Russian forces intend to regain control of Chechnya, but will not storm the capital of the breakaway region, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said today. He said the military would drive guerrilla defenders from Grozny with bombs, artillery and rockets.
Sergeyev's remarks highlighted the Russian government's seemingly contradictory objectives: to reclaim Chechnya, which has been essentially independent for three years, and to avoid heavy casualties.
In the first Chechen war from 1994-96, the Russians assaulted Grozny in armored vehicles and suffered heavy losses. They were driven out of the city in a bloody rebel counteroffensive that broke Russia's will to hold onto the southern region, where Islamic guerrillas seek to establish an independent state.
Russia sent its forces back into Chechnya in late September, and this time, it appears the military wants to retake Grozny from a distance. Russian forces have advanced to within a few miles of the city.
"No storming of Grozny will take place," Sergeyev told the Interfax news agency while on a trip to Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia. Russian military units currently are surrounding Chechnya's cities and are attacking them from close range, but not entering them, he said.
"Reconnaissance, artillery and the air force destroy gangs, their camps and bases," Sergeyev said. Russia "is planning to free not only the city of Grozny from terrorists, but all of Chechnya," he said.
At the start of the nearly five-week-old offensive, officials said the objective was to establish a buffer zone inside Chechnya to insulate Russia from Chechen guerrillas it blamed for terrorist bombings that killed more than 300 people in Moscow and other cities in September. Chechen-based rebels had crossed into the neighboring region of Dagestan last summer.
Once the offensive was under way, officials said the objective was to wipe out the terrorists. Now, the goal has shifted to full domination of Chechnya.
The first stage of the war suited Russia's conventional armed forces. Tanks and armored carriers entered Chechnya from the north and rolled across flat terrain dotted by villages, with jet bombers leading the way. The forces have now advanced to central Chechnya and its two biggest population centers, Grozny and Gudermes.
In cities, Russian troops would face danger from guerrilla ambush, and air support would be useless. Southern Chechnya is mountainous, making it even more hospitable to guerrilla warfare. Russian analysts describe an intense hunger for victory among generals hoping to redeem themselves from the previous failure in Chechnya. Leading the charge is chief of staff Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, who is said to have an eye on the defense minister's post. But Russian officials say some generals are more eager than others to storm Grozny. Less than two weeks ago, Gen. Gennady Troshev, a field commander, said it would be "treason" not to enter the city. Russian troops already have received orders to dig in for winter on heights overlooking Grozny, said Mikhail Margelov, a spokesman for the Russian Information Center, an office set up by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to dispense war news. "They want to avoid casualties as long as possible," Margelov said. "They have learned from past mistakes."
Russian television today broadcast scenes of helicopters firing rockets. Bodies of Chechen fighters were displayed along with their homemade weapons. One was a bazooka made with plumbing pipes.
Russian reinforcements also are reaching the front, according to the broadcast. Two brawny, masked men in fatigues were interviewed. One, apparently a veteran of the previous Chechen war, used heavy mafia street slang to describe his work. "No haggling," he said. "We're not going to let the brotherhood down. They [Chechens] have a blood vendetta. So do we. A lot of ours were lost there, left in the last war. Everything will be no haggling."
The model for the taking of Grozny seems to be Gudermes, about 10 miles east of the capital, which is surrounded by Russian forces. Gudermes has been pummeled with artillery for several days. Almost no guerrillas are left in the city, the Russians said. Mopping up operations will be carried out by Chechens who sympathize with the Russian offensive Sergeyev said. The Russians hold heights to the north and west of Grozny, and are moving to high ground south of Gudermes, reports said. Securing Gudermes would complete a formidable horseshoe of rocketry and artillery surrounding Grozny on the east, west and north.