Battle Shy

From their positions just over the border with Dagestan, Russian troops look down on the village of Tukhchar and, in the middle distance, the mountains of Chechnya. Young conscripts dig elaborate trenches and dugouts. Their officers sit nearby in a beat-up cabin, drinking vodka and cracking dirty jokes. Occasionally the commander of one of the two tanks in the unit clambers inside and lets loose half a dozen rounds in the direction of Tukhchar, demolishing buildings and setting fire to haystacks; the other officers laugh and cheer. At night the horizon is lit by flaming oil wells and the flashes of gunfire from Russian heavy artillery lobbing shells 30 kilometers into the Chechen interior. Occasionally, nervous soldiers fire volleys at cattle that wander too close to their positions. Though the troops have reported periodic sniper fire from the hills above the village, the Chechen fighters they are supposed to be engaging show no signs of serious resistance. Not yet, anyway.

And so far, Russian troops show little eagerness to take them on. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised to "wipe out terrorists" in Chechnya in the wake of a series of Chechen-led incursions by Islamic extremists into Dagestan and four unexplained terrorist bombings in Moscow and other cities. The explosions alone left nearly 300 dead. Putin, clearly wary of the possible political fallout from another disastrous Chechen war, also declared last week that Russian attacks were directed "solely against terrorist bases." But on the ground, Russian military tactics already seem as slapdash and haphazard as during Russia's previous Chechen campaign from 1994 to 1996, which left 80,000 dead and resulted in a humiliating defeat for Moscow's army.

Consider the Interior Ministry's Astrakhan Brigade, stationed above Tukhchar. It has only the vaguest standing orders about who and what to fire on, receives little reconnaissance information about the movement of Chechen fighters, and only rarely gets any direct orders from headquarters. As for alleged terrorist camps, the tank gunners haven't seen any, and Russian planes are too wary of Stinger missiles to fly in low to conduct effective aerial surveillance. "Most of the time we don't have a damn clue who's in charge around here," said Igor, the brigade's internal security officer who, like all the soldiers interviewed for this story, wouldn't allow his surname to be printed. "Frankly, these boys aren't ready or willing to fight."

When he sent troops into Chechnya late last month, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said that "this time we will do things more effectively." But so far most of the soldiers who have seized the northern third of Chechnya are not elite Spetznaz commandos and paratroops but--as last time--19-year-old conscripts doing their compulsory two years' military service. "You hear stories from the guys who fought in the last war--about how their friends died in their arms," says Alyosha, a skinny, 5-foot-2, 19-year-old from a remote village in the Upper Volga. "How could I ever want to go to war in Chechnya?"

There is a deep cynicism among the brigade's commanders about the motives of the generals and politicians who ordered the invasion. Supplies--though not of vodka--are short, and the officers send soldiers to round up goats and calves from neighboring farmsteads for the brigade's field kitchen. The brigade itself is in fact barely a battalion, and half of its 350 soldiers are due to go home in a month, when their military service ends. No one knows if or when they will be replaced. "Someone is making a lot of money out of this war, and it isn't us," says Alexander, a major with 11 years' service who fought in the previous Chechen campaign. "We professionals will just do what we're told, that's our job. But I feel sorry for the kids, the conscripts."

Chechens, on the other hand, seem full of fighting spirit, determined to combat Russian domination--much as they have done for two centuries. Above the village of Chervlyonnoye, about 20 kilometers north of Grozny, a platoon of irregular fighters mans a line of hastily-dug trenches overlooking a narrow bridge. The fighters are armed only with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but say they are ready to fight to the death. "If the Russians make us fight, we will fight. What else can we do? Where else can we go?" says 33-year-old Khamda, the platoon's commander. A veteran of the last war, he claims 11 Russian "hides," or kills.

Younger fighters like 19-year-old Yunus missed the last war. Five of his relatives were killed, though, and now he says he will fight "with joy. My elder brothers fought, and I had to stay at home with the women. They said, 'Next time, when you are a man, you will fight.' And this is the next time," he says. A shy young man from the Vedeno area of eastern Chechnya, Yunus volunteered as soon as he heard that Russian troops had crossed the Chechen border last month. "To die a martyr in battle is to go straight to heaven. I am not afraid."

Does Russia have a battle plan? Prime Minister Putin's strategy seems to be to seize as much of relatively flat northern Chechnya as possible before the harsh winter sets in, pushing Chechen fighters into the wooded hills and then destroying them with air attacks and long-range shelling. Late last week Russian troops crossed the Terek River and bombed northern Grozny, possibly in preparation for a push toward the capital. Moscow seems intent on forcing civilians into the northern zone under its control, where it could establish a puppet, pro-Russia government. It has already promised to pay pensions, salaries and subsidies to north Chechnya, while bombing the south. Earlier this month, Russian planes riddled the center of the mountain village of Elistanzhi with cluster bombs, explosives that separate into dozens of mini-bombs as they fall and inflict maximum casualties. "They are trying to push us out of our homes, make us leave," says Raisa, whose 9-month-old son, Imamshamil, lost a foot in the attack.

The Chechens are no strangers to ethnic cleansing. Stalin deported the nation en masse to Kazakhstan in 1943, when he became convinced the Chechens were pro-German. Many Chechens fear that the Russians are attempting another forced evacuation, this time by bombing and curtailing power and gas supplies. More than 150,000 of Chechnya's 350,000 inhabitants have fled in the last month to refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan; many of those who stayed behind did so out of concern that, should they leave, the Russians wouldn't let them return home. "Moscow is trying to establish a puppet government of traitors... luring people with promises of money. It will not work," Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told NEWSWEEK last week. "A Chechen will take your money, but he will never sell himself."

The war has temporarily united warring Chechen factions against a common enemy. For now Maskhadov seems to have made his peace with his rival, rebel commander Shamil Basayev, who led the incursions into Dagestan but has now said he will fight alongside Chechen government forces.

Putin may be hoping for the same effect at home. The Russian media, which during the 1994-96 fighting grew increasingly critical of the Kremlin's war in Chechnya, is this time firmly behind Putin. News accounts parrot Russian army press reports of the destruction of "terrorist positions" and refuse to air Chechen footage of an attack on a bus full of refugees that killed 41 people on Oct. 7. But if the war drags on, the burst of popularity may be short-lived, as winter sets in and Russia gets sucked into another war of attrition with the hardy Chechens. "We learned a lot during the last war," says Maskhadov. Has Moscow?

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