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Russia: Conflict In Dagestan Burdened By Chechen Legacy

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russia's military operations against the Chechen-led rebels in Dagestan have shown little success so far. This week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that is because the Russian military is burdened by guilt about its behavior in Chechnya a few years ago. During that earlier, immensely unpopular conflict, the military was criticized for targeting civilians and for sending untrained Russian conscripts to their deaths. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow looks at how the legacy of the Chechen war is shaping Russia's actions in the current conflict.

Moscow, 9 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The war in Chechnya in the mid-90s provoked widespread criticism from Russian citizens. In responding to the recent Chechen incursions in Dagestan, have Russian authorities been hampered by the fear of a "second Chechnya?"

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin implied as much this week, when he said the situation in Dagestan frees Russia of the weight of past mistakes. In Putin's words: "In liquidating bandits, any delay is intolerable. Russia is defending itself; we were attacked. That's why we should throw off the syndrome of the past years, first and foremost the so-called guilt syndrome."

Evgeny Volk is an expert with the Heritage Foundation in Moscow. He says as the authorities respond to the rebels in Dagestan, they are remembering the mistakes made during the Chechen war. Volk says: "Undoubtedly this is the case, because Chechnya triggered such harsh and critical reactions from Russian society at the time."

During the past several weeks, Russian media have devoted air time and newspaper space to reminding the Russian authorities of the more embarrassing aspects of the war in Chechnya. Drawing parallels to Dagestan, the media are accusing politicians and generals of repeating the mistakes they made in the previous conflict.

For example, Russian media charge that Putin showed unjustified self-confidence last month when he said the Dagestan crisis would be solved in two weeks. Five years earlier, then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had made a similar prediction and then found himself bogged down in a 20-month conflict. Russian media have also repeatedly criticized the army for continuing to send inexperienced and under-equipped draftees into combat.

But Volk says the military's more hesitant approach to the current war is, in his words, "less about a guilt complex than about the politicians' and generals' fear of being held responsible for mistakes." He says: "The war in Chechnya landed part of the army in disgrace. It also resulted in the sacking of several generals, such as Grachev."

In Putin's comments, the prime minister seemed to imply that the "guilt complex" had prevented the armed forces from acting with necessary speed. Volk says that this is partly true. He says: "The fear of being blamed really appeared once the authorities realized, over these past weeks, that the operation wouldn't be quick and would cost lives. So they shove the operations back and forth. And therefore they waste time in indecisiveness."

To many, Putin's words were just a way of saying that Chechnya and Dagestan are entirely different situations. In Dagestan, Putin implied, Russia is entitled to fight all-out, without looking back.

The former head of the Security Council agrees. Ivan Rybkin told RFE/RL that he thinks any doubts the military may have had about its mission have been dispelled by the local response. Rybkin says: "The guilt complex that may have been felt by some generals in Dagestan disappeared when it became clear that, this time, the soldiers had the support of the local population." Rybkin adds, however, that the memory of the difficulties in Chechnya do play some role in shaping Russian actions. He says: "Russian power structures were inoculated with a sort of Chechnya vaccine, which should serve to limit the worst mistakes."

Many analysts say a major mistake of the earlier conflict was allowing the war to become so unpopular. Dmitry Trenin is a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. He says Putin's message that Russia must throw off its feelings of guilt was addressed to Russian society, not to the military. In Trenin's words, "The Kremlin is trying to underline that this war is different from (that of) 1994 to 1996, and that it (this war) is to defend the local population. Of course," he adds, "this position also takes away some of the guilt burden of the Chechen war, since now the Chechens are back in the role of aggressors."

One retired army colonel goes even further. Sergei Yushenkov, now a reformist Duma deputy, was an opponent of the war in Chechnya. But he supports the Russian military in the current conflict. He says, "By invading Russia, the Chechen guerrillas have obliterated any guilt that some generals or politicians might have felt." He adds: "Also, the guerrillas' actions negate all the treaties between Moscow and Grozny. Moscow has the right to bomb Chechnya without any feeling of wrongdoing."

Bombing Chechnya is exactly what the Russian military has been doing. Russia has made several air strikes on targets in Chechnya this week.