The Second Chechnya War

Boris Kagarlitsky

IN THE EAST there is a proverb: “Don’t brag when you’re on your way to war.” Vladimir Putin’s generals have obviously never come across it.

The Chechens undoubtedly planned on eventually abandoning Grozny. While Grozny could not be surrendered without a fight, no one would have set out to hold it at any price. The Chechens’ primary aim is to keep Russian forces relatively confined and immobile, while causing them continual, debilitating losses.

Daily, the Russian state media outlets boast of the deaths of thousands of Chechen fighters. Quieter reports tell of aircraft bombing friendly troops and organizational chaos.

The second Chechnyan war began with a saturation media campaign, to the refrain of “we will not repeat the mistakes of 1994.” Then, General Grachev’s strategy had been to make a single thrust into Grozny in the shortest possible time. He aimed to smash the Chechen militias and their political structures before they could organize partisan resistance.

Militarily, the 1994 plan made sense but its execution was inept. The assault on Grozny failed and became a lengthy siege of the city. This allowed General Dudayev, the then-Chechen president (later killed in a Russian assault—ed.), to prepare a base for protracted resistance in the mountains of southern Chechnya. The Russian army was sucked into a drawn-out war they could not win with the resources available.

After the war, the generals convinced themselves that the defeat was caused by government irresolution and popular hostility. They concluded that before relaunching the war, they would need unanimous support from political elites and silence from the critics.

The second Chechnyan war has seen the lessons of NATO’s Kosovo campaign interpreted in Russian fashion. The population has been swamped with propaganda. Opponents of the war have been denied access to the mass media or intimidated into silence.

Despite this, polls indicate that Russian support for the conflict is far from universal. But the image of the courageous Chechen fighter battling the despised Yeltsin regime has faded too, and apathy reigns. Since Chechnya gained effective independence in 1996, prominent field commanders have turned into criminal bosses, closely linked to the worst elements of the Russian elite.

At one point, the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told journalists of field commanders whose mobile phone bills were being paid by Moscow oligarch Boris Berezovsky. For big-time Russian criminals, the existence of a territory within Russia’s nominal boundaries but outside the control of the state, has created phenomenal opportunities.

The republic has provided a sanctuary for operations including: contraband, money-laundering, drug-running and kidnapping. Even Maskhadov’s friends understand that he is quite powerless against these forces.

Over the 1990s, the brazenness of Chechen bandits, and their supposed fascination with explosives, became part of Russia’s political folklore. When a series of urban apartment bombings claimed some 300 Russian lives in early autumn, Chechens were automatically blamed. Despite the lack of any proof, tanks then rolled over the Chechen border.

Behind the War

The notion that the invasion was aimed at thwarting crime and rooting out terror, however, is naive. For Russia’s elite, the fact that Chechnya is a criminal haven is not necessarily cause for attacking it. The fact that it is nominally Russian, and outside Moscow’s control, is.

Chechen independence has been an advertisement for the feebleness of the Kremlin’s authority. As Yeltsin’s fortunes waned over the summer, the attractions of a show of force in Chechnya increased.

By summer, Yeltsin’s political supporters, the people who might keep the “family” (the corrupt circle surrounding Yeltsin, including his relatives—ed.) out of jail, were clearly unelectable.

The need was pressing for another made-to-order crisis that would facilitate the introduction of censorship to “consolidate” the nation around the regime. When “Chechen” bombs began demolishing Russian apartment buildings, the fit with the regime’s political needs was almost too perfect.

For Western governments who trumpeted outrage at Serb atrocities in Kosova, Russian actions in Chechnya have always been a delicate matter. The Russian authorities’ conclusion that their Western friends would stick with them through another Chechnya campaign, no matter the body count, appears to have proved accurate.

Western leaders, after all, expressed a distinct lack of indignation during the slaughter of 1994-1996. The problem for Russia and the West is that a repeat of that debacle is all but certain.

Grachev’s strategy in 1994 was correct in textbook terms, but the one adopted in 1999 is not even that. The army has moved slowly to Grozny, without involving itself in major battles.

The Chechen fighters “forced out” from their positions by artillery and air strikes have only retreated. This allows the army to claim victories and advance, but the Chechen formations have withdrawn in good order.

The Chechens have not seriously tried to hold a front according to the rules of the first and second world wars. They are conducting a partisan struggle aimed at slowing the Russian advance, and making it costly. One suspects that the Russian strategy which allows this is dictated more by fear of the enemy than subtle planning.

1812 in Reverse

The Russian generals conducting the campaign have obviously not read the works of Mao and Guevara on guerilla war. But in military academy, they must have studied the 1812 campaign in which the Russian army defeated Napoleon.

The French moved slowly into Russia, while the weaker Russian armies under Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov slowly retreated, avoiding a decisive battle. After the French had captured Moscow and declared themselves victorious, partisan warfare began throughout the entire territory they had occupied. Abandoning a burnt-out and uninhabitable Moscow, the French emperor fled.

The key difference with the present Chechen situation is that Napoleon understood enough to try to force the Russians into an all-out battle. Today’s Russian generals are scared to risk anything more than a skirmish.

Even successes like the capture of Grozny will not affect the overall course of the war. Because of the slowness of the federal forces, defending the city was less important for the Chechens in 1999 than even in 1994.

The army appears to think it will be hard for the Chechens to spend winter in the mountains, even though Dudayev’s relatively ill-prepared partisan units survived two winters there. No one is considering how the Russian army itself will cope with the Chechen winter.

The military supply system is in a decrepit state, far worse than in 1994, and in precise analogy with Moscow in 1812, a burnt-out Grozny will not provide winter quarters for a huge army.

So far, Russian forces have avoided population centers but they cannot spend the winter in the open, nor can they retreat. Chechen fighters will return as soon as they depart. Consequently, Russian forces must remain indefinitely, trying to control every village. They have neither the military strength nor financial resources for this.

Chechnya and the Russian Left

Three years of independence have left the Chechen population bitterly disappointed. Dudayev promised them prosperity, democracy, secularism and socialism. By 1999, the Chechens had been delivered poverty, chaos, religious extremism and a dictatorship of corrupt warlords.

However, the Kremlin’s assumption that by comparison, Russian rule will seem benign is mistaken. Chechens recall the nightmare of the 1994 Russian invasion as the precursor to the outrages that followed.

Meanwhile, the racism and corruption of the Russian forces, along with the chaos they have visited on refugees, will probably alienate many Chechens who might otherwise have felt sympathetic.

The rocketing of marketplaces, bombing of refugee columns and other “technical errors” will again make Chechen fighters seem like heroes. This will be even more so as new Chechen field commanders quickly emerge, free of responsibility for the mayhem wrought by their predecessors.

Moscow can not rebuild Chechnya or create jobs, it can only continue the destruction. In practice, Chechnya’s young will find their vocation shooting at targets dressed in Russian army uniforms.

The failure of the second Chechnya campaign will become obvious by spring. There are a number of possible scenarios, ranging from an agonizing, ruinously expensive war against “invisible” partisans to total rout of the army and disintegration of the command structure, as happened to the French in 1812.

Revolution and reform in Russia often begin with lost wars, and the present Chechnya campaign may well repeat the pattern. The unanimous support given by Russia’s politicians to the war means that a deep political crisis will follow military defeat.

A Chechen victory could act as a pivot for social consciousness, radicalizing large numbers and inspiring protest. Or Russian society, which has meekly endured many humiliations, may reconcile itself to this one as well.

Whatever the case, Russian generals are continuing to arrogantly march into the traps that have been set for them. The denouement will be bloody and convulsive, accompanied by calls for a broad suppression of dissent to allow the crusade against “terrorism” to be redoubled.

On the left, there must be no equivocating: the Chechens have the unconditional right to independence. Russian leftists face a dual challenge: even before taking the antiwar fight to the government, we must wage a sharp political struggle to secure our own forces to resist chauvinist disorientation.

This task will not be made easier by the fact that there is only one progressive thing about today’s Chechen leaders: that for fleeting reasons they are heading a struggle with a liberating dynamic; that for contradictory reasons, they are fighting against people far more dangerous to the international working class than they are themselves.

ATC 85, March-April 2000