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Nezavisimoe Voyennoye Obozrenie, July 19, 2002


by Alexei Arbatov

A controversial presidential bill on combating extremism was pushed through the State Duma by On June 6 the Duma resolutely voted in favour of a law to counter extremism in the first reading. The law was passed despite its clearly draft" nature and the views of some parties that this law Clearly Chechnya is the most sensitive issue for the Russian leadership. The situation there may well be described as stagnation or a cul-de-sac. The federal government is incapable of establishing firm military and political control over Chechnya; the armed opposition lacks the strength to inflict a major defeat on the federal troops.

Many observers come away with a paradoxical impression. The situation seems fairly hopeless; if the war is not ended within the next few years, an escalation of the conflict is likely, in view of the instability in the rest of the North Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus, both geographically and in terms of the scale of the forces involved, with unpredictable consequences for Russia and other nations. At the same time, another defeat for Moscow in Chechnya and the federal government's withdrawal would probably entail the collapse of the entire North Caucasus, with catastrophic consequences for the Russian state.

The following would appear to be the fundamental causes and negative factors in this cul-de-sac.

First of all, the overwhelming majority of the people in Chechnya do not support the federal government: a substantial number assist the rebels and constantly replenish their ranks. As is usually the case in partisan warfare, many guerrillas are not engaged in war full-time; they are often close to home, interspersing battle with civilian labour, and even maintain contacts with federal forces and the government of Chechnya. In addition, there is a complex web of intra-Chechen relations - personal and business ties - beyond the borders of Chechnya. Therefore, the boundary between guerrillas and civilians is fairly arbitrary, as is the boundary between loyalists and Chechens hostile to the federal government. Neither does it inspire optimism to note that local government in Chechnya, which cooperates with Moscow and the federal forces, often becomes a target for vengeance from the guerrillas. This also used to happen in Afghanistan and during the first war in Chechnya. Without a federal military presence, the local government authorities and Chechen police force would be unable to resist the armed opposition.

Furthermore, "preventative operations" (clean-up operations, searches, or purges) and revenge taken by federal troops for guerrilla attacks most often target civilians - thus motivating them to support the armed opposition. Therefore, despite official figures about heavy casualties among guerrillas, the numbers in the field at any given time (2,000-3,000) remain virtually unchanged.

In addition Chechnya's borders are completely open, with the paradoxical exception of the 82-kilometre external border with Georgia which is kept comprehensively and securely closed by the Federal Border Guard Service. Outside this sector of the border, the guerrillas are virtually able to move unrestricted in and out of Chechnya, to keep their troops supplied with weapons, ammunition, medicines, supplies, reinforcements, money, drugs, etc.

Another important factor is that the troops, federal forces and agencies, along with the entire population of Chechnya, are living in a state of war - but without any kind of legal definition that would regulate the lives of civilians or the actions and status of government troops. The law on countering terrorism, the basis for the second campaign in Chechnya, is too narrow - and too dubious - to serve as a legislative foundation for such an extensive and destructive operation which has lasted for almost three years.

Under these circumstances, specific decisions are left to the discretion of division and sub-division commanders, or quite often even ordinary soldiers, who constantly face the threat of attack, are incapable of distinguishing ordinary townsfolk and countryfolk from armed separatists and frequently make no attempt to do so.

Moreover, as full-scale warfare was discontinued in spring 2000, the federal troops have been experiencing shortages of weapons, ammunition, and military hardware (multiple helicopter crashes represent the most glaring example). The living conditions of the troops are unsatisfactory; confusion and abuses abound in wage payments; the rights and benefits of military personnel are not clearly defined. All this facilitates corruption, demoralization, growing anger, declining discipline, and crime among the troops; sometimes it encourages them to loot and commit crimes and other unlawful actions directed against the civilians in CChechnya.

Another ubiquitous factor is the extreme confusion and disorder in the federal and region government in Chechnya; the actions of the military and intelligence agencies are poorly coordinated and are often arranged "via Moscow". This leads to government inefficiency, competition between government bodies at federal and regional levels, conflict between the pro-Moscow Chechen leaders, internal quarrels and unreliability in the Chechen police force. This creates fertile ground for corruption and the theft of financial and material resources - within and en route to Chechnya.

Clearly, the problem of Chechnya can only be permanently resolved by political means. This means negotiations and agreements with the leaders of the armed opposition, including Aslan Maskhadov. This might take the form of a peace conference in Moscow, where the president, opposition leaders, and Chechen loyalists would sign some relevant agreements that are acceptable to all parties. However, such negotiations must not become a smokescreen for the continued war on both sides; at the same time they cannot entail another case of capitulation by the federal government.

Therefore, a number of measures are required to create a favorable political foundation for negotiations and improve the situation in Chechnya. There are three main goals: firstly, to reduce support for the armed opposition among the people in Chechnya as much as possible; secondly, to isolate the guerrillas from the outside world and sever their supply lines; thirdly, to eliminate support for the rebels abroad - at least in the United States and Western Europe.

Past experience of counter-partisan warfare clearly indicates that if these conditions are not met, the rebels usually win in the end, despite the vast military superiority of organized government forces.

The following represents a list of measures; some of them correspond to specific goals. To implement them, however, the first thing that must be done - no matter how difficult it may be - is to admit that the "stabilization" policy in Chechnya has failed and demand a decisive change of course.

Firstly, a clear legal foundation must be created for continuing the operation. This would involve the declaration of a state of emergency in Chechnya and surrounding districts, based on the state of emergency law passed in May 2001, listing the rights and obligations of civilians, troops, the federal government and government of Chechnya. All armed resistance or violation of emergency regulations must be firmly and lawfully suppressed, in line with the state of emergency. At the same time, all possible measures must be taken to limit collateral damage for civilians.

The system of government in Chechnya must be regulated, including tight coordination of all military and special operations, reconstruction and social welfare measures, humanitarian aid, the formation and protection of local government. As long as there is a state of emergency, there should be one sole representative of the president in Chechnya; all military and civilian bodies should be subordinate to that person, with a stringent and distinct system of accountability, management and hierarchy.

Another important step is to use the Federal Border Guard Service to completely cut off guerrilla movement across the borders of Chechnya.

Within Chechnya, search operations should be stopped; fixed location checkpoints should be acknowledged as being counter-productive - their numbers should be reduced and partially replaced by mobile checkpoints. Apart from exceptional cases, the practice of shelling and air strikes on villages should be stopped; guerrillas ought to be destroyed as they cross borders or travel within Chechnya, or should be surrounded and blockaded within villages. The focus should shift to intelligence operations, espionage, precision air strikes and the shelling of guerrilla bases outside villages.

The present condition of the Russian Armed Forces and Interior Troops makes it impossible to improve the effectiveness of military operations, reduce combat or civilian casualties. The troops in Chechnya must be provided with everything they need in terms of military hardware and weapons, the best available in Russia, as well as communications and computer systems, high salaries and full benefits. The use of all-contract divisions, with no conscripts, should be maximized; coordination of military operations under unified command must be improved. More frequent and regular rotation of troops is also required. It would then be easier to take stern measures to stop breaches of discipline by military personnel, corruption, and crime - within the troops and against civilians.

Finally, Moscow should clearly and openly state its position for the negotiations it proposes to hold with leaders of the armed opposition. Chechnya's status as part of the Russian Federation is non-negotiable. This also holds true for the supremacy of the Constitution and federal law and the need for a long-term presence by federal troops and law enforcement agencies; but there should be as much flexibility as possible in deciding specific issues of status and programmes for the rebuilding of Chechnya.

All this would make it possible for the federal government to stop being on the defensive in foreign policy on the issue of Chechnya; Moscow could go on the offensive, stepping up its diplomatic and public relations efforts to discredit the armed opposition, publicize its crimes and links with international terrorism. This issue should be placed on the agenda at all talks between Russia and other nations or international organizations; the stance they take on Chechnya will be a deciding factor in the development of Russia's relations with them.

See also:
War in Chechnya (1996-2002)

Nezavisimoe Voyennoye Obozrenie, July 19, 2002

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