Fatalities soar as fight against rebels drags on

Chechnya: As Moscow sinks into Caucasus quagmire, many dead are militiamen with wives, children.

July 08, 2000

THE PAST WEEK has been particularly lethal in Russia's attempt to reconquer secessionist Chechnya. At least 33 troops were killed in a series of suicide bomb attacks.

The guerrillas' success has once again demonstrated that the war in the Caucasus mountains, despite Moscow's early victories, is far from over. Russians may have overwhelming conventional troop strength and technology, but the Islamic insurgents know the terrain and fight with passion.

Journalists and analysts have described the war in Chechnya as Russia's Vietnam, just as Moscow's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan was also described. The comparison is not quite right.

What makes the Chechnya operation very different from Vietnam and Afghanistan is deployment: Most of Russian combatants are not regular soldiers but mature militiamen with wives and children. Moreover, members of the same regional militia posts serve in the same units.

Thus, among the recent fatalities were 10 militiamen from Chelyabinsk. The arrival of their caskets sent that industrial city of 1 million people, located in the Urals, into deep public mourning.

It is probably true that many Islamic fighters killed in action also are married, have children and come from even smaller places. But theirs is a holy war against intruding infidels, in which supreme sacrifice is expected and rewarded in the hereafter.

In contrast, President Vladimir Putin never prepared his nation for a protracted engagement or heavy casualties in Chechnya. In the beginning, none of this made any difference because both Mr. Putin and the war were highly popular. But as fighting continues to inflict heavy casualties, weariness is setting in and the Russian people are starting to question the Chechnya war effort.

Already, the Kremlin has moved against influential moneyman Vladimir Gusinsky in order to muzzle his independent media outlets. His television network, radio stations, newspapers and weekly magazine are among the few sources offering relatively complete and critical coverage of the war in Chechnya. The more coffins stream in, the more irritating they will become to President Putin.

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