Russian officials predict taking the Chechen capital within days. But they still face determined rebels.
By Fred Weir, Special to The Christian
and Judith Matloff, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
MOSCOW - The Russian military machine is closing in on the beleaguered Chechen capital of Grozny, with the latest fighting reported north and southeast of the city. But analysts warn its seizure would represent a Pyrrhic victory.
It is a David versus Goliath struggle, pitting 100,000 Russian troops armed with heavy artillery and rockets and backed by warplanes against a few thousand guerrilla foot soldiers whose weightiest weapons are mortars.
While Russian advantages look invincible on paper, Moscow's Army mainly consists of poorly fed and ill-trained conscripts barely out of high school. Their Chechen adversaries are highly motivated in their struggle for national independence, and most have invaluable battlefield experience as veterans of the 1994-96 war against Russia.
"There will be escalation of pressure against Grozny, though I think it will be gradual," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst based in Moscow. "But any capture of the city will be just the beginning of the territorial campaign, not the end of the war." He notes it would take only a few snipers hiding in the rubble to make life miserable for Russian troops.
In almost 10 weeks of fighting, Russian forces have regained control of more than half of the separatist republic and suffered, according to official sources, only 400 dead. Both sides routinely exaggerate the other's losses. Of Chechnya's major population centers, only Grozny continues to hold out. Russian troops rolled into Shali, southeast of the capital this week after warning town leaders to expel rebel fighters and raise the Russian flag or face bombardment.
The Russians have drawn a ring of steel around the capital. "The question of Grozny's liberation should take a matter of days," Gen. Valery Manilov, first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, said yesterday. "The question of the liberation of the rest of the Chechen territory is a matter of weeks."
General Manilov added: "No massive strikes, no storms, no assaults will take place on Grozny." In 1995, the Russians eventually won the city with a massive infantry assault after weeks of hard fighting that cost thousands of Russian lives. The plan this time is to clobber rebel positions with heavy weapons fire and advance into the ruins gradually. Where resistance is encountered, Russian forces will pull back.
For the estimated 10,000 to 50,000 people surviving in Grozny basements and makeshift bunkers, many of them elderly or infirm, life is a daily ordeal of searching for supplies in between air and artillery attacks. Though it is impossible to calculate how many fighters remain in the city, experts say they could number as many as 6,000.
Whether the rebels dig in for a street-by-street fight could depend on how they resolve their own internal disputes. Analysts say the republic's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, is at loggerheads with field commander Shamil Basayev over whether to abandon Grozny.
"Basayev wants to concentrate in the mountains of the south, where he has support and will be the undisputed leader," says Valery Fyodorov, an expert with the Center for Russian Political Trends, a Moscow think tank. "But Maskhadov knows his political position will mean nothing in the mountains. "As long as the rebel flag flies over Grozny, Maskhadov is the legal president of Chechnya and a negotiated settlement still is possible."
Moscow has nixed any chance of peace talks for months, claiming there is no authoritative Chechen leader to deal with. That could change.
"Taking cities is very important from a political point of view, but the guerrillas will be around for a long time," says Alexei Mineyev, deputy head of Rosinform, the Russian government's special department for handling the issue of Chechnya with the media. "I wouldn't make any forecasts that the guerrilla war will end anytime soon."
The head of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, is currently visiting the region in hopes of setting up a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Maskhadov.
"Vollebaek is willing to attend a meeting between Maskhadov and Russian Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu," Reuters quoted Mr. Vollebaek's spokesman as saying. "Everything depends on the Russians."
International pressure on Russia to halt the fighting and start talking has been strong. The International Monetary Fund has delayed disbursement of approved loans to Moscow, and the European Union is even threatening economic sanctions.
Vollebaek's visit could present Russian doves with an opportunity to at least bolster Maskhadov's position by setting up a meeting with him.
"It really is time to start thinking about the exit strategy," says Vassily Lipitsky, an analyst with the Foundation for Realism in Politics in Moscow. "Even a successful outcome of the battle for Grozny will only drive the rebels into the mountains, where they can hold out for years.
"If we allow the focus of the war to shift ... it will play into the hands of the more radical Chechen leaders, like Basayev. And that would make any negotiations far more difficult."