Retaking Chechnya

Caucasus war: Successes lure Russian soldiers deeper into guerrilla-controlled republic.

October 06, 1999

THREE YEARS after Russian troops were driven out of Chechnya, they are pushing back into the Islamic breakaway republic. As of yesterday, they had retaken a third of the mountainous region surrounding the capital of Grozny.

This success has emboldened Moscow: What started as an operation to form a security buffer along the Russian border is turning into an attempt to wipe out the rebels altogether.

In betting he can conclude the war before the onset of winter, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin is taking a reckless gamble. So far it's paying off: In presidential polls, support for the previously little-known former KGB agent has soared from 2 to 10 percent, making him the third strongest contender behind former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov (21 percent) and communist leader Gennady Zyuganov (17 percent).

Moreover, Russian public opinion has rallied against Chechens, who are blamed for killing about 300 people in recent apartment building bombings. The visible role of foreign Muslim guerrilla leaders -- mostly from Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- in Chechnya has increased public sentiment for resolute action in the Caucasus, which czarist Russia conquered more than 150 years ago.

Moscow's early successes in the push into Chechnya may be deceptive. Heavy reliance on air strikes -- a strategy copied from NATO's bombardment of Serbian military -- has kept initial Russian casualties low. The same cannot be said about Chechen civilians. Aerial bombardment is killing indiscriminately and has produced a flood of refugees trying to find safety across the Russian border.

The deeper Russian ground troops push, the more exposed they become. That may be the goal of Chechen rebels.

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