Russia's risks in new phase of Chechen war

There were signs of a political split Sunday as troops readied for a

Political divisions are appearing in Moscow as the Russian military prepares to press beyond its self-declared "buffer zone" in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Russian generals are talking tough after the apparent success of "Phase 1" of the operation to seal off the troublesome region in response to Chechen-led incursions into neighboring Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings Moscow blames on Chechen rebels. The tiny republic's virtual independence has been a bone in Moscow's throat and a source of instability in the Caucasus since it drove out Russian forces out in a bitter 1994-96 civil war.

"We are not going to hurry. We will go forward according to plan and not repeat our past mistakes," Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of Russian forces in the north Caucasus, told the Moscow daily Izvestia yesterday as the two sides reportedly skirmished north of the Chechen capital, Grozny. "The goal is to destroy the bandits [Moscow's term for Chechen fighters], and make it impossible for them to operate," he said.

Since the beginning of this month, Russian forces have occupied the flat and sparsely settled third of Chechnya north of the river Terek. Russian casualties have been relatively light, while an estimated 160,000 refugees have fled the fighting.

But before the weather turns sour, Russian generals must make a difficult choice: Should their forces advance into the hilly country south of the Terek, where most of Chechnya's population centers are located, or camp for the winter in the bleak and unprotected steppes on the river's northern bank? An assault on the heartland could mean heavy casualties for both sides. But standing pat spells lost initiative and a chance for Chechen rebels to regroup and counterattack.

"There is a huge struggle under way within the general staff over what to do next," says Alexander Goltz, a military expert with the Itogi newsmagazine. "It's really a choice between very bad and worse options.... Supplying the troops, and the huge numbers of refugees, is going to be a gigantic problem," he says.

The war's chief political author, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has so far remained silent. His popularity rating has soared from 2 percent to nearly 20 percent since the conflict began. "It's been a good war for Putin so far," says Irina Kobrinskaya, Moscow director of the East-West Institute, an independent think tank. "But it's clear that his popularity will last only as long as the successful aura of this operation does."

The first cracks may already be appearing. The leaders of the four top coalitions campaigning for December 19 parliamentary elections - all of whom earlier supported the war - appeared on television Sunday night to categorically oppose any frontal attack on Chechnya.

"Of course we must contain the terrorists and ultimately destroy them," said Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a strong presidential contender. "But our boys must not be made to pay the price." Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, head of the liberal Yabloko party Grigory Yavlinsky, and former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who leads a right-wing coalition, all agreed that going forward involves unacceptably high risks.

In the previous conflict, Grozny became a graveyard where highly mobile Chechen irregulars trapped Russian tanks in the narrow streets and destroyed them by the hundreds. General Kazantsev suggested that the city might be blockaded rather than stormed this time. "What do we need Grozny for? It's not a strategic objective."

Gas and electricity have already been cut off, threatening tragedy as winter sets in. Grozny still has a population estimated at 150,000, including 20,000 ethnic Russians.

Experts say that in the next few days the Kremlin is going to have to decide on a course of action. The choice may well determine the outcome of Russia's looming parliamentary and presidential elections.

"Opposition parties are beginning to openly oppose the war because they see that it's probably going to turn bad," says Ms. Kobrinskaya.

"When the coffins start coming in, no one will want to take any responsibility for this war."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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