A Fight For Honor?

Two Russian fighter-bombers, flying low and tight over the high mountain ridges, dropped eight cluster bombs on the Chechen village of Elistanzhi. One bomb hit the local school, killing at least nine children, and others demolished eight houses. Most of the dead were women and children, village elders said on Saturday as they mourned and buried their dead. Men stood in a circle praying as women in their houses wailed. "They say they are bombing just terrorists... but there are no terrorists here," said Walid Basayev, the local magistrate, standing next to a man who cradled his brother's charred remains in a tattered bundle. "If they force us to fight, we will fight, and we will fight like animals... Now we have a blood feud to avenge against the Russians."

Moscow has a history of making enemies in Chechnya. The first time Russian tanks rumbled into the separatist republic, in 1994, they were forced to withdraw ingloriously 21 months later. As a face-saving measure, the two sides agreed to defer a decision on Chechen independence for five years. But after recent incursions into neighboring Dagestan, led by Islamic radicals in Chechnya, as well as four mysterious bombings of Russian apartment buildings, Moscow's frustrated leaders lashed out. In recent weeks Russian troops bent on restoring their tattered reputation have captured roughly a third of Chechnya. Even as President Boris Yeltsin was taken to the hospital last week--this time with a high fever and flu, the Kremlin said--Chechen rebels were striking back.

That's scary, and not just for the Chechen civilians who are certain to suffer most from another prolonged conflict. During the last Chechen campaign, Russian soldiers who weren't cut down in battle were often felled by sickness. Hepatitis was rampant because of poor sanitation and bad food. Now the Russian military--and Russia generally--is in worse shape. "What happens when this goes bad, and suddenly conscripts decide they don't need to be there any longer?" asks a U.S. Army analyst, who was permitted to speak on background only. "The last time Russians deserted in large numbers was World War I, when Lenin was planning his return to Moscow."

Russian officers believe they've learned key lessons from the first Chechen fiasco. The troops spearheading this operation are elite paratroopers and Spetsnaz special commandos, not ragtag grunts. The Russians may also be taking a page from Washington's playbook by relying heavily on air power. As of last week, Russian ground forces had sensibly stopped short of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and its mountainous hinterland, where Islamic rebels can hide, move and fight with tactical advantage.

From Moscow's perspective, that's the good news. But military expert Pavel Felgenhauer points out that while some units in eastern Chechnya may be skilled commandos, most of the soldiers engaged in this campaign are "more or less the same kind of cannon fodder" that was deployed from 1994 to 1996. Moreover, the 30,000-strong force--elite or otherwise--needs equipment, money and food. Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov last week admitted that he'd have to rewrite his budget to pay for the Chechen campaign. The smart money in Moscow was betting that he didn't have the rubles for a sustained operation.

Officials are annoyingly coy about their long-term strategy. Riding a wave of anger over the apartment-building bombings --attacks that Moscow claims were the work of Islamic terrorists--Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced last week that the Chechen campaign would soon enter "phase two," which he described as the "total annihilation of terrorism." Analysts imagined three possibilities. Option one was a full-scale invasion. But given past experience, that seemed too ambitious. Option two was to hold on to gains in northern Chechnya, establish a proxy government and consolidate a cordon sanitaire around the rebel republic. Skeptics are quick to point out that this option is remarkably similar to Israel's failed strategy in southern Lebanon. Option three was option two-plus: no major invasion, but constant bombardment of "terrorist positions" with periodic ground strikes by elite forces.

Until late last week, Russian bombers were hitting many civilian targets, including power plants and at least one bus that carried 40 people. The night sky over Grozny flickered with light from burning pipelines and oil wells. Refugees choked the road west into neighboring Ingushetia, even though many Chechen men refuse to run; they fear the notorious Russian "filtration camps" used during the last war to torture and interrogate Chechen men of military age.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov suspects that Russia's first aim is to foment civil war within his republic. But the onslaught seemed to have an altogether different effect. Renegade warlords like Shamil Basayev and the mysterious Mideast-born extremist who goes by one name--Khattab--appeared to be circling the wagons. Basayev, who has de facto control over most of eastern Chechnya, recently pledged to recognize Maskhadov as commander in chief in the fight against their common enemy.

Moscow hopes to create an alternative leadership. Putin recently declared that the rump Chechen Parliament, elected under Russian occupation in 1996--when neither the hill men nor refugees could vote--was "the sole legitimate organ of power in Chechnya." That assessment is, at best, wishful thinking. The pro-Russian Parliament proved deeply unpopular after Russia's withdrawal in October '96, and most of the deputies fled to Moscow. At least two of those who stayed were murdered as collaborators. Even the pro-Kremlin Moscow press is ridiculing the government in exile as "puppets." For Russia's fighting men, it seems like a recipe not for the restoration of their reputation, but for further humiliation.