WORLD

A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

Russia invdes breakaway Chechnya

ANDREW BILSKI December 26 1994
WORLD

A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

Russia invdes breakaway Chechnya

ANDREW BILSKI December 26 1994

A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

Russia invdes breakaway Chechnya

ANDREW BILSKI

MALCOLM GRAY

WORLD

When Russian soldiers, tanks, artillery, warplanes and helicopter gunships poured into the breakaway Caucasus mountain region of Chechnya last week, it was an invasion three years in the making. It was also one that showed no obvious sign of a speedy resolution, and brought with it the threat of terrorist retaliation in the heart of Moscow. The mainly Muslim Chechnya, a perpetual thorn in Moscow’s side, unilaterally declared its independence from Russia in 1991, prompting the Kremlin to immediately airlift 700 troops to the region. But that response proved woefully inadequate as thousands of armed Chechens swiftly surrounded and disarmed the soldiers, then sent them ignominiously back to Russian-controlled territory aboard a convoy of tourist buses. Turning to subtler attempts to oust the popular rebel president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, Moscow openly funnelled money and weapons to opposition forces and secretly sent Russian soldiers and mercenaries into the oil-rich region of 1.3 million people. But those methods failed as well, leading Moscow last week to launch its biggest military operation since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

The three-pronged assault on Grozny, Chechnya’s capital of 400,000, met fierce resistance. Outgunned but defiant, the Chechens ignored a Dec. 15 ultimatum to lay down their arms. Chechen soldiers made hit-and-run attacks on the invaders, launched ground-toground missiles, mined bridges and burned barricades. According to unconfirmed reports, which analysts saw as an ominous portent of armed uprising across the Caucasus, the Chechens were receiving assistance from volunteer forces in neighboring Ingushetia. And at the weekend, even as Moscow officially vowed to crush resistance, some Russian officers openly criticized the invasion. One was Gen. Ivan Babichev, the commander of an armored unit outside Grozny, who told a crowd of Chechens that he would advance no farther because the invasion was unconstitutional.

If Moscow persisted, however, its troops were in for bitter fight. Dudayev, a former general in the Soviet armed forces and a decorated veteran of the Afghanistan war, called his people to arms last week, declaring: “The earth should burn under the Russian occupants.” He made it clear what methods his forces would employ: “We have to strike them from the rear, deal them a strong blow. This is < the centuries-old tactic of the mountain peo! pie. Strike and withdraw, strike and withdraw, I to exhaust them until they die of fear and hori ror.” A Chechen campaign along those lines 5 could mean a long, cold and dangerous winter for Russian troops—now numbering anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000, according to various estimates—if they dig in around Grozny.

As fighting raged last week, the Chechens broke off crisis talks with Russian officials in neighboring North Ossetia. In any event, the two sides remain far apart. Dudayev insists that his republic will never relinquish its freedom. From a Russian perspective, however, the Chechen leader’s vision of a Confederation of Caucasus Peoples arcing from the Caspian to the Black Sea represents a national security threat. Moscow officials refuse to even consider the possibility of additional chunks of Russian territory falling under Dudayev’s control.

Grozny is the heart of darkness as far as most Russians are concerned. Even the city’s name seems to cast a dark aura: it means “terrible” or “threatening” in Russian. Certainly, that name illustrates the lingering enmity that exists between Russians and Chechens, whom the former disparagingly refer to as chorni, or blacks. In 1817, the Russian Imperial Army bestowed the name Grozny on a fort that was built to strengthen an ultimately successful military campaign to pacify the unruly Caucasus. And the unbending attitude of that army’s commander, Gen. Alexei Yermolov, still strikes a chord among many Russians who hate, fear and respect the Chechens for their fighting abilities. ‘There are only two ways to deal with the Chechens,” Yermolov once observed, “kill them and kill them.”

The Caucasus mountain tribes, led by the Chechens, were never reconciled to the Russian yoke—and fighting again spread through the region shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Crushed anew, this time by the Red Army, the Chechens chafed under Moscow’s domination. Finally, during the chaos that accompanied the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire, Chechen nationalists declared their independence.

By Chechen accounts, the Russians have suffered more than one million fatalities during their recurrent drives to pacify the turbulent Caucasus. And in a region where the blood feud has long been a means of ensuring rough justice, the current hostility between Russians and Chechens has been fuelled by memories of a massive ethnic purge that occurred during the Second World War. In 1944, suspecting that the Chechens had collaborated with Nazi forces, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Siberia and Central Asia. Tens of thousands of Chechens died on the way to internal exile, while thousands of others succumbed to starvation on the bleak plains of Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Only in 1957, four years after Stalin died, did the Soviets allow survivors of that forced diaspora to return to their homeland. Among them was Dudayev, now the breakaway region’s president, who spent his childhood and early adolescence in Kazahkstan. Said Dudayev in an interview with Maclean’s last spring: “Everyone forgives Russia for her crimes because the country is so big and other peoples fear her. But we do not forgive and we do not forget.”

Chechnya’s precarious independence has come at a high price. Many factories and schools are closed, hospitals are short of medicine, and trained workers in still-operating state enterprises—including the vital oil industry— sometimes go months without pay. Still, Russia’s attempts to reassert control have only fanned nationalist sentiment in Chechnya and allowed Dudayev to strengthen his hold on power by posing as the defender of Chechen freedom. Indeed, Dudayev blamed Moscow for an apparent assassination attempt on him earlier this year: a roadside bomb exploded as his motorcade passed near Grozny, killing Interior Minister Magomed Eldiyev and two others.

As the battle for Grozny raged last week, Muscovites became increasingly nervous that the widening war might flash 1,500 km northwest to the Russian capital. With thousands of Chechens and other people from the Caucasus living in Moscow—many of them in the criminal underworld—the fear is that sympathizers of Dudayev will resort to terrorism in retaliation against Russia’s armed intervention.

In 1991, during Russia’s first failed attempt to bring the Chechens to heel, Dudayev threatened to launch a terrorist campaign against such vulnerable targets as nuclear power stations ; and the Moscow subway system. And I while he has since backed away from < such statements, Chechen soldiers 1 and government officials in other < breakaway regions continue to make 1/5 threats. Dudayev has heightened fears in Moscow by saying that hardline Russian opponents of President Boris Yeltsin will launch a terrorist campaign in the city—and blame it on the Chechens. Said Dudayev, in an interview with the Moscow newsweekly Argumenty i Fakty. “I assure you that a serious strike is being prepared. There may be large-scale acts of sabotage that could paralyze Moscow.”

In response, authorities in Moscow have increased security around targets ranging from gas stations to subway and train stations. Police have increased street patrols, augmenting their own ranks with soldiers from regional units and military-school cadets. Some officials privately say that antiterrorist troops are again patrolling Moscow streets—as they did last summer when Yeltsin ordered a sweeping crackdown on crime. Heightened security is clearly visible around the White House, where Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and other top government officials have offices: there are more uniformed police there, and they are wearing bulletproof vests and carrying automatic weapons. Said police spokesman Vladimir Zubkov: “We have taken all necessary measures, and the city is now tightly secured.”

Perhaps. But Tsakhai Pashazadeh, a Chechen businessman living in Moscow, cautions that Chechnya is a quagmire for the Russian invaders. “It took the Russians 70 years of fighting to subdue the Caucasus in the 19th century, so they should be wary about starting another war there,” said Pashazadeh. “I am not a Dudayev supporter, and my home is now in Moscow, but it is no light matter to kill a Chechen and start a blood feud that can only be extinguished through vengeance.”