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Russia: Estimates On Chechen War Costs Questioned

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russia's latest estimate of its cost for fighting the Chechnya war may be only part of its total expense, calling into question the accounting methods used. Correspondent Michael Lelyveld prepared this report.

Boston, 6 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- On Monday, First Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that Russia has spent 6 billion rubles, or about $210 million, on the war in the first three months of this year. But the accounting appears to exclude several costs that would push the real figure considerably higher.

Aside from the human costs, which are incalculable, the Russian estimate appears to ignore even some military spending by the government itself. This week, Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the U.S.-based journal Perspective that Russian troops in Chechnya numbered 93,000 at the end of January, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

In the publication by Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy, Felgenhauer said that the troops in Chechnya "are paid well according to Russian standards (800 rubles per day, or approximately $28)." Based on the pay alone, Russia's cost would have reached 6.7 billion rubles in the first quarter, or more than the 6 billion for the war that the government claimed.

Although Russia may have reduced its troop levels in Chechnya since the end of January, the pay figure cited by Felgenhauer is for contract soldiers and conscripts, not officers, who are likely to be higher paid. At the least, the calculation suggests that the government may be minimizing its estimates.

One possible explanation is that the Kremlin has deducted the costs of maintaining an equivalent force in the absence of war. As a result, it appears to be focusing only on the extra spending that can be directly laid to the war. The pay may also be in arrears.

In January, Kasyanov said that the war during last year cost the government 5 billion rubles, bringing the reported expense so far to about $384 million. Other analysts have argued that the costs are low because many supplies and munitions are surplus or stockpiled items, which may not be replaced.

But the government also has a clear reason to report seemingly low figures. At the current level for the first quarter, the war estimate equals only 2.8 percent of federal spending and about one-half of one percent of Russia's gross domestic product so far this year. Citizens may find this share an acceptable price for subduing the Chechens.

Officials may well see the value of establishing the lowest possible basis for estimates in the public's consciousness now. Last month, the State Duma's parliamentary speaker, Gennady Seleznev, warned that "The presence of Russian troops will last for decades."

But the current figures appear to exclude items that the government may regard as only incidental to the war. The cost of building a bypass oil pipeline around Chechnya, for example, has been estimated at $160 million, a figure that by itself would increase the war's cost since its start by over 40 percent.

The government tally is also unlikely to include the expense of caring for the 214,000 refugees that were counted in Ingushetia last month by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For the damages suffered by civilians, the government appears to be relying on a distinction between cost and loss.

Many other items related to Chechnya may go uncounted, such as the 342 million rubles for spring planting which then-Acting President Vladimir Putin complained last month had been allocated but not delivered.

This is likely to be only a token of the lost agricultural and oil production of Chechnya. That in turn may be only a fraction of its destroyed housing and infrastructure that may never be replaced.

This month, a series of environmental officials in the Russian military have taken pains to blame Chechnya's ecological damage on the territory's illegal refineries, while saying nothing about the effects of the Russian bombing campaign. This may also be a prelude to minimizing the war's longer-term costs.

The low estimates may be a sign that Russia can fight a conventional war more cheaply than the high-tech operation that NATO conducted over Kosovo last year. But it also seems to be a parallel to the underreporting of casualties that Felgenhauer and groups such as the Association of Soldiers' Mothers have charged.

Even if the government can find ways to justify its estimates of the costs, it may find it hard to argue that the war has been affordable in light of the damage it has done.