Resistance by Chechens leads Russia to alter plan

Replacing of generals, slowing of offensive may indicate worries

January 08, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Beset by bad weather and intense resistance by Chechen rebels in Grozny, the Russian army called off a part of its attack yesterday and replaced two commanding generals on the scene.

The moves suggest that federal forces may have experienced a significant setback and that casualties may be running at a far higher rate than officially reported.

Since September, federal troops have been advancing methodically into the breakaway republic, preceded by powerful air and artillery strikes, in sharp contrast to the quick and ultimately disastrous thrust into Grozny, the capital, during the first Chechen war in 1995.

But Chechen fighters, who yielded ground throughout the fall, are making a stand in the ruins of the city. There has been furious house-to-house fighting, according to reports from both sides in the conflict.

Russian military sources, according to the Interfax news agency, described the situation in Grozny as "complex." Yesterday, Russian soldiers there were unable to count on air support because of thick fog.

Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev, commander of the eastern sector, said at the Russian local headquarters in Mozdok yesterday that he and Maj. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the western sector, were being replaced by their deputies. He then announced that the bombardment of the capital would be halted because of concern that the Chechens had planted mines containing chemical weapons and that these could harm civilians who remain in the besieged city.

He accused the Chechens of using civilians as human shields.

It appeared, however, that other factors were at work.

Heavy Russian casualties are likely to be one of them. Reports from Mozdok suggest that the official statistics -- yesterday, two soldiers were reported killed and three wounded over the previous 24 hours, -- are substantially understated. The high death rate in the first Chechen war quickly turned the public against the operation, particularly against the generals who threw poorly trained and poorly equipped troops into battle.

This time, the military has proceeded far more patiently in the field to minimize the bad news and at the same time has severely limited access to the press. But for several weeks there have been indications that the numbers of dead and wounded are growing. Now, the need -- or the temptation -- to take Grozny despite the risks may have overridden the military's desire to move cautiously.

Last night, the army released a statement declaring that the removal of the two generals was a routine rotation designed to give as many field officers as possible a chance at command. Coming as it does, just as the fighting has bogged down, suggests otherwise.

Shamanov's removal is particularly striking. Though he was implicated in the massacre of 40 civilians in the village of Alkhan-Yurt early last month, he was decorated by then-President Boris N. Yeltsin and listed as one of the 100 most influential political figures in Russia by Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

That may have put him on the outs with acting President Vladimir V. Putin, who has been careful to take most of the acclaim for Russia's progress in the war.

Putin has been riding high since he took command of the war effort with his appointment as prime minister in August. The party he endorsed did well in parliamentary elections last month and he appears to be headed for an easy victory in elections in March to choose a replacement for Yeltsin.

His popularity rests entirely on the war, and a severe setback in Chechnya could prove damaging politically -- unless, perhaps, a couple of ambitious generals can be given the blame instead.

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