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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Chechenization

Washington, 8 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian military commander in Chechnya has called for Chechens to take over the fighting against the insurgents, a move that might reduce Russian casualties and thus political pressure to end the war but also one that could point to the future defeat of pro-Moscow forces there.

Speaking to the Russian media on Tuesday, Colonel-General Gennady Troshev said that Russian politicians "start[ed] the war and should -- and must -- end it." And the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya added that the best way to do so quickly would be to create a Chechen government that would continue the struggle against those he called "terrorists."

Troshev's proposal reflects growing concern in both the Russian military and the Russian government that rising Russian casualty rates will sap public support for the nine-month-long military effort in Chechnya and force Moscow into political concessions, just as popular anger against such losses did at the end of the Russian-Chechen conflict in 1996.

In recent months, many of the same groups -- human rights activists and the Soldiers' Mothers Committees -- have again raised their voices against continuing the war, and the international community, most recently during U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Moscow, has called for a political settlement of the conflict.

But Troshev's proposal seems certain to raise questions about whether the Chechenization of this conflict would in fact work. Or would such a policy, as the U.S.-sponsored Vietnamization program did in Southeast Asia a generation ago, simply open the door to the collapse of Russian power in Chechnya?

No one in Moscow can be encouraged by recent developments. The Russian authorities have had to disarm supposedly pro-Moscow Chechen units lest the latter go over to the pro-independence Chechen fighters. Moreover, Moscow has had to distance itself from ever more Chechen leaders with whom it earlier thought it could cooperate.

And consequently, turning the war over to Chechens who say they support Moscow now not only might encourage the pro-independence forces to step up their fight but also lead a new, nominally pro-Moscow Chechen government to make compromises with pro-independence groups that no Russian politician could.

Precisely because such outcomes appear so likely, Troshev's comments this week point to three larger issues.

First, Troshev's proposal calls attention to the increasing war weariness of the Russian military which cannot defeat its opponent except at losses commanders increasingly are unwilling to sustain.

Since the bombing campaign ended, Russian forces have moved into southern Chechnya, a mountainous region where Chechen defenders have enormous tactical advantages over Russian attackers because the latter cannot bring to bear their technological advantages over the Chechens.

Second, Troshev's call suggests that he and other Russian military commanders are now ever more prepared to challenge the policies of President Vladimir Putin. Having been one of his greatest backers in the past, the Russian army -- or at least some of its leading commanders -- may now be prepared to demand that he make some concessions to them.

Such willingness on the part of commanders is the unintended consequence of Putin's ever more obvious reliance on the security agencies and especially his appointment of generals to head many of the new federal districts he has created.

Putin can counter this only by either turning away from the security forces as such or attempting to play the non-military security agencies against the military, a move that would inevitably trigger memories of the Soviet use of the secret police against the army.

And third, Troshev's proposal -- or at least the apparent reasons behind it -- suggests that the Russian people are not prepared to commit to a long war in the northern Caucasus, however much support they may have shown for the campaign initially.

As a result, Troshev's call for Chechenization this week may generate the two things he clearly most wants to avoid: ever greater opposition to the war among Russians and an ever greater willingness by the Chechens to continue the fight.