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Total War - Or A Battle For Hearts And Minds?

The Kremlin faces a choice in Chechnya: establish a cordon sanitaire or embark on an all-out blitz on Grozny.
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In the time honoured strategic style of the Russian Army, two grand wheeling movements are presently rolling over the Chechen steppe. One, from the east, has come to a halt on the left bank of the Terek river, 20 kilometres north of the capital Grozny. The other rolls on towards the city from the west.



Both wheels have different geographic and tactical objectives. They present two distinct strategic answers to the "Chechen Problem", two options that are so different that at first sight they appear mutually exclusive. But so far the two strategies have been able to co-exist; sooner or later though, one must eventually take precedence over the other.



Which one the Russian general staff will ultimately choose is still unclear. Both strategies are firmly championed by the two very different generals commanded to lead them.



The first wheel from the east was designed to create, then close a circle along the Terek river, essentially to seal off the republic's northern plains and create a cordon sanitaire - a geographic security zone to seal off Chechnya from Russia, and Russia from Chechnya.



According to the strategy promoted by the eastern force commander General Gennady Troshev, the security zone would ease Russian fears of more cross-border raids by Islamic irregulars, while the rebel republic could be cut off from supplies of food, weapons, electricity and gas, until it is forced into line.



The second wheel from the west, led by Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, and now advancing on Grozny, has far simpler objectives - to keep rolling until all resistance to Russian rule is defeated and Moscow can claim final victory over the Chechen rebels, by standing on their dead bodies if necessary.



So far, both strategies have the full logistical and political support of the Kremlin, even if a decision on which of the two strategies should take prominence will have to be taken soon.



Personified in the reported characters of the two field commanders, the choices are simply between blockade and blitzkrieg. The would-be blockader, Troshev to the east, is said to be - by the standards of Russian generals - personally kind and considerate. So too is his strategy, as it is much less dependent on a bloody forward assault on Grozny or other well-defended positions. He faces Chechen forces led by the wily Shamil Basayev.



While Troshev clearly seeks to avoid the kind of ferocious fighting and heavy civilian casualties recorded during the last Chechen campaign of spring-summer 1996, his colleague Shamanov on the western flanks seems determined to repeat it. Lined up against Chechen forces led by the republic's vice-president Vakha Arsanov, Shamanov wants to wipe out the rebels in their lairs once and for all.



Shamanov was in command here in 1996, before his soldiers' ignominious retreat at the end of the 1994-1996 civil war, which left some 80,000 dead and Chechnya effectively independent. News that he would be put in command of the 58th Army, which makes up the bulk of the Eastern 'joint grouping' of army and internal ministry forces, was greeted with howls from its junior officers. He is regarded as an arbitrary decision-maker, who sets extremes in standards for his men, from whom he demands total obedience.



His style is rather different to Troshev, who is out to capture hearts and minds as well as land. He makes well-publicised visits to villages to explain to village elders that his troops will be followed with humanitarian aid once the rebels are defeated 'and the peace is won'.



No detail seems too small. Last week Troshev went to the school in the newly captured village of Starogladovskaya, 70 kilometres north east of Grozny, and personally took the class attendance register, then ordered new textbooks for each class. "I have appealed to everyone and said that I wish them peace and goodwill," he told Russian NTV TV after one village tour, "and that I will do everything for peace to start reigning here."



In contrast Shamanov opposes negotiation, and in his own meetings with village elders he pointedly rejects their claims that the rebel forces have moved out. He will, he says, be killing them wherever they are. Sometimes he blusters. He claimed to have trapped Basayev, "thrashing like a mangy dog," in the besieged town of Goragorsky this week, only to be embarrassed when Basayev turned up in Grozny on Wednesday.



The sharp difference between the two generals' styles underlines the split in strategy. At present there is room for both approaches, but only as long as the government fails to make its mind up.



Most of the military is already certain. They want to take revenge for defeat in 1996, for which they blame not themselves, but the politicians.



The high command made it clear to a government session just three weeks ago that it believed that it had the means to bring all Chechnya under control, at minimal cost in Russian army lives. And the overall Russian armed forces commander in the North Caucasus, Col-Gen. Viktor Kazantsev repeated the claim last week, adding that it only took the political will to finish the job.



The war is not unpopular among the general public in Russia. Familiar anti-Chechen fear and prejudice, plus the shock of the devastation caused by the city apartment bombs last month, leaves a clear majority of the Russian public ready to support a full-scale military assault.



But that means an attack on the capital, even though Russian troops were bloodily rebuffed with heavy casualties when they tried to take Grozny in 1994-96. Islamic irregulars and Chechen government troops are already preparing for a second round against Shamanov's 58th Army.



In Moscow Russian politicians still seem to believe that the atmosphere is right for a forceful resolution of the Chechen problem, but are nervous of the effect heavy Russian casualties might have on the results of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.



But unless they make their own mind up soon, commanders like Kazantsev and Shamanov may make their minds up for them, in the belief - reversing the famous quote - that war is too important to be left to the politicians.



Andrei Babitsky is the Moscow correspondent of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe.



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