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Russia: Military Claims Victory, Displays Failings

Since Sunday, Russian armed forces have repeatedly claimed some success in dislodging Islamic rebels who until this weekend held four villages in Dagestan's Botlikh region. However, experts say that the way the problem has been tackled by Russian authorities -- both from a military and information point of view -- represents a failure.

Moscow, 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the two-week deadline given by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to end the Islamic rebel's incursion into Dagestan ran out on Tuesday, Russian authorities had few victories and many blunders to account for.

In a recent example of the existing confusion, the Russian Interior Ministry boasted on Tuesday about the taking of the strategically important village of Tando while the Defense Ministry retorted that it was "too early" to hail victory as long as the infantry hasn't been sent in. Earlier, Russian authorities claimed that they had taken dozens of rebel prisoners in four strategic villages. But the unofficial spokesman for the rebels -- Chechen Movladi Udugov -- retorted that the fighters had withdrawn from all settlements as early as Sunday night and that the Russians were pounding empty villages.

Even the beginning of the conflict was marked by mistakes. When the Russian forces started first large-scale bombings two weeks ago they targeted by mistake their own troops, killing several policemen.

Dmitry Trenin, military analyst with the Moscow-based Carnegie Fund, tells RFE/RL that this confusion is the result of poor command and coordination.

"It's Moscow telling the field commanders to tackle the situation and that's it. There's no political strategy, no one in control of events. And that shows not only in the discrepancies. It also shows in the unnecessary casualties that the Russian forces suffer."

Alexander Goltz, military analyst with the Russian weekly Itogi, says that these contradictions also reflect the pressure of unrealistic expectations endured by generals from above. He writes in this week's issue that at a recent session of the Dagestani government, local authorities literally pounced on Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, complaining that things were going too slowly and that he was too indecisive.

However, military experts agree that Russia's most risky venture in Dagestan is the arming of civilians. According to Russian commercial television NTV, 26,000 Dagestanis have joined militias called to support federal troops by defending their villages from guerrilla raids. Goltz notes that in authorizing the militias, Russia laid its weakness bare by admitting its inability to protect civilians.

The Carnegie Fund's Trenin adds that arming civilians increases the risk of civil war breaking out between rival minorities in Dagestan.

"The problem is that by arming the Dagestanis, they are letting the genie out of the bottle. This incursion by [guerrilla-leader Shamyl] Basayev will [eventually] come to an end. There will be another incursion maybe in Dagestan, maybe elsewhere. [However,] the important thing is that the political situation in Dagestan will take a new turn for the worse."

Trenin says that in Dagestan, there is a "government system which is crumbling away." He says the republic has a "very precarious ethno-political balance which is being eroded." He says authorities are arming a group of people, "thinking that they're gaining new allies against the Chechens, against Basayev." He says that in fact, they are "creating, or helping to create an army [composed] of the different [ethnic groups] which will [later] compete for power in Dagestan."

Still scorched by the disaster of the Chechen campaign, Russian armed forces have tried not to repeat the same mistakes in Dagestan. With mixed results, note military analysts. During the war in Chechnya, Chechens fighters gained in sympathy and coverage by being more open than the tight-lipped Russian military. In order to win the information war this time around, a criticized Russian Press Ministry order forbade Russian media to transmit the rebels' declarations. Arguing that giving the rebels airtime constitutes a crime by calling for the unconstitutional overthrow of the state, they deny setting up censorship.

Most television reports obligingly comply with the new order, transmitting endless footage of media-friendly officers reciting technical details of their operations. At the same time, the Russian military has stuck to their old habits when it came to commenting on reports of unprepared conscripts deployed in the region or elaborating on the casualties on the Russian side.

Also, the military has already been caught disinforming. Last week, they announced that the rebel-leader Khattab had been critically injured along with his interpreter, while a Russian TV channel showed footage of Khattab -- who speaks fluent Russian -- with a small bandage on his wrist.

Trenin explains that this tactic, rich in disinformation, wins few results. He says it does not satisfy the public and actually undermines the military's image.

"They have learnt from Chechnya and indeed from international conflicts like the Gulf War and Yugoslavia that they have to cut out independent sources of information and prevent their enemies from appealing to the public using Russian media. So they've learned part of the game. But not the whole game. They were happy to go back to information blockade tactics. But these work badly with the public." Goltz warns that the Russian armed forces should be wary of making promises they may not be able to keep. Anticipating accusations of using soldiers as cannon-fodder, authorities announced that soldiers deployed in Dagestan would be given a salary similar to the one given to Russian forces in Kosovo -- about $1,000 a month. Goltz notes that this good news is compromised by the fact that "the peacekeepers in Kosovo have not been paid even once" because the extra-budgetary funds are not available.