CSP 8: The Muslims Of Russia

Professor Walter Comins-Richmond


Second Chechnya War - 1999-???

When the Russian incursion into Chechnya began in October 1999, Russia said its objectives were limited to subduing bandits hiding in Chechnya's mountains. However, over time it became apparent that in this second phase of the Chechen war Russia is evidently intent on reversing the humiliating defeat it suffered in Chechnya three years ago. The Russian authorities present the war in Chechnya as a crusade against terrorism and an ultimate attempt to avoid the secession of Chechnya from the federation. The fighting is the worst in the region since Russia's 1994-1996 civil war with Chechnya.

The death toll is certainly in the thousands, including several thousand innocent civilians. As of late November 1999, Russian forces claimed to have killed more than 4,000 rebels while losing 187 soldiers since the offensive began. Chechen officials disputed those figures, saying rebel fighters have suffered minimal losses while killing thousands of Russian troops. They said the heaviest casualties have been among civilians, with nearly 5,000 killed. None of the figures could be independently confirmed, and both sides have tended to exaggerate enemy casualties while minimizing their own. As of early 2000 the Russian side admitted that over 1,100 of its troops had been killed since August 1999, but the Russian Soldiers' Mothers Committee reports 3,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Estimates of Chechen killed and wounded are far higher, and far less certain. Russian defense officials say at least 10-thousand rebels have died. Chechen sources put the figure at less than half that, but say the number of civilians killed is far higher. The number of internally displaced persons is put at more than 230,000 people. Some were kept from fleeing the fighting when Russian authorities closed the Chechnya-Ingushetia border.

Each side has accused the other of preparing chemical or toxic agents for use in the conflict. Chechen parliamentarians said they had information that Russian troops attacked two districts in Grozny with chemical weapons in early December 1999, though this report cannot be independently verified. They said they are afraid Russian troops might destroy a nuclear waste storage facility just outside Grozny if the military is forced to leave. The Russian military said Chechen militants exploded canisters of toxic agents in a village on the outskirts of Grozny on 10 December 1999. General Alexander Baranov said he believed the canisters contained chlorine and ammonia and the blast resulted in a cloud of fumes. There was no way to verify the claim, since the Russian military has a near-monopoly on information coming from Chechnya. In early December Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felganhauer said that the Russian military's bombardment of Grozny would include "so-called aerosol bombs or vacuum bombs that can penetrate dugouts, bunkers and kill everyone inside of course, including civilians." [Although widely reported, these comments represented a misunderstanding of the effects of fuel-air explosives]. Such fuel-air munitions were reportedly used beginning on 06 December 1999.

The prospect of another full-scale war in Chechnya prompted Western governments to issue statements of concern over Russian tactics against rebels in the breakaway republic. But there appeared to be little appetite among outside powers to intervene in the conflict with anything more than public complaints.

The Russian government benefits from this criticism, because it allows Russian leaders to portray themselves as standing up for Russia against the West at no cost. Some observers connect the course of the war with the appointment of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in early August 1999. It is widely believed in Russia that the war has something to do with the presidential election coming up in mid-2000. With Yeltsin's approval rating standing at something like two percent in the polls, Putin won public support that he couldn't get any other way. Russia's public expected the Chechen issue to be resolved for good, and the present intervention enjoys the support of practically all political forces in Moscow. Former Russian Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov estimated that the Chechen offensive was costing from 115-million to 150-million dollars a month.

From Moscow's point of view, it cannot afford to lose the Caucasus, the pathway to Caspian Sea oil and to Russian influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. While Russia remains, it can block efforts by other powers like Turkey and Iran to become established in the Caucasus. Russia's policy in Chechnya is a part of broader Russian policy across the entire Caucasus designed to freeze out other people and allow Russian influence to come back. By its reconquest of Chechnya, Russia served notice to the US that Russia has stopped retreating from the Caucasus and intends to scuttle US plans to gain control over the region.

Historically, energy from the Caspian has gone north, only north, and then from Russia into world markets. In 1995 a consortium of international companies decided to build two pipelines from Azerbaijan. The western line to Supsa, Georgia, opened in April 1999. The pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk opened, and then closed because of events in Chechnya. The countries and the energy companies operating in the region believe that they need to have a multiple pipeline system. After long negotiations, in November 1999 Turkmenistan, Azarbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and the United States agreed on the development of a commercial pipeline to sell gas from Turkmenistan through Georgia and Azerbaijan to Turkey and on to Europe. The pipeline will bring the Caspian Sea's oil to the Mediterranean without crossing Russia and Iran. The Turkish export route for Azerbaijan's huge reserves of oil and natural gas is aimed at reducing the former Soviet republic's dependency on Moscow. This deal represented a long-term strategic triumph over Russia's historic aspirations and interests in Central Asia. The Chechen War was the best argument in favor of the agreement on an oil pipeline from Baku to Turkey as an alternative to a Russian pipeline, paradoxically confirming the Russian assumption that the United States benefits from Chechnya because it wants to bring the Caucasus under its influence.

In February 1997, after the signing of the Khasavyurt accords in August 1996 and the withdrawal of Russian military units from Chechen territory in December 1996, the Chechen people elected Aslan Maskhadov as the Republic's president. However, the terms of the Khasavyurt accords were violated by the Chechen side. The commitments assumed by the Chechen leadership to combat crime, terrorism and manifestations of national and religious enmity were not fulfilled. Moreover, since 1996 the ethno-political and humanitarian situation in Chechnya deteriorated.

When Yevgeny Primakov and then Sergei Stepashin were successively Prime Minister of Russia, their strategy focused on working with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who is a moderate and a former Soviet Army officer. When the Russians, at the initiative of General Aleksandr Lebed agreed to withdraw from Chechnya, and agreed on a timetable for Chechen self-determination, they also promised major aid. But the promised aid to repair the destruction from the 1994-96 war never arrived, and the Russians did nothing to moderate the situation in Chechnya. Under those circumstances the more radical elements in Chechnya came to the top. The areas controlled by criminal gangs of extremist groups grew wider, and rebels in Dagestan declared their independence.

A wave of kidnappings hit the Caucasus region soon after Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya in 1996. Most of the blame has been placed on criminal gangs able to operate freely in the lawless region. Russian Interior Ministry statistics show that up to 1,300 people have been kidnapped in Chechnya between 1996 and 1999, with at least 500 people still believed in captivity. Many of the hostages are Russian conscripts serving in army units in the Caucasus. Other victims have included President Boris Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya who was freed in 1998, Russian television journalists, and more than 60 foreigners, who are considered especially lucrative targets.

In March 1999, Russia's top envoy to Chechnya, Russian Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun, was kidnapped from the airport in Chechnya's capital, Grozny. In response, the Interior Ministry deployed more troops to the Chechen border region and threatened force if the hostage was not released [as of the end of 1999, his fate remained unknown]. Later that same month, an explosion rocked a public market place in the North Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz, killing 60 people. Vladikavkaz is the capital of the North Ossetia region and lies just 30 miles from the Chechen border.

Dagestan Incursions - August-September 1999

In August and September of 1999, Islamic extremists based in Chechnya, independent of the government of Chechnya, twice staged armed incursions into the neighboring Russian Federation Republic of Dagestan. Hundreds of militants invaded, with the intent of creating an independent Islamic state in Dagestan. There were accusations that terrorist Osama Bin Laden had been supplying arms to the rebels and might move to Dagestan himself.

Rebel leader Shamil Basayev was a prominent field commander during Russia's 1994-1996 civil war with Chechnya that ended in de-facto independence for the breakaway region. Among his countrymen, Basayev is a great hero --- a composite of Robin Hood and George Washington. Basayev's name became well known during June 1995 when he and a handful of Chechen combatants held some 1,500 Russian civilians hostage inside the Budennovsk city hospital. On more than one occasion, when Russian forces were on the threshold of destroying the remnants of Chechen resistance, Basayev managed to strengthen Chechen resolve and strike the Russians where it hurt.

Shamil Basayev was named as Acting Chechen Prime Minister in November 1997. Basayev's appointment was symbolic because it took place on the eve of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of his renowned namesake -- the third imam of Dagestan and Chechnya, leader of the last century's national movement, respected by many people in the Caucasus as the greatest of heroes. Basayev subsequently reduced the government's administrative departments and abolished several ministries. However, the collection of taxes and the Chechen National Bank's reserves shrunk, and theft of petroleum products increased seriously. By early 1998 Basayev emerged as the main political opponent of the Chechen president, who in his opinion was "pushing the republic back to the Russian Federation." On 31 March 1998 Basayev called for the termination of talks with Russia. "Almost no agreement signed between Grozny and Moscow has been fulfilled. The Russian side is not consistent in fulfilling its obligations in the framework of these agreements," he said. On 07 July 1998 Shamil Basayev sent a letter of resignation to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. And on 19 July 1998 Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov appointed Basayev deputy commander of the republic's armed forces. Basayev heads the Islamic Majlis of Chechnya and Dagestan, and forces loyal to Basayev and Khattab are estimated at 5-7,000 strong, including mercenaries from Yugoslavia, Turkey and Afghanistan. According to Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov, Osama bin Laden contributed 30 million dollars to the Chechen guerrilla leader to help finance an Islamic insurgency in southern Russia.

An aggressive Sudanese version of Wahabism started spreading In the north Caucasus in the late 1980s. Prior to the war in Chechnya, it was especially strong in Dagestan and later permeated into Chechen official armed forces and security bodies as well as opposition forces. Wahabism also gained a foothold in north Azerbaijan, which is populated by Lezgins, who are a north Caucasus people. Wahabism became popular, especially among young people, who are ready to serve Islam with the zeal of new converts. Most alarmingly, field commanders of the Chechen opposition, accompanied by small armed groups, frequent the Pankisi Gorge, a mountainous region in North Georgia, where they undergo military training. Their militancy was directed against the Chechen authorities, but there was press speculation on their plans for Georgia. Leaders of the extremist Wahabi sect threatened to carry out terrorist acts in an effort to make Dagestan an independent Islamic state.

The Wahhabi sect has experienced sharp growth in Dagestan, which is among the poorest regions in Russia. According to some estimates, 80-thousand Dagestanis, or four-percent of the total population, are members of the puritanical Islamic sect. The reason the Dagestani uprising failed to engender widespread support, while the one in Chechnya succeeded, is that the ethnic makeups of the neighboring regions are fundamentally different. While both populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, Chechnya is a homogeneous republic. Dagestan is a mix of more than 30-different ethnic communities that often disagree among themselves.

On 07 August 1999 group of between 200 and 500 armed men crossed the border into Dagestan early in the day and took up positions around three mountain villages. The Muslim insurgents quickly captured several villages in the remote mountains of the southern Dagestan region. On 10 August a council of Islamic leaders in the region met and declared Dagestan's independence. The declaration called for Muslims from Dagestan and Chechnya to fight until all infidels were ousted from Muslim territory. Days after he was appointed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin predicted the insurgents would be driven out of Dagestan in two weeks. Russian troops relied mainly on air power and heavy artillery against suspected insurgent positions in the sparsely populated Dagestani mountains. Despite a relentless bombardment by Russian aircraft and heavy artillery, the rebels initially yielded little ground.

On 25 August Russian troops said they had regained control of all mountain villages seized by Islamic separatists in the southern Dagestan region. After two-and-one-half weeks of steady air and artillery strikes, Russian military officials said all Muslim rebels had been cleared from the mountains of Dagestan, along the border with breakaway Chechnya. A Defense Ministry spokesman said two of six villages occupied by the insurgents were reduced to rubble by the air strikes. Each side reported losing between 40 and 50 men in the two-week conflict, and estimated enemy casualties at many times higher.

On 26 August Russian air strikes targeted two Chechen villages where against Muslim insurgents who were retreating from neighboring Dagestan were being sheltered.

In the Dagestani village of Karamakhi, leaders renounced Russian rule and proclaimed Islamic law in 1998. Karamakhi was considered the heart of Islamic fundamentalism in Dagestan. Since the imposition of Sharia law, residents were forbidden to listen to music or take photographs, and women were required to wear Islamic dress covering their face, arms, and legs.

Russian and Dagestani authorities chose to ignore the imposition of Muslim Sharia law in Karamakhi. But after crushing the Chechen-led insurgency in Dagestan's western mountains in August 1999, federal troops shifted their attention to other areas believed to be sheltering rebels. Karamakhi, known as a stronghold of the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam, was the first target. Karamakhi, about 40 kilometers south of the regional capital, Makhachkala, has a population of about 10-thousand people, but most fled when federal troops arrived last week and announced they were going to retake the village by force.

Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, said the insurgents were supported by international mercenaries. Russian forces were ordered to rid Dagestan of the militants quickly, but many troops complained they lack the arms and manpower to do so. On 04 September 1999 Russia's Defense Ministry assumed full control from the Interior Ministry over military operations against Islamic militants in Dagestan. Lieutenant-General Gennady Troshev was appointed as commander of the unified forces.

On 05 September 1999 hundreds of gunmen (some estimates up to two- thousand) crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya and began fighting for control over four villages in the Novolaksky district. Fighting continued in the Karamakhi area of Dagestan. Russian troops stepped up air attacks against Islamic fundamentalists in existing positions trying to retain control over several villages. As of 08 September Russia's Interior Ministry reported ground combat in and around 11 villages in the Novolak region, about 50 kilometers northwest of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. A small but well-equipped band of rebels remained firmly entrenched despite air strikes, artillery shelling and ground attacks by a federal force many times its size.

By mid-September 1999 the militants were routed from several villages they had seized. Russian military officials established control over two villages, Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, held by Islamic militants in Dagestan. Basaev said his militants had withdrawn from positions in the western Novolakskoye area.

Terrorist Attacks - August-September 1999

The 31 August 1999 bombing at a military housing complex in Dagestan left 65 people dead, most of them dependents of Russian soldiers battling Muslim insurgents there. Three terrorist explosions in Moscow, one in a shopping mall on 31 August, two others in apartment buildings on 09 September and 13 September, took more than 260 lives. Investigators determined that the Moscow apartment blasts were caused by huge explosive charges planted in vacant ground floor shops and offices. On 16 September another explosion hit a Russian apartment block, this time in the southern Russian city of Volgodonsk, near the volatile Caucasus region, killing at least 17-people, and injuring 150. All explosions took place at night.

Russian authorities linked the blasts to Islamic militants in Chechnya and Dagestan, but produced little evidence to prove their assertions. Russian security authorities launched a massive manhunt, dubbed "Operation Whirlwind," for the people responsible for the bombings. Moscow papers were rife with comment on the bombings, portrayed universally as part of the "war" between "Russia and fundamentalist Islam." Chechen officials, including President Aslan Maskhadov and renegade warlord Shamil Basayev, denied any involvement in the bombings in Russia.

Russian authorities accused Chechnya of sheltering Islamic militants who staged attacks against villages in neighboring Dagestan in an attempt to establish an independent Islamic state. The bombing attacks of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in the summer of 1999 killed almost 300 persons in Russia. After this series of bomb blasts, Russian public opinion shifted solidly in favor of a renewed campaign aimed at reversing the result of the previous war.

Phase One - The Air Campaign - September 1999

Russia initially decided on a "cordon and bomb" strategy. At a minimum, the Russian military appeared to be planning to create a "security zone" between Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan to prevent the infiltration of Muslim rebels, to get control over the unrest in the North Caucasian province without having to occupy Chechnya as a whole. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the objective was to seal off the breakaway region, but many military analysts believed Russia was intent on reversing the humiliating defeat it suffered in Chechnya three years ago. President Boris Yeltsin said in mid-September that Russia was working to tighten the border around Chechnya and that all transport links with the breakaway region should be cut, as Interior Ministry sources said that more than one-thousand militants were gathering in Chechnya near the border with Dagestan.

As of 22 September 1999 Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov said that Russian troops had surrounded Chechnya and were prepared to retake the region that. Media reports said anywhere from 20-thousand to 50-thousand soldiers were massed along the Chechen border, most of them in neighboring Dagestan. But General Zubov said that military planners were advising against a ground invasion because of the likelihood of heavy Russian casualties.

Russia mounted a NATO-style air campaign over Chechnya for weeks, including several days of strikes in and around the regional capital, Grozny. Officials said the aim was to wipe out Chechen militants who invaded neighboring Dagestan last month. When the air strikes began, Chechnya's telephone system was among the first targets. Soon after, the electricity supply was cut. In addition to its other, more-serious consequences, the loss of electricity further crippled the Chechen administration's ability to compete in the information war. The air strikes were reported to have killed hundreds of civilians and forced at least 100-thousand Chechens to flee their homes. Residents trying to flee the capital have found roadblocks at the border, with cars lined up for several kilometers on the highway leading to neighboring Ingushetia.

Russian air force commander Anatoly Kornukov suggested there were similarities between the attacks on Chechnya and NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia. He said there would be no attacks on civilian targets, but video footage from Chechnya had shown evidence of civilians in Grozny killed when their homes were bombed.

On 23 September 1999 Russian forces bombed the airport at Chechnya's capital, Grozny, in the first Russian attack on the Chechen capital since the region's civil war ended in 1996. As of 25 September Russian warplanes had carried out 17-hundred sorties since the bombing runs began in outlying regions. Russian claimed that a total of 150 military bases have been destroyed, along with 30 bridges, 80 vehicles, six radio transmitters and 250 kilometers of mountain roads.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev vowed that the bombing of Chechnya would continue until, as he put it, "the last bandit is destroyed." Sergeyev refused to rule out the possibility of sending in ground troops, though for the time being the attacks were confined to air strikes. By the end of September Russian forces made repeated incursions onto Chechen soil, and had captured some territory.

Phase Two - The Ground Campaign - October-November 1999

The Chechen conflict entered a new phase on 01 October 1999, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his parliament illegitimate. By calling Chechnya's 1996 parliament its only legitimate (governing) body and supporting the idea of a Chechen government in exile, the premier signaled the start of a land operation. Although Russia denied its objective is a takeover of Chechnya, an effort appeared underway to create a puppet government.

Russian forces were reported advancing as much as 15 kilometers inside Chechnya and capturing strategic positions to establish a security zone. It was believed to be the first time Moscow had sent ground troops into the breakaway region since the humiliating defeat at the hands of Chechen rebels three years ago. But Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev cautioned that the move was not an invasion, saying that the plan was to capture territory bit-by-bit, by expanding a so-called "sanitary cordon." Russian military planners hoped the go-slow strategy will avoid the heavy casualties that undermined public support for the previous Chechen campaign in the mid-1990s.

By 05 October Russian ground forces had seized the northern one-third of Chechnya, advancing to the Terek River that cuts across northern Chechnya. Initially, the Russians apparently planned to divide the republic and establish a pro-Moscow administration on the Russian held-portion while tightening the economic and military squeeze on the other side. With Russian troops setting up positions within 25 kilometers north of the capital, Grozny, President Aslan Maskhadov declared martial law in the region, and called for a holy war against federal forces.

On 15 October 1999 the commander of federal forces in the Caucasus, General Viktor Kazantsev, said the first phase of Russia's military campaign -- to create a security zone around Chechnya -- was complete. He said his forces would begin a second phase of military operations designed to wipe out Chechen militants throughout the republic. Russian forces took control of a strategic ridge within artillery range of the Chechen capital Grozny after mounting an intense tank and artillery barrage against Chechen fighters. The first deputy chief of Russia's armed forces, General Valery Manilov, said there will be no frontal attack on Grozny, but Russian forces would destroy Islamic militants in the capital.

On 21 October 1999 a Russian surface-to-surface missile strike on Grozny killed more than 140 people and left even more wounded. The rockets slammed into the center of the Chechen capital killing civilians, including many women and children. The explosions occurred in several areas in Grozny, including a downtown market and near a Chechen presidential building. A Russian spokesman said the busy market place was targeted because it was used by rebels as an arms bazaar. This was the most visible indication of the long range fire support provided by some combination of SS-1 SCUD and SS-21 SCARAB missiles fired from the large Russian airbase at nearby Mozdok, in Dagestan. These attacks were preceded by air raids and artillery shelling of non-combatant villages, homes and farms in the northern part of Chechnya.

By 23 October Russian military columns closed off the last road out of Chechnya. Russian tanks blocked the road leading west from Grozny to neighboring Ingushetia. The crumbling two-lane highway had been the only link between the breakaway republic and the outside world for several weeks. Most of the 180-thousand people who fled Chechnya when the Russian invasion began used that road.

Russian forces reportedly made several attempts to seize positions on the outskirts of the capital, but were rebuffed two-kilometers from Grozny. The majority of the city's civilian population fled, leaving the streets mostly deserted. Russian forces also focused air and artillery raids on the eastern city of Gudermes, about 35-kilometers east of Grozny. Seizing Gudermes would be a major step towards full Russian control of eastern Chechnya, but the city is heavily fortified. Russian warplanes and artillery continued to bomb targets in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, as well as the republic's second largest city, Gudermes. Russian forces also shelled the town of Bamut, close to Chechnya's border with Ingushetia.

On 08 November 1999 it was announced that Russia was sending reinforcements to the estimated 100-thousand troops stationed in and around Chechnya. Interior ministry reinforcements were sent to northeastern Chechnya, where federal troops encircled the region's second city, Gudermes, 35-kilometers east of the capital Grozny. Russian warplanes made new attacks against what military leaders said was a rebel stronghold in the southwestern city of Urus-Martan. Russian forces also bombed what they say were militant camps in the region's southern mountains, and unleashed a fresh wave of rocket attacks against rebel positions outside Grozny as well as in Chechnya's southern regions.

Russian jets continued to bomb and strafe different parts of Chechnya to assist the slow, methodical advance of Russian troops. The gradual advance is in sharp contrast to the tactics employed by Russia during the last war with Chechnya. The Russian strategy demonstrated that lessons have been learned since the last war against Chechnya several-years ago. Then, thousands of young soldiers died in frontal attacks against Chechen fighters who showed they were adept at urban street fighting. The Russian advance has been much slower, with almost constant bomb and artillery strikes to push fighters back before troops move in. In some areas, Russian officers have negotiated with village elders who were more interested in saving their towns from destruction than putting up resistance. After systematic bombing and artillery attacks on towns and villages, residents are issued an ultimatum: either the rebels leave and Russian troops take the town quietly, or civilians are ordered out and the town is reduced to ruins. In other towns, refugees have even returned home after receiving assurances there would be no more bombing.This "heart and mind" strategy also includes Russian civilian officials who deal with vital services such as gas and electricity. In some northern parts of Chechnya, teachers and medical workers will soon receive their wages, and elderly people their pensions.

On 12 November 1999 the Russian flag was raised over Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes, signaling a significant defeat for Chechen forces. And on 17 November the Russian military captured the Chechen stronghold of Bamut along the western border. Bamut had symbolized Chechnya's battle for independence during the earlier war in the region, from 1994 to 1996. The next day federal troops captured Achkoi-Martan, a town on Chechnya's western border that was earlier a target of artillery and rocket attacks.

As of late November the cordon around Grozny was 80-percent complete, with only the southern approach remaining open, and Russia's military expected to have the Chechen capital encircled by mid-December. The population dwindled from 300,000 before the latest fighting to a level variously estimated at between 4,000 and 40,000. Military officials estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 Chechen fighters were preparing to resist any advance into Grozny.

Urus-Martan, 20-kilometers southwest of Grozny, lies near a main road going south through the mountains to Georgia which was a major rebel supply route, and so would be a significant prize for the federal forces. The city was the main target of Russian air and artillery attacks in late November. Several thousand Chechen defenders were believed to be in the city, and Russian army commanders had ruled out a ground assault for fear of suffering heavy casualties.

With Russian troops holding more than 50-percent of the breakaway region, rebel fighters began preparing to counter attack. Overall, the campaign had been marked by heavy Russian air and artillery strikes, with the Chechen fighters offering little resistance.

Phase Three - November 1999 - February 2000

On 26 November 1999 Deputy Army Chief of Staff Valery Manilov said that phase two of the Chechnya campaign was just about complete, and a final third phase was about to begin. According to Manilov, the aim of the third phase was to destroy bandit groups in the mountains, while at the same time restoring order and establishing conditions for the return of refugees to their homes. A few days later Russia's Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Russian forces might need up to three more months to complete their military campaign in Chechnya. Predictions on how long the campaign would last have varied. Some generals said the offensive could be over by New Year's Day, while other officials said the campaign could continue for up to three-years.

Historically, operational artists and tacticians have viewed urban combat as attrition style warfare, which is characterized by the application of firepower to achieve the cumulative destruction of the enemy's materiel assets. The extreme granularity of urban terrain limits conventional mobility and tends to "absorb" relatively large numbers of personnel. Unit frontages are dramatically diminished, with advances or withdrawals measured in terms of single buildings or blocks. Troops expend extraordinary quantities of ammunition in efforts to destroy by firepower enemy forces protected by the cover of structures and rubble. Attackers systematically bludgeon their way from building to building, while their opponents doggedly defended every cellar and room. Fierce and continuous close combat results in great material destruction, property damage, and high casualties among combatants and noncombatants alike.

Russian commanders said they had no plan to invade Grozny. Instead, the plan appeared to be to demolish Grozny, then proclaim Chechnya's second city Gudermes, the capital. The former mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, was released from prison and named head of the parallel administration. Gantamirov, who had been serving a six-year term for embezzlement, was said to be returning to Russian-controlled Chechen territory.

By 01 December 1999 Chechen militants began carrying out a series of counter attacks against federal troops in several villages as well as in the outskirts of Gudermes, the first major city occupied by Russian troops. Rebel fighters in Argun, a small town five kilometers east of Grozny, put up some of the strongest resistance to federal troops since the start of Moscow's military offensive. Chechen fighters in Argun and Urus-Martan offered fierce resistance, employing guerrilla tactics Russia had been anxious to avoid. Chechnya's president Aslan Maskhadov said that fighters were retreating from some towns and villages, but would try to lure Russian troops into the mountains.

On 04 December 1999 the commander of Russian forces in the North Caucasus, General Viktor Kazantsev, claimed that Grozny was fully blockaded by Russian troops. And on 05 December Russian planes, which had been dropping bombs on Grozny, switched to leaflets with an ominous warning: "Persons who stay in the city will be considered terrorists and bandits and will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no further negotiations." The Russians set a deadline, urging residents of Grozny to leave by 11 December. Russia put the number of people remaining in Grozny at 15,000, while a group of Chechen exiles who in Geneva confirmed other reports estimating the civilian population at 50-thousand.

Russia brushed aside the outpouring of international outrage at its five-day "leave or die" ultimatum to Chechens in Grozny, but the military commander in charge of Chechnya operations, Viktor Kazantzev, backed away from the ultimatum, saying the leaflets were intended only as a warning. Russian commanders prepared a corridor to allow safe passage for those wishing to escape Grozny, but reports from the war zone suggested few people were using it when it opened on 11 December. Emergency Situations Minister Sergey Shoigu promised Russian forces would stop their military barrage to allow civilians to flee. Russian military officials accused Chechen fighters of blocking the exit of tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside the capital. Civilians trapped in the city have said they are afraid to move not because their own people are stopping them, but because of massive airstrikes and reports of Russian soldiers firing at refugees as they flee. Many civilians still in Grozny are also old and sick, making any travel difficult.

The Russian forces outside of the Grozny apparently planned to attack the city with a heavy air and artillery bombardment, intending to level the city to the extent where it is impossible for the rebels to defend it. By 13 December Russian troops regained control of Chechnya's main airport in a Grozny suburb. The airport was a main Russian military base during the last war. It was one of the first targets hit by warplanes at the start of the current conflict, and had since been out of action.

By 09 December Russian forces had taken control of the Chechen city, Urus-Martan, 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, but were still bombarding rebel fighters in the town with bombs and mortars, although Chechen commanders said their fighters had already pulled out. The Russian military's next task was the seizure of the town of Shali, 20 kilometers southeast of the capital, one of the last remaining separatist-held towns apart from Grozny. Russian troops started by capturing two bridges that link Shali to the capital, and by 11 December Russian troops had encircled Shali and were slowly forcing militants out. On 13 December Russian General Gennady Troshev ordered the town of Shali to surrender or face destruction. Russian officials believed most Chechen fighters had left Shali, but that snipers and small groups of gunmen might still be in the town.

By mid-December the Russian military was concentrating attacks in southern parts of Chechnya and preparing to stage attacks from Chechnya's eastern neighbor, Dagestan. Russian aviation carried out attacks on targets in the Argun valley gorge and in the foothills of Chechnya's southern mountainous region.

As of 14 December fighting was concentrated in the eastern outskirts of Grozny, with reconnaissance teams entering the capital to identify rebel strongholds. Russian ground forces met stiff resistance from rebel fighters as they advanced into the outskirts of Grozny, beginning a slow, neighborhood-by-neighborhood ground invasion with fighting focused on a strategic hill overlooking the city. A Chechen commander as saying rebel forces repulsed six Russian attacks during clashes in the northern and southeastern sectors of the city. On 14 December Chechen fighters apparently carried out a successful ambush against Russian forces, with at least 100 troops killed and several tanks destroyed in fighting in the Minutka Square district of Grozny. A force of as many as 2,000 rebel fighters ambushed an armored column, hitting the Russian tanks with rocket propelled grenades.

Russian ground troops advanced slowly toward the center from three directions. The strategy appears to be to draw fire from rebels, then pull back and pound the Chechen positions with artillery and rocket fire. A senior general said federal forces hoped to take the city by New Year's Day, but a January blizzard effectively halted the Russian advance into Grozny.

Public support for the war, which was previously overwhelming, appeared to fade as casualties mounted. The government came in for increasing criticism in the tightly controlled Russian media; both for understating casualty figures and for using the same failed military tactics that resulted in defeat for federal troops in the last Chechen war.

Intense fighting continued into February 2000, though Russian forces were hampered by heavy snow and fierce rebel resistance as they pushed ahead with their all-out assault. Chechen fighters used the weather conditions to step up attacks on federal troops. Well-organized bands of no more than 15 rebel fighters moved freely about the city, often sneaking behind Russian lines and attacking unsuspecting soldiers from the rear. As of 03 February, over 50% of Grozny was firmly held by the federal forces.

In the early days of February 2000 thousands of Chechen fighters pulled out of Grozny in what they called a tactical retreat, and most made their way up into the southern mountains. Chechen leaders said the war would continue as a guerrilla operation involving hit-and-run attacks against Russian positions. The retreat from Grozny was costly for the Chechens. Scores of fighters were killed or badly wounded when they crossed a minefield on the western outskirts of the city. Several prominent Chechen commanders were killed and the most notorious warlord, Shamil Basayev, reportedly lost a leg.

In early February 2000 the deputy chief of staff, General Valery Manilov, said the number of troops deployed in Chechnya would be reduced, now that Grozny was in government hands. A Russian spokesman said 93-thousand troops were in Chechnya, but unofficial sources estimate the figure is far higher. Military officials said plans call for a permanent force of 15-thousand troops to be stationed in the republic once the fighting is over.

Final Phase - February 2000 -- ???

By mid-February Russian aircraft were bombing suspected Chechen positions in the southern mountains in Chechnya, where as many as 8000 Chechen fighters wre believed to be based, as troops prepared to launch a ground offensive there. Military officials said federal troops controlled strategic heights along two gorges which cut through the rugged terrain. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said that up to 50 thousand ground troops would move into the southern mountains to attack rebels there in what the Russians call a "final offensive" against the Chechens. But in the fight to seize the mountains, the Chechens were able to launch hit-and-run attacks against Russian positions.

As the war dragged on, refugees who fled to neighboring Ingushetia found that Russia had quietly started cutting back services to camps that were home to tens of thousands of displaced people. Russian officials urged camp residents to return to their homes in areas they call "liberated Chechnya," even though the war was far from over and much of the countryside lies in ruins. Moscow earmarked millions of dollars to help restore basic services in the devastated region. The decision to restore services has been tried before, during the first Chechen war several years ago. Then as now, Russia occupied most of Chechnya and earmarked large amounts of money to bring the rebel region back into the fold. But most of the funds were embezzled by corrupt officials, including the leader of a Chechen militia who is now fighting alongside the Russians. After more than a year under occupation, the Chechens retook the capital Grozny and the Russians withdrew.

Despite Russian predictions the war will soon be over, some experts believe fighting could drag on for years, as rebels resort to guerrilla tactics that worked so well for them in the previous conflict.

Sources and Methods