Dagestan: A trip report

Originally published
Michael Glantz and Igor Zonn

On the way to the airport in Makhachkala, (Dagestan) - a Republic in the Russian Federation, it was clear that something unusual was happening. After a morning visit in mid August 1999 to Sarikum, the largest sand dune in all of Europe, we noticed lots of Russian troop activity on the outskirts of town. In town, we learned that Chechen rebels had crossed the border from landlocked neighboring Chechnya. They captured two villages in the border area in the central part of the Dagestani border with Chechnya. While the Chechen government denied that the rebels had invaded Dagestan, all knew that that was precisely what had happened.

Chechnya has had a violent relationship with the Russian Federation, and before that with the Soviet Union, ruled from Moscow. With the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the Chechen Muslims sought independence from the Federation that they had been forced to join a century earlier in Tsarist times. This desire for independence coupled with a willingness to fight led to the Russian war with the Chechen Republic. After about 80,000 deaths in the war, a truce was called, putting the political and military conflict on hold. In essence, it gave the Chechens de facto independence from Moscow. During the war, the Chechens took the conflict to Moscow, blowing up one of its stations in its famous metro system. At the same time the Russians were destroying the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The truce brokered in 1996 has been an uneasy one. With no one really running the Russian government and with the army in its weakened demoralized state, the Chechens apparently saw an opportunity to fulfill a desire to create a 'Greater Chechnya' in the Northern Caucasus. One belief is that they wanted to take over only the southern half of Dagestan below Makhachkala. The northern part is quite different geographically and is a coastal plan that is semiarid to arid. The southern part contains both mountains (like Chechnya) and a coastal plain bordering on the oil-and sturgeon-rich Caspian Sea.

Eventually, the second Chechen war will end - possibly before the Russian Presidential election in June 2000. However, there is a high probablility that a guerrilla war will continue afterwards.

I was invited to visit Dagestan by a Russian environmentalist and colleague Dr. Igor Zonn in Moscow, and a biological scientist Dr. Zalibekov in Makhachkala. The purpose was to discuss the potential for the development of scientific research activities related to the Caspian Sea and fluctuations in its level. We were also there to review the situation of Caspian sturgeon poaching, much of which was being carried out along the Dagestani coast.

During the visit, we traveled by car along the Caspian's coastal plain and the foothills. We started in Makhachkala in the center of the coast and ended in Derbent a couple of hours to the south and near the international border with Azerbaijan.

I was accompanied by the deputy director of an institute devoted to biological research in the region and especially in the sea. I have traveled the whole world over and have stayed in some pretty dismal places. The first night in Dagestan equaled at the least the worst place I had stayed in over a three-decade period. It was the remnants of a half-built resort right on the Caspian near the town of Kaspisk. Construction on this resort facility came to a halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union some years earlier.

Along the route we saw some touristic sites (for example a natural profile of Pushkin on the side of a mountain) and the remnants of some vineyards, largely unattended and in disrepair. We also visited a working vineyard centered on an expansive historic underground wine storage site. Each place we visited, people expressed interest in more interactions with Americans and Europeans for the purpose of commerce. While there may have been a desire among Dagestanis for independence from the Russian Federation, given the constant threat (now conflict) of Chechen origin, no attempt was made to seek that independence. Russia provided protection for Dagestan from the Chechens, much as an alliance with Russia would do for Turkmenistan in any potential conflict with Uzbekestan. Some Chechen factions had demanded that the two republics merge into one large Islamic republic, independent of Moscow's control.

Interestingly, along the roadside that paralleled the Caspian coastline, several people were selling gasoline in small containers to drivers passing by. The gasoline was cheaper than that sold in the official or private gas stations because it had been smuggled across the mountainous border with Chechnya. It was sold openly but on the black market. It appeared that the Dagestani police apparently chose to look the other way rather than confront the illegal cross-border traders.

During the visit I had heard talk of a free Dagestan. But, the reality is that the region is too unstable for independence. With landlocked Chechnya as a neighbor and such breakaway quasi-independent, ethnically based republics such as Ingushetia and Nagorno-Karabak and Ostia nearby, it was better to stick with the Russian Federation (as if the Federation would let them out!).

Dagestan is poor. It is on the Caspian Sea and therefore has value to its covetous landlocked neighbor. Hence, the rebel attack on Dagestan from its neighbor's territory, obviously with the implicit backing of the Chechen government. Russia was viewed as militarily weak, following its defeat in the first Russo-Chechen war in 1994-96. It was also viewed as hesitant to use its weakened military establishment. One can only assume that the Chechens saw Southern Dagestan as a 'sitting duck'. They took aim, crossed the border, captured 2 Dagestani towns. . . and then all hell broke loose.

My Russian colleague and I were there at the time of the invasion, one of the last political crises of the 20th century or, for that matter, of the second millennium. We were not in the mountain towns that had been captured. However, we were but tens of kilometers away. In just one day the signs of response to the invasion were evident and growing. Russian troops were at the airport in Machachkala. They were increasingly visible in the streets. People were abuzz about the Chechen invasion. They wondered what Moscow's response would be. After all, the Russians had essentially been defeated in Chechnya a few years earlier. There was talk that the Russian leaders would not fight the Chechens, other than to seek to contain and, if possible, remove the rebels from Dagestani territory.

The Chechens and the rest of the world (probably including many Russians) were surprised by the Russian military response. the Russian leaders were reacting not just to the invasion but to the several terrorist attacks that had also occurred in Moscow. Unknown terrorists (more correctly mass murderers) - but likely Chechens - detonated explosives that destroyed several apartment building blocks within the metropolitan area, leaving more that 300 dead and hundreds more wounded. These attacks were part of what in military jargon is referred to as 'countervalue attacks'. Such attacks are designed to demoralize the civilian population by selecting civilian targets to destroy instead of focusing on military targets.

The Chechen rebel strategy backfired. The attacks raised the ire of the Russian population. The sporadic terrorist attacks in Moscow provided an issue on which various political and ideological factions in Russia could agree . . . take on the Chechen terrorists directly. The NATO strategy in Serbia with regard to the Kosovo crisis provided the Russian military and government with a way out. Wanting in the worst way to avoid troop casualties and the popular opposition to them, they had suffered in the earlier war with the Chechens, Russian general decided to bomb from the air various alleged terrorist sites in Dagestan as well as other strategic targets in order to cripple the rebels, their supply routes, and to cripple the Chechen economy that supported them.

Regardless of how one views the history of Russia's presence in the North Caucasus, it appears that most foreign governments chose at least initially to back the Russians. They did so mostly by not getting involved or by not condemning the Russian effort (except on technical treaty grounds with regard to NATO-Russian Federation agreements). Pleas from the Chechen president to the international community for disaster relief and for help from other countries apparently fell on deaf ears. Tens of thousands of Chechen refugees fled into neighboring Ingushetia, a Russian Republic with little in the way of resources to help them.

The Chechen attack on a defenseless, economically depressed, ethnically diverse Dagestan was a bad strategic choice, especially under the banner carried by Chechens labeled as terrorists. Taking the war to Moscow was a guerrilla tactic that failed. The bombings did not help their cause. It exposed the fact that the Chechens did not understand the Russians any more than the Russians understood the Chechens. As a result, the Chechens gambled with their country's quasi-independent status in favor of territorial expansion into southern Dagestan . . . and they lost. Now Chechnya faces being re-absorbed back into the Russian Federation or, worse than that, destruction. Shortly after my visit in August 1999 the Russians gained control of the flatlands in Chechnya, the northern part of the country, north of the Terek River. It appeared then that with a smell of possible victory in the air, the Russian military would soon move across the Terek. . . And it did.

Today, a few months later, Chechnya's capital city of Grozny is encircled by Russian troops. Air attacks on the city have been relentless. Hundred of thousands of refugees have fled the country. The international humanitarian community has become more vocal, opposing Russia's indiscriminate scorched earth policy and its failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Even governments that had been silent have begun to challenge Russia's military tactics, but not to the extent of pressuring Russia to end the campaign against Chechnya.

I would guess that the history books will recall the mess in the Northern Caucasus as the fallout of an erroneous Chechen guerilla (if not government) strategy to (a) seek territorial expansion and (b) to terrorize Russian leaders by indiscriminately bombing Russian apartment houses. Whatever hostile reaction that befalls the Russian Federation as a result of its activities, the Chechen blunder will most likely spell an end to its brief period of independence.