Accessibility links

Russia: War Reports From Chechnya Paint Grim Picture

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Speculation continues about the likelihood and timing of any Russian ground attack against the Chechen capital Grozny. Russian generals insist they will not storm the city and that they are leading a practically casualty-free campaign. But correspondent Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow, together with correspondents Andrei Babitsky and Khasin Raduyev in Chechnya, report that this war may eventually prove to be bloodier than the fighting in 1994-96.

Moscow, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Bombs and artillery are raining down on Grozny. Russian troops are circling in on the Chechen capital, blocking between 50 to 80 percent of its perimeter.

The president of the breakaway republic, Aslan Maskhadov, has called back detachments defending villages to reinforce the defense of the city. Chechens are digging trenches. Everyone is preparing for the federal troops to storm the capital. But Russian generals still deny having any such plans.

From Grozny, RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Khasin Raduyev reports that since several suspected Russian rockets fell on central Grozny last Thursday, the streets are empty. People are cowering at home and slip out only to get food at the market or to get water from nearby wells. He describes the atmosphere in the city as its inhabitants wait for a Russian assault.

"The Russian forces are standing in a half circle around Grozny. The city is being shot at from the ground and from the air without interruption. Some of the houses are burning. Once in a while cars filled with fighters fly by at high speed. A constant flow of refugees is leaving the city. Some of them just had time to grab a bag with bare necessities. Others are taking out all of their belongings on trucks. [They take] even old chairs and small stoves. It is a wretched sight -- the fire engulfing the luxurious villas that were built right after the war. Their owners then thought that the worst was over. Many Chechens are looking at all of this with indifference. It reminds them so much of [the past]. Some are ready to go up into the mountains and wait the war out there. Others are getting their things together to leave Chechnya through the corridor that the Russian military promised [to open for refugees today]."

When Russian forces launched an assault against Grozny on New Year's Eve 1995, the bloodshed and terror shown on television reverberated throughout Russia. Thoughts of a new Russian attack brings those images back to mind.

But for Chechen civilians, this war is already worse than the 1994-96 campaign -- even without a full-fledged assault on Grozny. Leila Gapaeva, a Chechen free-lancer, left Grozny after the Russian rocket attack last Friday. She says the city has no electricity or gas and also no water, since the water pumps need energy to work. She notes that "during the last war the Russians did not turn it all off, there were just cuts once in a while."

Although it may look like Russian troops are preparing to launch a ground assault against Grozny, the generals deny having such plans. Deputy Russian chief of staff, General Valery Manilov, told journalists in New York yesterday there would n-o-t be an assault.

Russian field generals have also appeared on Russian television to say that their troops had not suffered a single casualty in the past few days. The claim is impossible to verify independently. It is also likely aimed at a Russian public with memories of the many coffins holding young Russian soldiers during the last war.

Russian officers also stress the apparent success of their forces, who have managed in the course of a month to penetrate all the way to the Chechen capital. They present this as proof that they have learned from the last war and will not, as the Russian saying goes, "walk on the same rake twice".

According to Dmitry Trenin, military analyst with the Carnegie Fund, the decision whether or not to storm Grozny will be the test. He tells RFE/RL that "if the Russian generals really did learn the lessons from the first war as they claim, then they will not turn Grozny into a Berlin." He adds "they will not aim to plant a Russian flag on some building."

Trenin says that if the Russian military has learned from the recent past, they will instead "block the city and bomb it from the air. And they will wait until spring." He says this would take advantage of the Russian military's strengths -- warplanes and artillery. Trenin says this would also take account the advantages of Chechen forces -- "knowing the place, and their support in the cities."

However, RFE/RL correspondent and Caucasus expert Andrei Babitsky, who left Chechnya last weekend, says he believes the Russian army is planning an assault. He says "the generals have the feeling that the last victory was stolen from them [by politicians]. This time they convinced authorities that they can take measures. Their hands are untied, they have enormous powers."

But Babitsky notes the Russian army has also adapted its tactics. He says in the previous war Russian troops would advance in columns to a settlement and storm it. Now they are sending a few ahead to clear the way, plant mines everywhere, destroy as much as possible through artillery and bombings of villages from a distance.

Babitsky warns that in fact this war may turn out to be a lot more bloody than the previous one. He says that by learning from their past mistakes, both Chechen fighters and the Russian army have actually prepared for a more lethal war than in 1994-1996.

And Babitsky notes that despite the claims of Russian military successes, they are in fact facing more resistance in the north this time. He also says the Chechens appear to have more fighters, perhaps 20 or 30 thousand. Babitsky notes that there is a whole generation which was too young to participate in the last conflict, but who are now old enough. And, he notes, "they grew up on hate."

Raduyev, RFE/RL's permanent correspondent in Grozny, offers a similar analysis. He says the very systematic Russian bombings have not keep a single village safe, even those high up in the mountains. Therefore, he says, people have no place to flee and are ready to take up arms.

"No one needed Khattab or [Shamil] Basayev to call on a holy war. The Russians did the job themselves. That is the difference with the first war. Then, there was always a respected mullah or leader on television who called everyone to take up arms to defend their homeland. Few followed. There were few weapons and no desire to fight. The Chechen resistance became more experienced as the war followed its course, and acquired ammunition and arms and means of communication, etc. Now [the fighters] already have all that and the experience to fight the Russian attack planes and bombers."

Babitsky explains that in fact, far from being desperate, the Chechen fighters are looking forward to a Russian assault against their capital.

"Fighting in the city is [awaited] like a party gift by those whom we call fighters. The ordinary Caucasian bravado accounts for a lot of this mood. [But] the Chechens don't really understand that the Russian forces will act differently than in the last campaign and that they plan to eradicate block after block [in Grozny before the assault]. And the federal forces don't realize that there are a lot more Chechen fighters this time than last."

Raduyev reports that Chechen field commanders are not fighting to win because they realize that the Russians, who control the airspace, will be stronger in the end. He says that their strategy is to force the Russians to accept negotiations by changing Russian public opinion. Raduyev says Chechen commanders believe the only way to do that is to inflict "a massive amount of casualties on Russian soldiers."