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Russia: Strategy In Chechnya Is Still Unclear

The Russian military has announced that the second stage of the Chechen campaign has begun. But contradictory statements still leave Russians in the dark about just what the "second stage" means. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talks to military officials and Radio Liberty correspondents about whether the campaign is going to be a long-term blockade or a full-fledged offensive.

Moscow, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian army announced over the weekend that the second stage of what it calls the "special anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya was about to begin. Describing the campaign in terms of stages gives the impression that the Russian strategy has been carefully planned, step by step. Yet no one seems to know what the Russian troops are planning to do next.

The commander of the operations in Chechnya, General Viktor Kazantsev, spoke to an RFE/RL correspondent in North Ossetia today. Kazantsev said that the first stage of the Russian campaign ended with the establishment of a security zone in the northern plains of Chechnya, isolating the rest of the region. He said it is now up to the Interior Ministry to establish peace and order.

Meanwhile, Russian troops have crossed the Terek River into Chechen-controlled territory, and are advancing in the direction of the Chechen capital Grozny. The immediate objective of that advance is unclear.

Will the Russian army pursue the offensive until the Chechens capitulate? This scenario, reminiscent of the 1994-96 war, would probably entail the storming of villages and of Grozny, following air strikes. In the previous war, such tactics cost many lives and brought no clear victory.

Or will Russia play out the blockade strategy, slowly and patiently smothering Chechen resistance? In that scenario, the army would maintain a cordon around the region and limit offensive actions mainly to air raids, with little ground troop involvement.

The Russian government says it is pursuing the blockade strategy. In an interview on Russian television last night, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that to minimize loss of lives, both military and civilian, the operations in Chechnya will not be "rushed." He added that there wouldn't be any large-scale military action or mass attack.

Asked what his objective was, Putin answered with what has become the government's standard response. He said the final aim in Chechnya is the "destruction of the terrorist bases."

But the government statements are at odds with the movements of Russian ground troops over the weekend. According to both Chechen and Russian officials, some Russian troops are just 20 kilometers from Grozny, well inside the Russian-controlled Terek region.

Russia bombed what it said were strongholds of Chechen fighters in villages and towns near Grozny today. And RFE/RL's correspondent in Chechnya, Khasin Raduyev, says that the Russian army is deployed on hills near Pervomayskoe, a village northwest of Grozny. Those hills are within sight of the Grozny suburbs, where much of the oil industry is located. These factors would seem to imply that the military is preparing an assault on the city.

General Kazantsev says that Russia is not planning an assault on Grozny, saying the city has no strategic value. In his words, "What do we need that place for?"

But the commander of the 30,000 Interior Ministry troops active in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Ovchininkov, is much more vague. Asked on Friday whether Russian forces would occupy all of Chechnya, Ovchinikov said this: "If the decisions that have been made won't be corrected...if they let (us) finish what has been started, then we will solve (our) task."

RFE/RL's Andrey Babitsky, an expert on the Caucasus, has been in Chechnya for the past ten days. He reports that, from the field, it looks like Russian authorities haven't yet settled on one single strategy.

The different Russian generals commanding in Chechnya are giving out very different signals, Babitsky notes. General Gennady Troshev, who commands the eastern front, is telling Chechen villages that he comes in peace with humanitarian aid.

But General Shapanov, a veteran of the first Chechen campaign, opposes peace talks and tells villagers that he will enter their towns and destroy the Chechen bandits without mercy.

Babitsky believes Russian authorities may be leaning toward the strategy of full-blown war. The Finance Ministry has confirmed that the budget cannot support a long-term military operation. Maintaining an effective sanitary cordon would be very expensive. In addition, many generals seem to be personally inclined to launch an all-out attack, out of a need for revenge for losing the last war.

Perhaps most compelling, Russia's occupation of the northern part of Chechnya took place with apparent ease. That could inspire the military to go further.

Russia says its military strikes against the breakaway province of Chechnya are aimed at the Chechen Islamist forces that led raids on Dagestan in August. Russia blames the militants for a series of apartment bombings in Moscow.