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1999 In Review: In Chechnya, The War Resumes

  • Sophie Lambroschini

As fighting in Chechnya intensifies, lessons from the past suggest it is improbable that the current Russian military campaign will bring peace to the North Caucasus. In this year-end report, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the buildup to this year's renewal of fighting in the breakaway republic and at what may lie ahead.

Moscow, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As 1999 draws to a close, Russian forces are meeting stiff resistance as they attempt to gain control of Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. But with some 100,000 soldiers and planes carrying out massive daily airstrikes, it seems likely that Grozny will fall -- if not this week, then soon.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who has spent years reporting from Chechnya, suggests that even if Moscow wins the current military campaign, it will likely face years of fighting. Babitsky provided this recent analysis:

"The war in Chechnya will [continue] in particular conditions. Indeed federal forces, especially such a powerful one, can crush the Chechen resistance for a while. But the people who understood that it doesn't make any sense for them to confront such a force with arms, [might] go back to their homes and hide for a while. I'm describing the most radical elements. They can hide their arms and wait for their time to come in a year, a year and a half, two years. And then they [can] regroup and start the war again. In any case there's no end to this war. In my opinion the war in Chechnya is a senseless and empty venture. The children will give weapons to their sons from one generation to the next. The partisan war won't end because of Russia's state at the end of the twentieth century where [they don't have the] powerful repression apparatus the communists [had]."

The current Russian military campaign shows little resemblance to the 1994-1996 war, when authorities in Moscow were endlessly switching between military offensives and half-hearted peace talks. This time, Russia's military and political leadership appear more determined.

Over the last half of 1999, there has also been a huge change in the Russian public attitude toward Chechnya. Only last Spring, Russian President Boris Yeltsin narrowly escaped impeachment over the previous, disastrous Chechen war. In March, polls showed that over two-thirds of Russians were opposed to any new war in the region.

However, at first slowly, tensions increased during 1999.

First, a series of high-profile kidnappings in the Caucasus humiliated Moscow by exposing its apparent helplessness. But when then interior minister Sergei Stepashin threatened targeted air-strikes against Chechen bases unless a kidnapped Russian general was freed, other officials hurriedly scaled down the war-rhetoric.

During the year, economic issues such as the control of -- and revenue from -- energy pipelines crossing Chechnya also soured relations between Moscow and Chechen officials.

Adding to the tension, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who survived unscathed the most recent of several assassination attempts this year, was losing ground to more extreme warlords. Some analysts say the fact that Russia did not honor pledges of reconstruction aid further radicalized the anti-Maskhadov opposition in Chechnya.

For many months, the Russian government tried to "cordon off Chechnya" while avoiding any discussion of its ultimate political status. The attempt at isolation failed. And Chechen warlords and criminals remained free to roam between Russia and Chechnya.

The slow build-up toward a renewed war accelerated after Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev led incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in August. The incursions came with the stated aim of separating Dagestan from Russia.

But the key turning point in changing Russian public opinion came with the bombing of four apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. Moscow blamed Chechen warlords -- a charge the Chechens have denied. But for Russians, the turmoil in the North Caucasus had been brought violently into their midst. And for many, any idea of tolerating Chechen independence was swept away.

The Deputy Minister for Federation and Nationalities Issues, Kim Tsagolov, spoke recently in Moscow at the Russian Information Center, the press-center officially created by the government in the Fall. Tsagolov listed the reasons why Moscow can n-o-t give up any part of the North Caucasus.

"[First] the Caucasus is the strategic gateway to the south. There's no way we can leave the North Caucasus. Second -- the Caucasus has enormous potential for natural resources. Third -- the Caucasus is one of main areas with demographic potential [and] the population of Russia is falling. Fourth -- Russia and the Caucasus are linked by [common] roots, in the sphere of family and cultural relations."

According to Tsagolov, Chechnya has also become a stage upon which Russia must seek to turn back the tide of its waning global geopolitical standing. In remarks that could be seen as an indication of the degree to which the current military campaign has strained ties with the West, Tsagolov also claimed that the fighting in Chechnya is the result of a U.S. plan to undermine Russia.

"Russia -- the inconsolable widow of the perished Soviet Union -- What a poetic image [of what is happening]... This is it -- [an attempt] to drive Russia out of the Caucasus bridge-head is underway. Russia is participating in this confrontation between world powers in disadvantageous conditions. But in spite of this, we must defend our position on the Caucasian bridge-head. [In a secret meeting] the president of the United States said that [they] fulfilled the first stage, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Now the second stage is [to] break up Russia into small states."

In addition to all the military and international consequences, the new war in Chechnya is also fundamentally affecting Russia's domestic politics.

So far, the war seems to be serving the Kremlin's agenda for next June's presidential election, which is to make Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Yeltsin's successor. Before the renewal of the war in Chechnya, Putin's chances seemed slight. Now, with what is seen as his tough and decisive manner over Chechnya, Putin holds the lead in the unfolding presidential race. Events in Chechnya may yet change that.