Latest Russian losses hit home

As elite local police units take on a security role in Chechnya, they make an easier target for rebels.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Entire communities in Russia are in anguish over the loss of dozens of local boys in a conflict the Kremlin keeps declaring finished.

The bodies of 20 members of an elite, crime-busting police unit yesterday were returned to Perm, an industrial city in the Urals, the Russian heartland. They were killed in an ambush by Chechen rebels in the mountainous area of Vedeno last Wednesday. Russian troops yesterday were still trying to find some 20 other members of the unit, who were missing after the attack.

"Everyone in this city is in shock," says Nikolai Kuznetsov, a journalist with the Perm Zvezda (Star), an independent daily. "Nothing like this has happened here in a long time."

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Like many Russian casualties from the Chechnya war, the dead were not soldiers but police from hinterland towns dispatched to perform security functions behind the front lines in Chechnya.

It's a bit like sending the Miami Vice Squad to fight in Vietnam. The policy of sending OMON - elite local police units - to the war zone results from a vagueness in Russian constitutional law and military doctrine that stipulates the Army is for external threats only.

"The Interior Ministry is supposed to play the leading role in dealing with internal disturbances," says Viktor Boronyets, a former spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry, now a public military expert. "Our government wants to preserve the fiction that Chechnya is not a real war. That's why the police are doing military work down there."

The Russian Army has been in the forefront of taking territory and battering the rebels' "organized armed formations" in a campaign widely criticized by Western governments and human rights groups for indiscriminately targeting civilians as well. Now that most of the breakaway republic is under Russian control, the military seems anxious to transfer the tasks of "keeping order" to the Interior Ministry. "It may not make the best military sense, but we are likely to see more OMON being sent down to Chechnya if the guerrilla war becomes more intense," says Mr. Boronyets.

Unlike small numbers of Russian casualties reported in the past, the sudden massacres of large numbers of men from a single place make news headlines and become community tragedies. Most Army divisions are made up of conscripts from all over, whereas police units are home-town boys, sent as a group for temporary Chechnya service.

Rising Russian toll

A month ago, the small town of Sergeyev Posad, north of Moscow, buried 18 officers of a local OMON detachment ambushed while driving through a suburb of Grozny, the Chechen capital, supposedly under Russian control. In mid-March, an entire regiment of paratroopers from the western Russian city of Pskov - 84 men - was wiped out in a three-day mountain battle near the Argun Gorge, in southern Chechnya.

"These funerals hit local communities like a natural disaster, like an earth-quake," says Yury Levada, director of VTsIOM, Russia's leading public-opinion service.

Polls show a solid majority of Russians still support the six-month-old Chechnya war, though Mr. Levada says the numbers are gradually sliding. Last week's 53 percent first-round win for the conflict's chief architect, President Vladimir Putin, may be read as a public referendum on his policies.

But a survey conducted last week by ARPI, a leading polling agency, found that 52 percent of Russians are now braced for a drawn-out guerrilla war as opposed to just 12 percent who believe Kremlin claims that Chechen rebels are on the verge of final defeat.

"The casualty rate in this war is already much higher than in previous conflicts, like the 1994-96 Chechnya war or the long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s," says Alexander Goltz, military expert with the weekly newsmagazine Itogi.

"Russia is a big country, and we haven't seen much impact on public opinion yet. But these mass funerals draw peoples' attention in a very dramatic way".

However, Valery Psygankov, deputy editor of Pskovskaya Pravda, a paper run by the Pskov regional government, argues the effect of last month's tragic toll of local boys was to bolster backing for the war.

"People want revenge, and they have begun to understand that those bandits must be destroyed," he says. He points to Putin's 62 percent support in Pskov as evidence of this.

But he adds that local people are very angry about the blunders and negligence that led to the 84 Pskov paratroopers being surrounded and wiped out by Chechen fighters last month.

"The families are just amazed at the conditions the men had to fight under," he says. "They are asking questions about how our boys were left on a mountainside for three days to be slaughtered, without relief or aviation support? People here support the war, but they are furious at the generals."

'Disorder' causes disasters

Boronyets says the "usual Russian disorder" is responsible for the disasters. He cites lack of proper battlefield intelligence, inadequate communications, poor coordination between Army and police command structures in the field, and absence of quick-response helicopter support as the main problems.

But, he adds, it would be much better if professional soldiers were conducting operations in rugged Chechnya rather than OMON urban crime-fighters. "We've seen OMON units falling into ambushes, and probably will see a good deal more of it," he says. "That leads to these terrible mass funerals, which are sapping public morale."

And there's another downside, he says. "Our best crime-fighting police are being taken from their home field of activities to serve and die in Chechnya. Criminals all over Russia are laughing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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