Russia on the verge of new Chechen war

Planes bomb airport in republic's capital

September 24, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Russia was on the verge of a second war in Chechnya yesterday after the air force bombed the airport in Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic.

Frustrated in its attempts to wipe out Islamic rebels who have twice seized villages in neighboring Dagestan, Moscow seems intent on escalating the fighting and bringing it home to Chechnya.

Military leaders said they were determined to avoid a repetition of the disastrous war of 1994-1996, which left as many as 80,000 dead and led to the virtual independence of the Caucasus republic. But a military buildup at Dagestan's border with Chechnya continued, and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin promised to take further steps to "protect our population from bandits."

Federal forces occupied high ground yesterday in the Russian republic of Ingushetia, to the west of Chechnya, while in Grozny, the Chechen Cabinet met to map out a defense plan. Russian artillery continued to fire on border villages where rebels were believed to be digging in.

Gennady Seleznyov, chairman of the State Duma, the powerful lower house of Russia's parliament, said yesterday that Russian airstrikes also were aimed at Chechen radio facilities.

More than a month after Islamic rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev first struck across the border at the Russian republic of Dagestan, calling on Muslims to rise up against the Russians, Moscow now appears to be holding all of Chechnya to account. What began as a police action against a band of freebooting rebels had by yesterday turned into an attack on Chechen government targets in the heart of the republic.

Military leaders said the attack on the airport was carried out because radar equipment there was being used to track Russian planes and alert the rebels. One man, a mechanic working on a biplane, was killed.

The stakes are enormous for Russia. Faced with insurrection in the Caucasus and a terrorist bombing campaign in Russian cities that has killed 300 people, the government has no choice but to act. Yet, the country cannot afford another defeat like the one delivered by the Chechens three years ago.

Chechnya is a heavily armed, anarchic place. The republic's president, Aslan Maskhadov, has been seen as a relative moderate who wants better relations with Russia. Basayev, who briefly served as prime minister, loathes the Russians and is more happy when he's fighting. Until now, the two have kept at arm's length, and Maskhadov has said nothing that could be seen as condoning Basayev's adventure in Dagestan.

But some analysts in Russia question whether their positions are really so different. They portray Chechnya as one large staging ground for Islamic fighters, with backing from extremists throughout the Muslim world. And in the Russian army, according to reports in yesterday's newspapers, hawks are eager to go back to war.

The newspaper Sevodnya declared that the moment Russian troops enter Chechnya, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev will be pushed aside in favor of his more aggressive deputy, Anatoly Kvashnin, who was described as "bursting" to go into action.

Kvashnin and some generals, according to the newspaper Izvestia, are convinced that Russia lost the first time because of a lack of political will, which they believe now exists. They have reportedly drawn up a plan for a tank attack that is supposed to sweep into Grozny.

Russians are deeply disturbed by the bombings that have struck Moscow and other cities, and overwhelmingly blame the Chechens. A roundup of dark-skinned Caucasians in Moscow led to the expulsion of 15,000 people without proper documents, and thousands more left before the police could get to them. Human rights groups have protested, but otherwise the action is exceedingly popular.

Yet a desire by the Russian public to do something about Chechnya does not guarantee success. Federal forces are attacking Chechnya because they were unable to defeat Basayev's men in Dagestan. As the newspaper Argumenti i Fakti put it, the rebels just kept dribbling away like droplets of mercury poured on the ground.

The paper reported that the rebels possess experimental Russian military weapons that have not yet gone into regular production -- raising the prospect that corrupt officers again are making money off the fighting at the expense of their own men.

One popular proposal calls for the isolation of Chechnya, with all roads blocked, passage in and out allowed only with an official visa, and a no man's land between Chechnya and the rest of Russia. Cordoning off the republic would make it unnecessary to fight the Chechens, analysts say, but would require about 300,000 soldiers, almost the entire Russian army.

And Chechnya would still be open along its border with independent Georgia, to the south.

As Russian planes and artillery attacked the heart of Chechnya, Seleznyov said yesterday that he does not expect ground fighting to be necessary.

Putin said the tactics of the first Chechen war will not be repeated. Asked what measures will be taken, he replied: "You will see within days."

But the Chechens have shown themselves to be tenacious and motivated fighters, particularly on their own turf. Airstrikes alone are unlikely to subdue them -- or to secure peace for the people of Russia.

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