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Chechen Conflict Now Rages Beyond Russia's Expectations

By David E. Hoffman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A15

MOSCOW, Sept. 2 -- On the eve of a decision to put down a separatist rebellion in the southern province of Chechnya 10 years ago, Oleg Lobov, one of President Boris Yeltsin's advisers, said that what Yeltsin needed for political purposes was "a small victorious war."

Today, that conflict rages beyond the borders of Chechnya, neither small nor victorious for Russia or the rebels. Wednesday's raid on a school in neighboring North Ossetia, in which fighters took hundreds of hostages on the first day of classes to demand a Russian withdrawal and the release of Chechen prisoners, underscored yet again the heavy toll this war has taken on Russians and Chechens alike.

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Thrust into the Russian presidency in 1999 on a wave of popular support for stronger military action in the restive region, Vladimir Putin dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Chechnya. With the Russian public furious over apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities that the Kremlin had blamed on Chechens, he promised to be tougher than Yeltsin.

He vowed in earthy slang to wipe out the separatists, but Russia has been seized this week and last with painful reminders that he has not: two airliners apparently blown up in mid-flight, a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station, and now schoolchildren taken hostage.

"The military policy that the Russian Federation is so stubbornly pursuing in Chechnya is not just a dead-end policy, but a policy that merely aggravates the Caucasus crisis," Tatyana Lokshina, program director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, told reporters.

Gennady Gudkov, a former senior officer in the KGB and now a member of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said: "This will go on until we ourselves learn how to prevent terrorist acts, until we learn how to carry out effective operations to destroy terrorists."

At the core of the long conflict has been resistance by Chechens, who are largely Muslim, to rule by Russia, which has refused to grant the region independence. Some Russians expressed concern after the collapse of the Soviet Union that if Chechnya became independent, other regions would seek to secede. Moscow made deals with such regions as Tatarstan for greatly expanded autonomy, but went to war with the Chechens.

Today a sense of fatigue and deadlock hangs over the conflict. In a decade of fighting, tens of thousands of people have died, a large share of them civilians. The Russians have used harsh occupation tactics, destroying villages and rounding up prisoners, according to human rights groups and witnesses, while the Chechens have turned, with increasing frequency, to suicide attacks on Russian civilian targets.

War and upheaval have marked Chechnya for decades. Early in the 19th century, the Russian general Alexei Yermolov set about conquering Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, leveling Chechen villages and building lines of fortresses through the region.

But the Chechens fought back, and were led by a legendary mountain fighter, Imam Shamil, for a quarter-century. Authors Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal observed in their 1998 book, "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucuses," that "in fighting the Caucasian wars, the Russians committed many of the mistakes which have characterized them in the region before and since. . . . Above all there was a constant underestimation of the people they were fighting against. The policy chosen was consistently one of total attack, leaving the natives no option but to resist as desperately as they could."

Their lands later incorporated into the Soviet Union, half a million Chechens and Ingush were suddenly deported by the dictator Joseph Stalin to Kazakhstan during World War II, apparently out of fear that some would help the Nazis. They were free to return only after Stalin's death in 1953.

The latest conflict has its origins in the final years of the Soviet Union. The weakening of central authority gave rise to demands for autonomy in many regions. A former Soviet air force commander, Dzhokar Dudayev, took control in Chechnya and launched a separatist movement in 1991.

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of that year, little attention was paid to events in Chechnya; Yeltsin was preoccupied in Moscow with the economic upheaval and a battle with parliament. Chechnya became a notorious zone for smuggling. Weapons were everywhere.

By 1994, faced with growing chaos, Yeltsin, surrounded by a small group of hard-liners, decided to act. On Nov. 26, the Russians sent tank columns to the Chechen capital, Grozny, in a bid to support opposition to Dudayev. The attack was a fiasco; Dudayev's fighters killed many soldiers and captured nearly two dozen.

The embarrassing rout set in motion a larger offensive, which was planned in secret in the Kremlin. The idea was to stage a sudden strike that would frighten the Chechens into submission, but when carried out, the invasion quickly turned to disaster. The Russian troops met bad weather and ruthless guerrilla attacks, then suffered a punishing, deadly defeat on New Year's Eve in the capital.

The war threw light on the weakness of the Russian army, but also underscored the new vibrancy of the Moscow news media. A private television station, NTV, gained a huge share of viewers in a short period of a few weeks by showing what state television would not -- graphic pictures of battles in Chechnya of a kind that Russians had never seen during their war in Afghanistan. The war also galvanized opposition in Russia to military conscription.

The Chechens sometimes attacked outside the region, including at a hospital in southern Russia.

Dudayev was killed by a Russian rocket attack in April 1996, but the war continued. The Russian army was bruised and battered. Yeltsin agreed to a cease-fire later in the year. The plan was for Chechen self-government and some kind of autonomy for five years.

The chaos that followed gave rise to several powerful militia leaders. The Chechen resistance, which had initially been nationalist and separatist, was now joined by Arab fighters from outside, many of them Islamic radicals.

One of the warlords, Shamil Basayev, led an armed incursion into neighboring Dagestan in 1999, hoping to trigger an uprising there. The apartment building bombings, in which more than 300 people died, followed a few weeks later. Putin, who had just become Yeltsin's prime minister, decided to send in the troops again -- and a second war unfolded.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company