians are also driven by greed. There are rich pickings to be made in the Caucasus from oil. By demanding a fair deal themselves, the Chechens have so far frustrated Russian plans to pipe oil from Azerbaijan through their territory to the Russian port of Novorossisk. Ichkeria’s neighbour Dagestan has now acquired an important role in the calculus of oil pipelines. Its joining Ichkeria would, on the one hand, make the Caucasian region much more viable and bring the realization of a Caucasian federation closer, and on the other, spell disaster for Russia. It was this prospect that led to Moscow’s belligerent response to the Chechens’ operations in Dagestan last July and August.
The agreement signed last month before the Organization for Security and Cooperation meeting in Istanbul, to build a pipeline from Baku (Azerbaijan) to Cehan in Turkey via Georgia has sent jitters through Moscow. The Baku-Cehan pipeline is a major blow to Russia’s plans to retain monopoly of energy transportation to the west through its port at Novorossisk. This is also a factor in its new Chechen adventure.
In this new ‘Great Game’, the Muslims of the Caucasus are a dispensable commodity. Under the guise of fighting ‘terrorism,’ Russia has slaughtered or displaced almost a quarter of a million Muslims. One lesson they have clearly learnt from the west is that lives are an acceptable cost of commercial profit.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999