GLW: Boris Kagarlisky on Chechnya

Green Left Parramatta glparramatta at
Wed Nov 17 01:23:43 MST 1999

The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (,
Australia's radical newspaper.


Chechnya: Russia's `East Timor'

By Boris Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke

In the East there is a proverb: ``Don't brag when you're on your
way to war''. Russian President Boris Yeltsin's generals have
obviously never come across this saying.

They still have not won a major battle in Chechnya; in fact,
there has not yet been a single serious encounter. Nevertheless,
the media have relayed boasts that thousands of Chechen fighters
have been killed, while admitting that it has not been possible
to find the bodies. On other channels, meanwhile, reports tell of
aircraft bombing friendly troops, and of chaos in carrying out
the simplest activities.

This year's operation in Chechnya began with a saturation media
campaign, to the refrain of ``we will not repeat the mistakes we
made in 1994''. However, neither the soldiers nor the politicians
show signs of having made a serious analysis of the 1994-1996

General Pavel Grachev's strategic plan in 1994 centred on making
a single powerful thrust, in order to break through to the
Chechen capital, Grozny, in the shortest possible time. Grachev
then aimed to capture the city and smash the Chechen armed forces
and political structures before the Chechens could organise
themselves to conduct a partisan war.

>From a strictly military point of view, this was the only way to
proceed. But, as always, the execution of the plan was miserably
inept. The assault on Grozny failed, and a lengthy siege of the
city began.

This allowed the Chechen president at the time, General Dzhokhar
Dudayev, to prepare a military and political base for prolonged
resistance in the mountains of southern Chechnya. The failure of
the initial plan doomed the Russian army to a drawn-out war that
was impossible to win with the forces and money available.

After the war, the Russian generals convinced both themselves and
the politicians that the reasons for the defeat were irresolution
in the government, and broad popular hostility to the conflict.
Accordingly, they concluded that before relaunching the war, they
needed to gain unanimous support among the political elites and
to gag the mouths of critics.

Show of muscle

In the resumption of armed operations, the lessons of NATO's
Kosova campaign have been reinterpreted in Russian fashion. The
population has been swamped with propaganda. Opponents of the war
have been either denied access to the mass media or intimidated
into silence.

Surveys indicate that support in Russia for the conflict is by no
means as universal as is claimed. Nevertheless, the psychological
substrate is one of profound public apathy.

Among Russians, the image of the Chechen fighter, courageously
battling the despised Yeltsin regime, has faded. Contrary to the
claims of war propagandists, this is not so much because people
have learned something they did not know earlier, as because the
past three years really have brought changes in Chechnya. With
the republic effectively independent, prominent Chechen field
commanders have turned into corrupt criminal bosses, closely
linked to the worst elements of the Russian elite.

For big-time Russian criminals, the existence of Chechnya as a
territory within Russia's nominal boundaries, but outside the
control of the Russian state, has created phenomenal
opportunities. The republic has provided a sanctuary for
operations ranging from contraband and money-laundering to
drug-running and, increasingly, kidnapping. Even people
sympathetic to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov understand that
against this alliance of Russian and Chechen criminal business,
he is quite powerless.

In the course of the 1990s, the brazenness of Chechen bandits has
been made part of the political folklore of Russian television
viewers. So too has a supposed fascination of Chechens with
explosives. When a series of bombings took more than 300 lives in
Russian cities in the late summer and early autumn, Chechens were
immediately blamed, though the connection was never proved.

Russian tanks then began rolling over the Chechen border. The
notion that the invasion was aimed at thwarting crime and rooting
out terror, however, is naive. The key reasons why the generals
have again been set loose against Chechnya need to be sought
inside the Kremlin walls.

For Yeltsin and his notorious ``family'', the fact that Chechnya is
a criminal haven is not necessarily cause for attacking it. But
the fact that Chechnya is nominally Russian, and outside Moscow's
control, is different; Chechen independence has been a
long-running advertisement for the feebleness of the Kremlin's
authority. As the presidential fortunes continued to wane during
the spring and summer, the attractions of making a show of muscle
in Chechnya increased.

By this time, the Yeltsin regime's political supporters and
clients -- the people who might keep the ``family'' out of jail --
were clearly unelectable. There was a pressing need for another
of the president's made-to-order crises, an emergency that would
make it possible to introduce censorship, ``consolidate'' the
nation around the government, and cancel, postpone or falsify the
presidential elections due for next year. When ``Chechen'' bombs
began demolishing Russian apartment buildings, the fit with the
regime's political needs was almost too perfect to be true.

Western backing

For the Western governments that trumpeted their outrage at the
actions of the Serbian military in Kosova, Russian actions in
Chechnya have always been a delicate matter. There is no sign,
however, that the Russian authorities erred when they concluded
that Western friends would stick with them through another
Chechnya campaign -- no matter how grim the body count.

For Western leaders to voice more than guarded concern would
raise the question: where was their indignation during the
slaughter of 1994-1996? And although there are influential
circles in the West that would be relieved to see Yeltsin leave
power peacefully in mid-2000, none would welcome the traumas of a
forced early resignation.

All these calculations, however, are liable to turn to dust if
the Russian army is again humiliated in Chechnya. The problem for
both the Russian authorities and their Western mentors is that in
one variant or another, a repeat of the 1996 debacle is all but

Grachev's strategy in 1994 was correct in textbook terms, but the
one adopted in 1999 is not even that. The army is moving slowly
toward Grozny, without involving itself in major battles.

The Chechen fighters are being ``forced out'' of their positions by
artillery and air strikes. After each such strike (and in many
cases, before it), the fighters retreat. The army then claims a
victory and advances a few kilometres, until coming upon the next
knot of resistance. The Chechen formations withdraw in good
order, and the reports from the military propagandists of massive
losses among the enemy appear less and less convincing.

The Russian bombardments would have some effect if the Chechens
were trying seriously to hold a front according to the rules of
the first and second world wars. However, they are conducting a
partisan struggle, and their aim is not to halt the Russian
advance, but to make it slow and expensive. Their successes so
far have been undeniable. The Russian strategy that allows this,
one suspects, is dictated not by subtle planning but by a mortal
fear of the enemy.

The generals who are conducting the Chechnya campaign have
obviously not read the works of Mao and Che Guevara on partisan
warfare. But while in their military academies they could not
have failed to study the history of the 1812 campaign in which
the Russian army defeated Napoleon. In 1812, the French slowly
moved deep into Russia, while the weaker Russian armies under
Barclay de Tolly and Kutuzov slowly retreated, avoiding a
decisive battle. After the French had captured Moscow and
declared themselves victorious, partisan warfare began throughout
the entire territory they had occupied.

Abandoning the burnt-out and uninhabitable Moscow, the French
emperor fled. The key difference with the present Chechen
campaign is that Napoleon, understanding the situation, tried to
force the Russians to an all-out battle, while today's Russian
generals are scared to risk anything more than a skirmish.

It is clear that Maskhadov will not be able to surrender Grozny,
Gudermes or Bamut without a fight, for the same reasons that
Kutuzov could not yield up Moscow without first having fought at
Borodino. But as with Moscow in 1812, no-one will set out to hold
Grozny at any price; the aim of the Chechens will be to keep the
attackers relatively confined and immobile, while causing them
continual, debilitating losses. The Russian army, meanwhile, will
be forced to storm Grozny without taking account of its losses,
since this is the only way it can demonstrate its victory.

Any new failure during the assault on the Chechen capital will
have a profoundly demoralising effect on the army, while the
capture of the city will not make the slightest difference to the
overall course of the war. The Chechens have undoubtedly made
their plans on the basis that at a certain point they will
abandon Grozny. Because of the slowness of the federal forces,
the defence of the city will be even less important for the
Chechens than in 1994.

It is not hard to predict what will happen after that. The army
for some reason thinks it will be hard for the Chechens to spend
the winter in the mountains (although Dudayev's fighters, who
were much less prepared for a partisan war than Maskhadov's
units, nevertheless survived the winters of 1994-95 and 1995-96).
Meanwhile, no-one is thinking about how the Russian army itself
is going to cope with winter in Chechnya. The military supply
system is in an appalling state, far worse than in 1994, while
the devastated Grozny -- in a precise analogy with burnt-out
Moscow in 1812 -- will not provide winter quarters for a huge

So far, the Russian forces have not been entering population
centres, fearing contact with local residents. But the army
cannot spend the winter in the open, and nor can it leave
Chechnya. Since the fighters have not been defeated, but have
simply withdrawn, they will return as soon as the army departs.
Consequently, the army will have to remain indefinitely, trying
to control literally every village. The Russian forces have
neither the military strength nor the financial resources for

A population off-side

There is little reason to doubt that three years of independence
have left the Chechen population bitterly disappointed. Dudayev
promised that Chechnya would be prosperous, democratic, secular
and socialist. By 1999 the Chechens had received poverty, chaos
and the uncontrolled rule of corrupt warlords, along with
religious extremism, to which Maskhadov has made repeated

The assumption in the Kremlin has clearly been that by
comparison, Russian rule will seem attractive. However, there is
a good deal of wishful thinking here. Chechens recall not only
the outrages of the past three years, but also the nightmare of
the preceding Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, the chaos that the Russian armed forces have created
at the pass-control points between Chechnya and Ingushetia,
together with the corruption and racism of the Russian civilian
and military authorities, are likely to alienate many Chechens
who might still feel sympathy with Russia.

The rocketing of market-places, the bombing of columns of
refugees and other ``technical errors'' will hardly make the army
more popular. On the contrary, the Chechen fighters will once
again seem as heroes, especially since new field commanders will
quickly emerge, free of responsibility for the mayhem wrought by
their predecessors. The new war will create new leaders.

In any case, the Russian authorities will be unable to either
rebuild Chechnya or create jobs there. For the present, Moscow is
simply continuing the destruction. This means that for young
people in Chechnya there will be no other occupations apart from
shooting at moving targets dressed in the uniforms of the Russian

The failure of the second Chechnya campaign will become more or
less obvious by spring. One can only guess at the scale of the
catastrophe. There are a number of possible variants from a
drawn-out, ruinously expensive war against ``invisible'' partisans
to a total rout of the army and disintegration of the command
structure, as happened to the French in 1812.

Revolutions and reforms in Russia have regularly begun with lost
wars, and the present Chechnya campaign may well set off new
shocks in Russia itself. The unanimous support which the
political class has given the war means that if the army is
defeated, a deep political crisis will ensue.

Defeat could act as a turning-point for social consciousness,
with large numbers of people moving from apathy to protest and
resistance. Or Russian society, which has meekly endured many
humiliations, may reconcile itself to this one as well.

Whatever the case, the Russian generals are continuing to march,
with a good deal of bravado, into the traps that have been set
for them. The denouement will be bloody and convulsive,
accompanied by calls for a broad suppression of dissent to allow
the crusade against ``terrorism'' to be redoubled.

Independence for Chechnya!

On the left, there must be no equivocating; the Chechens have the
unconditional right to independence. Russian leftists face a dual
challenge: even before taking the fight against the war to the
government, they will have to wage a sharp political struggle to
secure their own forces around the anti-war position, resisting
chauvinist disorientation.

This task will not be made easier by the fact that there is only
one progressive thing about today's Chechen leaders: the fact
that for contradictory and (quite probably) fleeting reasons,
they are heading a struggle that has an undoubted liberating
dynamic and that is directed against people who are much more
dangerous enemies of the international working class than the
Chechen leaders themselves.


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