Russian war in Chechnya not over

May 04, 2000

MOSCOW — This article first appeared in the Economist:

MOSCOW -- If this is victory, what would a stalemate look like?

Even in winter, when the Chechen fighters were at their most vulnerable -- cold, hungry and visible through the bare trees -- the Russian forces, which outnumber them at least tenfold, failed to destroy them.

Now spring is making conditions in the mountains friendlier for the Chechens. The war goes on.

On April 27, Russia reported 10 dead from a Chechen ambush; another one the day before killed 15. The fighting is in areas which Russia claims to have controlled for weeks.

Russian warplanes and helicopters fly dozens of sorties a day -- 130, for example, on April 27 -- but have been unable to stop the rebels from moving about.

Although the Chechens have suffered heavy losses -- 13,500 dead according to the Russians, 1,300 by their own count -- they can still do what matters: kill Russians and escape.

What happens next? The last war ended in 1996 with the Chechens retaking the capital, Grozny. The Russians withdrew in humiliation. An ominous echo of that came with the news, from Russian commanders, that about 500 rebels had returned to the ruined city.

Russian officers are speaking nervously of a new guerrilla offensive in the first half of May.

A general complained recently that "500 foreign mercenaries" were poised to infiltrate Chechnya from Georgia, its edgily neutral southern neighbor.

There have, at least, been feelers toward a negotiated peace. Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, confirmed last week that he had exchanged ideas with the Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov.

As the generals growled that any talks with the terrorists would be betrayal, Mr. Putin was characteristically ambiguous.

He floated the idea that Mr. Maskhadov, though a "criminal," could be pardoned if he surrendered. Yet he also dismissed him as someone who "decides nothing and will never decide anything."

Kommersant, a daily paper, had earlier quoted Mr. Maskhadov as saying that he had ordered the release of all Russian prisoners of war and a unilateral cease-fire. In a later radio interview, he said he had been misunderstood.

This week another Russian newspaper, Segodnya, reported that Mr. Maskhadov would soon fly to Moscow for a combined surrender, pardon and peace talks.

Even if these confusing signals led to something, it would not stop the war soon. The tough Islamist commanders in Chechnya, whose forces outnumber Mr. Maskhadov's, have already denounced any idea of negotiation with Russia's leaders, who plainly want the Islamists dead or in jail.

Russia's diplomacy, so far, looks as unlikely to bring a solid peace as the military onslaught that began last autumn.

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