The Ichkerian capital Jauhar-Ghala (called Grozny by the Russians) was effectively under siege again as Crescent went to press. It had been subjected to repeated air and missile attacks in the previous few days, in which hundreds of people had been killed and thousands left homeless. People were preparing for the possibility of another Russian assault on the city, with many trying to leave the city. Government and other forces were fighting Russian troops north of the city, although it was not yet clear whether the Russians were actually planning a ground-assault.
In the largest single Russian attack, at least 140 civilians were killed on October 21, in a massive explosion in Jauhar-Ghala’s central market place. Russia finally admitted responsibility for the explosion the next day, after contradictory claims and denials from various parts of the government and military. The final version seemed to be that Russian special forces had carried out a mission on what they claimed was an ‘illegal’ arms market. Russia denied that aircraft or missiles had been involved in the operation.
However, this was only the largest of numerous incidents in Jauhar-Ghala and surrounding areas as the Russians appeared to be preparing for a second phase of their latest invasion of Ichkeria. Over 200 people were killed in different attacks on towns over the next two days, and on October 24, three more major attacks were reported: an air raid on the town of Serzhen-Yurt in the south east of the country, a missile strike on Vedeno, also in the south east, and shelling in Samashki, in the west of Ichkeria, which had also been the site of some of the Russians’ most appalling atrocities during the 1994-96 war. At least 60 people were killed in these three incidents alone, which were just some of those reported.
Russia occupied the northern third of Ichkeria (north of the Terek River) early this month, after a series of offensives that began in mid-September, apparently as an extension of Russian operations in neighbouring Dagestan. They have since consolidated that territory ï although Chechen mujahideen are still operating there ï and also extended their operations south of the Terek, mainly by air attacks, but also on the ground in places. As in the last war, they seem to be through the country attacking roads, railways and communications links. By mid-October, Ichkeria was largely cut off from neighbouring countries.
The question which arises is whether the pressure on Jauhar-Ghala is the precursor to a full-scale attack on the city, or whether the Russians will stop short of trying to fight the Chechens in the streets. The Russians inflicted suffered horrific damage on Jauhar-Ghala, and suffered massive losses themselves, in the winter of 1994-95, as they launched the 1994-96 war with a direct attack on the city. The battle supposedly began as an operation by pro-Russian Chechens, with the Russians denying involvement. By December 1994, Jauhar-Ghala was being heavily bombarded. Yeltsin sent troops in on December 11, and called a sham cease-fire a few days later to allow his troops to regroup.
In breach of the cease-fire, Russia then launched a full-frontal attack on December 31, sending hundreds of tanks into the capital’s narrow streets. The city’s population ï soldiers and civilians, men and women ï fought back bravely, destroying dozens of tanks and reducing the Russian infantry to house-to-house fighting in the suburbs. Despite massive and indiscriminate artillery bombardments and air raids on all parts of the city, the Russians were thrown back within three days, having failed to capture either of the city’s two key centres, the presidential palace and the railway station.
They returned determined to take the city, fighting through the streets one by one and apparently indifferent to the losses they were suffering. The city was finally captured on January 19, but not before Boris Yeltsin’s ‘small victorious war’ had become a major international humiliation. Over the next 18 months, the Russians struggled to control the country, and were comprehensively and consistently out-thought and out-manoeuvred by Chechen guerrillas under the inspired leadership of Jauhar Dudayev. (The capital was named Jauhar-Ghala in Dudayev’s honour after the war.) Even Russians in Jauhar-Ghala itself could not consider themselves safe from unexpected and effective attacks, and the city was retaken with ease by Chechen forces in 1996, forcing the Russians to accept peace.
That peace, however, was never likely to last, as the Russians were determined to avenge their humiliation and prevent Ichkeria from genuinely seceding from the Russian empire. The question now is whether the Russians are stupid enough to make the same mistake again, particularly in attacking Jauhar-Ghala, which will inevitably have appalling consequences for both sides. The problem is that politicians in Moscow have no record of concern for the lives of their own troops, let alone of civilians regarded as enemies.
The Russians are already suffering far greater losses than they expected when they began the latest invasion, and pressure is building within Russian, particularly among soldiers’ families, for a halt to the offensive. There is also political pressure, from the leaders of Ingushetia, Dagestan, Georgia and other states in the region who fear the consequences of a drawn-out and bloody conflict in the Caucasus as a whole.
There are also political signs that the Russians may be planning to secure the north of Ichkeria and not try to capture the rest of it. On the other hand, the Russians have moved to establish a semi-political administration under military control in the area of Ichkeria north of the Terek, which they control, and have prepared a pro-Moscow political leadership to takeover in Jauhar-Ghala once it is captured.
The Russians’ military preparations and strategy to date seems to point to an attack on Jauhar-Ghala soon, in what Moscow politicians may see as an attempt to end its Chechen problem. However, the Chechens have been fighting the Russians in one way or another for over two centuries now, and events of the last few years have fired their aspirations to true independence more than warn them of the risks of fighting Russia. Russia may be too big an enemy for the Chechens to destroy for once and for all; but the Chechens are too determined and too flexible an enemy for the Russians to destroy them either, no matter how much damage they inflict and how many Chechens they kill. If the Russians make to mistake of invading Jauhar-Ghala, both sides are liable to be in for a long hard winter indeed.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1999