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Analysis from Washington - Deadlines Military and Journalistic

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - The competing imperatives of military operations and journalistic responsibility have been highlighted this week by Moscow's simultaneous attacks against Chechnya and against Western coverage of its actions there.

As they have throughout the three-month-long campaign, Russian commanders insist that they have conducted their campaign with honor and that they will soon defeat the Chechens. And Russian officials are sharply criticizing both human rights organizations and Western journalists, almost all of whose reports suggest the contrary.

On Tuesday, for example, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev announced yet another "breakthrough" in the war, one that he said would soon bring a Russian victory. And Col. Gen. Valery Manilov, the Russian army's deputy chief of staff, said that "the capture of Grozny is a matter of days," with mopping up operations to take no more than two or three months.

In the past, Russian predictions of a quick and easy victory over the Chechens have not proven true. And outside coverage of the battle of Grozny suggests that Sergeyev and Manilov are probably being overly optimistic in their projections.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said Monday that his forces will defend Grozny to the last man. Ruslan Aushev, the president of neighboring Republic of Ingushetiya, predicted on Tuesday that the battle of Grozny will last a long time because the Chechens "are excellently armed and will resist fiercely."

Western news reports from the front also suggest that Russian forces are facing ever greater resistance and taking ever more losses as they fight their way into Grozny and the mountainous portion of Chechnya. Indeed, Western journalists have quoted Russian officers on the scene to that effect.

And these reports have led ever more Western officials to urge Moscow to begin negotiations, something the Russian government has made clear that it is not going to do anytime soon. Lord Robertson, secretary general of NATO, on Tuesday became the latest such voice to call for talks.

Arguing that any military victories Russian forces might achieve would not solve Moscow's longterm political problems with the Chechens and other minorities in Russia, Robertson said on Tuesday that "what Russia is doing is not only bad in principle ... it is bad in practice."

At the same time, Western human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have their own reporters on the scene and have documented what Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called "serious war crimes committed by Russian troops in the village of Alkhan-Yurt in Chechnya."

Not surprisingly, Russian officials have lashed out at both Western coverage and these conclusions. Last week, they attacked Radio Liberty's reporter Andrei Babitsky for his on-the-spot coverage of the battles. And on Tuesday, in the face of even more criticism, Russian officials stepped up these attacks.

Col. Gen. Manilov said none of the Western claims about Chechnya were "based on reality." And Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin denounced Amnesty International's report as "biased and tendentious" and claimed that its allegations "provoke indignation" in Moscow.

At the same briefing, Rakhmanin said that Georgia has "launched a hostile propaganda campaign against Russia" because Tbilisi has not disassociated itself from what he called "the anti-Russian concoctions" of participants in a recent conference in that country.

And in an action clearly intended to send a signal that Moscow will ignore Western coverage and criticism of its campaign, Russian President Boris Yeltsin awarded a gold hero's star to General Vladimir Shamanov, the officer in command of the Russian unit which reportedly massacred 41 Chechen civilians in Alkhan-Yurt.

In making the presentation, Yeltsin contrasted the Russian army's performance during the 1994-96 war with its activities now. "Of course, there were smaller mistakes, which led to big mistakes" in the earlier campaign, Yeltsin said. "But now the army is behaving excellently."

Another contrast between 1994-96 and now is that during the earlier fighting, the Russian media were extremely critical of what the Russian army was doing in Chechnya. Because of a shift in popular attitudes and because Moscow has been more adept at news management, Russian media have been more circumspect.

But as the fighting has continued and as Russian forces have suffered more casualties, that is beginning to change, and that shift in turn explains both the efforts of the generals to bring the war quickly to a victorious conclusion and of the politicians to denounce any reports which call into question Russian claims.

It is an old observation that in war, truth is often the first casualty. But the events in Chechnya and Moscow's reactions to them show that it is far from the last.