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Chechnya: Russian Forces Hit Tougher Opposition

As winter draws near, Russian commanders acknowledge that their forces have begun to encounter strong resistance in Chechnya. Journalists remain restricted in their movements, so it is impossible to form a complete picture of the current situation. But reports filtering out of the republic indicate that the seamless phase of Russia's military operation is over. The question is: will Moscow's whole victory scenario begin to unravel?

Prague, 30 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Until this week, Russian television viewers had been fed a steady diet of optimistic news reports from Chechnya. Square-jawed soldiers firing salvos of rocket fire alternated with scenes of grateful villagers, welcoming the Russian advance. Air Force pilots, using laser-guided bombs, were said to be liquidating terrorists while their counterparts on the ground were shown rebuilding schools and distributing pensions in what was described as Chechnya's "newly-liberated" zone.

But on Monday, the Russian evening news broadcast video footage of an altogether grimmer sort. The pictures showed the bodies of an entire Russian reconnaissance patrol, killed in an ambush by Chechen fighters. The attack happened on November 17, and the decision to release the footage appeared to be a sign that the military is preparing Russians for tough times ahead.

There are other indications that Russian forces are being put to the test. Also on Monday, Col. General Georgy Shpak, the commander of Russia's airborne troops, acknowledged that Chechen resistance is "growing day by day."

The very same day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was transferred to Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital with what his aides called suspected pneumonia. But just a few hours before, Russian TV showed him apparently at ease, meeting with his chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin.

Yeltsin has been hospitalized more than 30 times since becoming Russian president and such sudden bouts of illness no longer raise many eyebrows. But as commentators have suggested, the timing this time may be more political than health-related.

It recalls another instance, in December 1994, when Russian forces were advancing on the Chechen capital Grozny. Yeltsin retired for a minor operation on his nose and ended up staying out of public view for several weeks -- leaving the task of delivering the bad news on Chechnya to his government.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Kashin Raduyev reports from Chechnya that yesterday Russian forces were unsuccessful in their attempt to move closer to the strategic town of Argun, east of Grozny. The Russians were forced to retreat and continue bombing from afar -- hitting targets already half-destroyed in past operations:

"Yesterday, the Russian Air Force bombed the regional center of Vedeno and the village of Chereyut, site of the largest cement factory in the Northern Caucasus. The factory was earlier the target of repeated rocket attacks. According to (Chechen) field commander Aris Sultanov, Russian front-line troops attempted to advance closer to Argun yesterday. Intense fighting was reported around the Moskovsky state farm and a local flour mill on the north and northeastern approaches to Argun. But the Russian forces met stiff resistance and were forced to retreat to their previous positions from where they continued their artillery attacks. There is no information on casualties from either side."

The Russian military is continuing intense air, missile, and artillery attacks on Grozny, Urus-Martan and other villages, attempting to seal off routes leading to the Georgian border in the south. But Chechen fighters retook at least one settlement from the Russians.

The Chechen military said their troops retook the eastern village of Noibyora yesterday, which was later confirmed by the Russian military command. The Chechens also reported capturing the village of Novogroznensky. But the Russian command says the settlement has since been taken back.

As Russian human rights advocate and legislator Sergei Kovalyov notes in an interview in this month's Novoye Vremya magazine: "Winning the information war is what counts." So far, Moscow has managed to do so, by keeping a tight lid on information and using the Air Force and long-range artillery to spare its ground troops.

But the fact that negative news from the battlefront is beginning to trickle through indicates the effort may be stalling.

Another indication is Moscow's refusal to allow Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to visit Chechnya. Moscow had agreed to the trip at this month's OSCE summit in Istanbul, but several hours of talks yesterday between Vollebaek and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov yielded no results. Vollebaek left the Russian capital empty-handed, with Russian officials reiterating that Chechnya was an internal matter and in any case, too dangerous to visit.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation and presidential ambitions on the Chechen campaign and has apparently calculated that alienating the West may be a risk worth running, in return for a successful war.

RFE/RL Caucasus analyst Liz Fuller notes also that Putin, by associating himself so closely with the military, may now be hostage to its hawkish commanders:

"Putin's popularity seems to be pegged directly to the military campaign and therefore he risks shooting himself in the foot -- to use another military metaphor -- if he would condone talks on a political settlement of the conflict. But on the other hand, the top echelons of the Russian military, including at least one of the commanders on the ground in Chechnya, have made it very clear that they would not look at all kindly on any attempt by the civilian leadership to try and rein them in at this stage. They want to go for broke and really wipe out what is left of the Chechen resistance."

With oil prices reaching new highs, Russia's economy has received a momentary boost and Putin now has the financial means to continue the war, even without more loans from the IMF.

The influential daily Izvestia today urged Putin to disregard outside pressure and threats to cut off credits. The paper scoffed at Western leaders, writing: "Our soldiers are not battling in the Northern Caucasus to please [U.S. President] Bill Clinton, but to root out terrorism in Russia."

And for now, the military campaign in Chechnya does continue despite western criticism. But bravado aside, analysts agree that any number of factors could find Putin's popularity sliding and the war effort endangered. Should oil prices slump again, the Russian advance remain stalled, or Russian soldiers start perishing in greater numbers, the government may have to find another solution to the crisis in Chechnya.