Nine months after its military "antiterrorist" operation in Chechnya began, Moscow is reaping a bitter harvest in the breakaway Caucasus republic.
The reason: a strategic change in tactics by Chechen rebels.
Reeling under the pressure of overwhelming Russian force, Chechen resistance has mutated from conventional defense of positions to a hit-and-run guerrilla war - so effective in the previous 1994-1996 conflict - and is now unleashing Middle East-style tactics of suicide bombings against ill-prepared security forces.
Only the Russian military claimed to be surprised this week when a well-coordinated series of attacks by suicide truck bombers slammed into security checkpoints and a police dormitory in key Chechen cities, leaving an official toll of 33 soldiers dead and 84 injured. Eleven civilians were also reported killed.
The Army, which barely two weeks ago was declaring victory in Chechnya - not for the first time in the current campaign - reacted as it has after each of its frequent setbacks in recent months. Russian commander Gen. Gennady Troshev blamed "lax discipline" among the troops and ordered tough new security measures, including a shoot-on-sight curfew and harsh restrictions on civilian movements.
Most of the Russian forces killed in the attack are members of an elite police unit from the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, which this week will hold a mass funeral to be attended by national leaders and intensely covered by the media. In recent months almost a dozen Russian communities have suffered the same trauma, as rebels targeted troops with increasing ferocity
"This war is developing in the classic direction of 20th-century guerrilla struggles, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the weekly Itogi newsmagazine. "The military will crack down harder, and that will lead to more savage and clever forms of terrorism. All this testifies that our leaders have learned nothing from world experience."
Since the beginning of the current campaign to suppress Chechnya's independence drive, experts have been warning that the war was unwinnable. Russian generals, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of Chechen irregulars in the 1994-96 conflict, have insisted that with greater and "smarter" application of force, the rebels could be smashed. As Chechnya's major cities fell, the Russian Army has repeatedly declared victory.
"The Chechens are reading from a different script," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian military expert. "Their preference was to fight like a regular army, and they did so in the beginning. But a Russian force of 100,000 men, armed with modern heavy weapons, was too much for them. But there is a whole menu of alternative tactics, tested in world practice, for the Chechens to fall back on."
Although Chechens had never before employed the kind of suicide tactics displayed over the past month - and with brutal effectiveness in Monday's attacks - experts say suicide attacks will become a permanent part of their military repertoire. "We have two battalions numbering about 500 suicide bombers who are fully prepared and awaiting orders to carry out operations within Chechnya and throughout the rest of Russia," rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov told Agence France Press this week.
Incidentally, it was the bombings on civilian targets across Russia last year that triggered the Russian offensive. "The generals are saying they can manage this new problem with heightened security and vigilance, but in sad reality our military is vulnerable everywhere," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "The Army is bankrupt, corrupt, and lackadaisical in everything it does. There is no way to protect all the military bases, lines of communication, and personnel everywhere in Russia. We are wide open."
The turn to kamikaze terrorism was predicted by Russian experts who point out that many Chechen fighters, influenced by Islamic belief in martyrdom, have long worn the green headbands that proclaim a readiness to die fighting. "The leap to organized suicide bombing is new, but not strange," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the Institute of Caucasian Studies in Moscow and one of Russia's leading authorities on the region. "Chechnya is on the frontier of the Islamic world, so we can expect the Chechen fighters to adapt tactics used by others. We've seen all this before in Beirut, for instance."
Mr. Iskanderyan says the "kamikaze subculture" will rapidly proliferate among angry and vengeful young Chechens. "They are a very receptive population," he says. "They've all lost friends and relatives. They feel their land is occupied and oppressed. This way of fighting back will take hold of their imaginations quickly."
Experts warn that this stage can last for years, or decades. "Let's call it a deadlock," says Mr. Golts. "Neither the Russian Army nor government has any kind of exit strategy for this war, so we can expect them to just go on reacting to events. As for the Chechens, they can be counted on to find more and more imaginative ways to remind us that this war cannot be won."
Meanwhile, a political solution seems more distant than ever.
"I do not believe the will or the wisdom exists in the Kremlin today to take the necessary measures," which would involve negotiating with Chechen "terrorist" leaders and perhaps granting the breakaway republic some form of independence, says Mr. Iskanderyan.
"Our current leaders have invested their reputations in an impossible outcome, a military solution to Chechnya. Unfortunately I cannot imagine these people rising to the challenge of ending this war."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society