One of the more unconscionable aspects of Boris Yeltsin's complex legacy is the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, in which he was largely responsible for the deaths of more Russian citizens--many of them ethnic Russians--than any Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin.
Tens of thousands died in that war, most of them noncombatants and many as a result of Russian aerial bombs, rockets and artillery shells that fell with deadly abandon on Chechen cities, towns and villages. Despite having used practically every conventional weapon at its disposal, and with no sense of restraint, Russia lost that war and withdrew ignominiously. Once a reasonably attractive city of 400,000, Chechnya's capital of Grozny was reduced to a smashed, smoldering husk reminiscent of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.
That Russia is embarking just three years later on what is starting to look like a rerun of the first Chechen war suggests that memories in Moscow are astonishingly short. Russian ground forces moved into Chechnya on Thursday, supporting a bombing campaign that began eight days earlier.
Once again, Russian generals and politicians have promised with dubious specificity that the campaign will be over shortly. Against all evidence, Russian ministers are once again mouthing the words that became a ludicrous incantation during the chaos of 1995: "The situation is under control." Once again, Russian claims of "surgical strikes" against "bandit targets" are, to put it charitably, highly suspect.
Bombing Chechnya seems popular for now with a segment of the Russian public. But that proves nothing more than that Chechens--often disparaged by Russians as "black asses"--are widely disliked and suspected (without proof) of carrying out terrorist bombings in Russian cities. If, as seems likely, the current campaign turns out to be messy, protracted and bloody, there is no reason to think that Russia's second Chechen war will end any less tragically than the first.
I have been around guerrilla wars, bombing campaigns and bloody upheavals in various parts of the world, but my reporting trips to Chechnya stick in my mind for two reasons.
First, I have never seen a more extravagant, terrifying and ultimately futile use of firepower in populated areas than that which the Russians unleashed on Chechnya. My journalistic colleagues who arrived in 1995 fresh from covering the carnage in Bosnia were similarly stunned to discover that Chechnya was in many ways a far more dangerous place than Sarajevo.
One morning at the start of the war, a young American photographer working in Grozny, Cynthia Elbaum, went to record the scene in a residential neighborhood bombed by Russian warplanes. But when more Russian bombers dropped their loads on what appeared to be a target of no military significance, Elbaum was caught in the wrong place. She was decapitated by shrapnel.
The civilian population of Grozny, home to a large number of elderly and retired ethnic Russians, fared no better as the Kremlin ordered a full-scale pounding of the city. Indeed, the Russian approach to capturing the capital was to treat it not as a city held by a scrappy guerrilla force numbering at most a few thousand, but rather as a major military objective of a hostile foreign power--as if it were Berlin in World War II. For civilians, the consequences were lethal.
Second, in the Chechens the Russians faced an unusually tough and resourceful adversary. Unlike Moscow's bumbling, occasionally drunken, poorly equipped and undertrained forces, the Chechens were sober, skilled in combat, well organized, ably led, highly motivated and fighting on terrain they knew intimately.
However sympathetic or hostile one might have been to the Chechens or their separatist cause--and I was frankly more concerned with getting out alive than picking favorites--it was hard not to be impressed by their martial ability.
Of course, the Chechens enjoyed and exploited the natural advantages of any guerrilla fighters: the ability to strike the enemy and then melt away into the mountains when the Russians turned up the heat, and the ability to infiltrate--sometimes time and again--areas that the Russians had triumphantly "captured." I remember one Chechen town by the name of Argun, just east of Grozny, which the Russians announced they had taken literally dozens of times; they could never hold it.
It is hard to know today what part of the military equation in Chechnya has changed significantly since the end of the last war. Certainly, the Chechens are hardly blameless. It was their incursions into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, led by a fanatical, fearless guerrilla commander named Shamil Basayev bent on waging "holy war" against Russia, that started this round of violence. Unfortunately, the very real threat of kidnapping faced by outsiders in Chechnya since 1996 has deterred Western journalists from traveling to the region to report firsthand on the current conflict.
The Russians say the bombing campaign is designed to liquidate the terrorists they believe are responsible for blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere. Perhaps they hope that by inflicting enough pain on Chechnya they will bring Basayev to heel and force him to drop his adventure in Dagestan. Perhaps, too, there are political ambitions at work in Moscow, and the Kremlin imagines that the reconquest of Chechnya would raise the low public esteem in which Yeltsin and his government are held.
In any event, it is a dubious strategy. In 1995, the Russians tried remote aerial bombing and artillery strikes in an attempt to shatter Chechen infrastructure and morale; the benefits of those tactics were short-lived. There is no apparent reason to think the Russian campaign today, even or especially if the ground war is expanded, will yield better results than it did last time. Rather, its lurid effects are already becoming clear: tens of thousands of fleeing refugees, hundreds of civilian casualties and a harvest of bitter feelings and political mayhem throughout both the Caucasus region and in Moscow itself.
Lee Hockstader, a former Moscow correspondent and now Jerusalem bureau chief for The Post, made repeated trips to Chechnya from 1994 to 1996.