Russia's Rubicon Crossed

In crossing the Terek river, Moscow seems to be heading for a full-scale war in Chechnya, and neglecting many of the lessons from its previous defeat.

Russia's Rubicon Crossed

In crossing the Terek river, Moscow seems to be heading for a full-scale war in Chechnya, and neglecting many of the lessons from its previous defeat.

Friday, 22 October, 1999
In mid-October, Chechnya's Terek river became the Rubicon for Russia's military commanders and politicians. And then they crossed. Fighting seems likely only to intensify. Russian aircraft continued to target suspected guerrilla positions immediately south of the Chechen capital, Grozny, while Russian combat units are now in a position to advance on the city from the North.

Russian military officials have acknowledged that they carried out an attack on a market in Grozny on October 21. Chechen officials say a maternity hospital and a mosque were also hit by explosions. According to correspondents in Grozny, emergency workers have confirmed that more than 100 people were killed.

With Russian Army forces operating in the northern Caucasus, from positions fortified since the start of their offensive against Chechen guerrillas in August, Russian leaders were confronted with a crucial decision: Should they consolidate on the northern bank of the Terek river, or push ahead further into Chechen territory?

The Russian Army crossing of the Terek river on October 20 implied a key strategic decision that will have serious consequences for the current war. The Russian Army has been pulled in deeper, and a way out of the fighting will be harder to find.

Some Russian military analysts were under the impre> ------------------------------------------------------------------------

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ey lessons from the catastrophic defeat in the war it waged in 1994-96 against breakaway Chechnya. Achieving a quick victory in the Chechen mountains is impossible. Chechen fighters, knowing every corner of their territory, are likely to wage a long-term partisan war, which Russia's military does not have the flexibility to fight.

At the start of the campaign, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly assumed full responsibility for the leadership of the military operation. And he spelled out a clear aim, using the unmistakable wording "full liquidation" of what he called "terrorist units" originating from Chechnya. The fulfilment of such a political goal could easily be interpreted by the army top brass as a military order.

Such a clear if ambitious goal was never articulated during 1994-96. During that conflict, the aim officially defined by Moscow - "restoration of the constitutional order" - was simply too ambiguous for Russian generals confronting resolute guerrilla field commanders.

This time the Russian military leadership has been impressed by the fact that the Kremlin did not confront them with impossible deadlines for the completion of an ill-defined military operation. The government has also not limited the equipment or army units available at their disposal. The Russian Army is now making full use of the armaments in which they have absolute superiority: aviation and artillery.

For the first time in Russia's military history, the preservation of Russian servicemen's lives was also publicly stated to be a priority at the start of the campaign.

These factors seemed to indicate that Moscow intended to create a security zone in Chechnya and neighbouring regions, and had equipped itself with the elements necessary to succeed. For those areas of Chechnya and Dagestan remaining under the separatists' control, some observers surmised that, at least until the end of winter, Russia would limit itself to a military and economic blockade.

Humanitarian considerations also suggested that federal forces would have to concentrate on ensuring acceptable living conditions for people in areas under Russian military control. This would imply making sure that schools and hospitals function. The army itself would have to guarantee security, food, supplies and other essentials of life. Some of the hardships people are experiencing arose during the period of Chechnya's de-facto autonomy since the last war; some are result of the current fighting.

But the army has crossed the Terek, and with it taken Moscow towards an entirely different - and far more complicated - strategy. A full-scale military operation in Chechnya may now be on the cards.

Political and military leaders began to discuss an all-out war in early October. But optimists in Moscow hoped that such statements were only bluffs as part of the propaganda war against the Chechen fighters, which Russia was waging quite successfully. Others noted worrying internal political factors that could draw Moscow back into another catastrophic operation, as occurred in 1994-96.

Key parliamentary and presidential elections are looming. Prime Minister Putin, President Boris Yeltsin's designated heir, only increases his political weight as he displays more brutality against Chechen separatists. An on-going strategic campaign of fortified positions would hardly demonstrate boldness. It would also be politically highly risky to launch a full-scale military operation next spring, just ahead of the June presidential election. All of these factors would point towards moving hard now.

Army combat units now in northern Chechnya have been assembled from several different regions in Russia. Maintaining them for an extended period of time is extremely expensive, as military commanders acknowledge. Already the cost of the military operation

in Dagestan alone since this August - when the army first launched its effort to crack down on Chechen fighters there - has run to 2 billion rubles ($80 million), according to official Defence ministry figures.

Military planning indicated even in early October that the army might not stop on the north bank of the Terek. Gen. Aleksandr Kosovan, a deputy defence minister, confirmed that no significant building work - required for an extended stay - was planned for the area. The supply order was for heated tents this winter.

The impact on the local population of an extended stay in the north might in any case be counterproductive. General frustration and resentment, not to mention the usual kinds of crime and militarisation that follows an army, might only rebound in further support for the Chechen fighters. An established stronghold would itself likely become a target for diversions, kidnappings and other attacks from Chechen fighters.

Russia's leadership appears to have concluded that the fortification of Russian positions in the territories north of the Terek river was too risky and that a strategy of "dynamic defence" would be impossible over an extended period. The option of a continued advance has been favoured, in the hope of achieving a clear and early victory over the Chechen guerrillas.

However, winter coming early in the Caucasus mountains means that averse weather conditions will restrict the use of air-strikes, on which the campaign has so far heavily depended. Crossing the Terek river now and wading further into Chechnya implies once again - severe losses for the Russian military, not to mention civilian casualties and refugees.

Aleksandr Goltz is military correspondent for the Moscow-based weekly Itogi.

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