By Fred Weir, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
As the Russian Army plunges deeper into the breakaway republic of Chechnya, some powerful invisible allies have been marching alongside it. Divisions among squabbling Chechen leaders and the population's exhaustion after nearly a decade of deprivation, social chaos, and isolation have led dozens of the rebel republic's communities to open their gates to advancing Russians rather than face threatened bombardment. But, analysts warn, the tables could turn if Moscow fails to use its advantages wisely.
At home, Moscow's forces enjoy unprecedented levels of popular support. The war's author, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has soared to an approval rating of up to 75 percent.
"Putin's popularity jumps with every bomb and rocket that falls on Chechnya," says Alexander Rozhdetsvensky, an analyst with the independent Institute of Social Research in St. Petersburg. "The national urge to restore order has become concentrated on the task of defeating separatism in Chechnya."
In two months of the current conflict, the Russian Army has occupied almost half the tiny Caucasus republic, and has lost fewer than 400 soldiers, according to official figures. Russian battle tactics, which involve plastering hesitant communities with massive firepower, have driven an estimated 230,000 Chechens - nearly a third of the population - to flee to neighboring republics.
In stark contrast, during the first weeks of the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war, Russian troops suffered thousands of casualties in a bungled assault on the capital, Grozny, alone.
The mainly Muslim republic declared its independence as the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991. "There were very high hopes in the beginning that getting away from Russia would bring big rewards," says Valery Tishkov, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Ethnography. "Like many of the Soviet peoples, the Chechens were mesmerized by the idea of national independence."
Rebel leaders capitalized on that feeling when Russia invaded in 1994. The Chechens drove out Moscow's forces in 1996, leaving Chechnya with de facto independence but cut off from the world.
But the failure of Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, to create a viable government or address the republic's economic ruin has led to widespread disaffection with the idea of independence, analysts say. "Most of the well-educated Chechens left the republic to find jobs in Russia or abroad. For the young men who remained there were no jobs, except to join armed criminal gangs," says Mr. Rozhdetsvensky. "For most there were no jobs, no pensions, nothing at all. This is the strongest card federal forces have to play today."
The crucial turning point may have come when Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev invited Islamic radicals from the Mideast to join him in a crusade to break Chechnya's isolation by appealing to Muslim fundamentalists in other Caucasus republics to rise up against the Russians. In August and September, Mr. Basayev led armed invasions into neighboring Dagestan. At the same time, Moscow blamed unspecified "terrorists" from the Caucasus for a series of apartment bombings across Russia that killed some 300 people.
"Those events triggered a backlash in Russian public opinion, which made a new war against Chechnya not only possible, but popular," says Mr. Tishkov. "At the same time many Chechens who were to fight for national independence in the last war have no interest in the idea of Islamic revolution. They reject these Muslim fundamentalists, and certainly will not fight for them."
Russia is exploiting these divisions, turning Chechens against their separatist leaders. The greatest success so far was when Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes, surrendered with barely a shot fired on Nov. 12. The local Muslim leader, Mufti Kadiyrov, and others agreed to open the city in exchange for promises that gas and electricity would be restored, pension arrears paid, and allowing the town's militia to keep its weapons.
The Russians also are pinning their hopes on a pro-Moscow Chechen leader, Bislan Gantimirov, a former mayor of Grozny who was serving a six-year prison term in Russia for embezzlement before President Boris Yeltsin pardoned him last month. Mr. Gantimirov is presently in Chechnya to create local armed militias to fight alongside the Russians.
"Gantimirov is basically a bandit. He may be temporarily useful, but it's foolish to pin our hopes on him," says Rozhdetsvensky. "The Chechens who went into exile years ago - the intelligentsia, the skilled workers, the political elite - are the ones who could make a difference."
The Russians now are trying to surround Grozny, raining bombs and rockets on the beleaguered rebel capital in an effort to force an early end to the formal military stage of the conflict. "The idea is to capture all the cities and towns of Chechnya and declare victory," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "The guerrillas will be isolated in the mountainous south, and dealing with them will be just a long-term police action."
But analysts point out the Russian Army hasn't seen any hard combat yet. "Not a single Chechen town or village that was prepared to fight has yet been taken by the Russians," says Alexander Iskanderyan at the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow.
Russian forces trying to close the ring around Grozny this week are encountering the first tough resistance at nearby Urus Martan, according to reports from Chechnya. "Public support for the war will evaporate if the casualty figures start climbing," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "That can happen very quickly."