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Russia: Analysis -- Moscow's Options In Chechnya

The Russian leadership is still undecided about how to defuse the threat posed by Chechen radicals. RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller analyzes the range of options for Russia, from launching a massive ground attack to dividing the province in two.

Prague, 28 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The recent Chechen-led invasions of Dagestan have provoked a strong response from Moscow. Troops have massed on the Dagestan-Chechen border, and air strikes on Grozny have caused thousands of Chechens to flee to Ingushetia. But Russia still must decide what to do about the continuing threat from the Chechen field commanders who led the Dagestan raids, Shamil Basaev and Khattab.

In military terms, there are four options. First, Moscow could launch a massive ground offensive, as was the case in December 1994. Second, it could intensify the aerial bombardment of Chechen targets, which Russian officials still insist is directed not against the civilian population but only against what it calls the "guerrillas." Third, it could send its own commandos into Chechen territory to wipe out the most influential Chechen field commanders. And fourth, it could opt for a division of Chechnya, attempting to bring the northern, lowland region under its control while continuing massive air strikes against Grozny and the mountainous south.

The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted last week that preparations for a full-fledged ground war could not be completed before the weather turns bad in the next four to six weeks. The newspaper also noted that it is politically inexpedient to launch such a war in the run-up to the December elections to the State Duma. But Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said recently that a ground operation cannot be ruled out. He said there are several possible variants of such an operation, which would attempt to "eliminate bandits" and create a "security zone" around Chechnya.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ruled out the ground offensive option "for the time being." He said: "If, in order to eliminate the base of terrorism, we have to use special forces, then we will do so, but very, very, accurately." That statement could be construed as Moscow's favoring the third option of targeting the commanders.

The newspaper "Izvestiya" quoted an unnamed Russian military officer as saying that targeting the commanders is the most logical option. The officer said operations to eliminate specific field commanders were planned more than once during the 1994-1996 Chechen war but had invariably been called off under pressure from unidentified politicians in Moscow.

Russian Air Force Commander Anatolii Kornukov has ruled out the second option of intensifying aerial bombardment. He said Russia will not resort to carpet-bombing to destroy Chechnya's infrastructure. The United States has also made clear its opposition to indiscriminate air strikes, calling on Moscow to try to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Moscow's choice of military tactics will hinge on its plans for administering Chechnya once the guerrilla threat is neutralized and some semblance of order restored. With regard to those plans, the choice is more limited: Moscow can either continue to support President Aslan Maskhadov or select a puppet head of a government in exile.

Having initially advocated a government in exile, Putin last week appeared to retreat from that position, saying that if Moscow decides on negotiations, President Maskhadov is the only possible interlocutor. But yesterday, Putin said Maskhadov must first express condolences to the relatives of the more than 300 victims of the apartment bombings in Moscow, Buynaksk and Volgodonsk. The Russian authorities claim that Chechen terrorists were responsible for those attacks, but they have offered little evidence.

If Moscow is confident that most Chechens support Maskhadov rather than Basaev and Khattab, then the most logical course of action would be the fourth military option: seeking to divide Chechnya into a northern zone that would be governed either by Maskhadov or another Moscow appointee, and a southern zone that would be subjected to repeated bombardment in attempt to annihilate the offending field commanders. It is in the south that Chechnya's oil is located, and that oil is a significant source of funding for the guerrillas' operations.

That option would require deploying more Russian troops in Dagestan, because the field commanders would try to withdraw there to escape Russian bombing. It would also require intervention sooner rather than later to minimize the damage inflicted on northern Chechnya as well as to alleviate the alienation and bitterness of the population of the northern region.