The War Still to Come

The first thing one notices in Grozny is that there is no such thing as a front line. There are no "controlled areas." The battle is being waged from building to building, block by block. In the center of at all, the huge gray presidential palace burns slowly, eerily reminiscent of the White House in October 1993.

No matter how much Russia's military tries to deny it, the battle for Grozny will not be over when the bunker beneath the presidential palace -- which holds wounded Russian soldiers and prisoners of war as well as about 200 Chechen fighters -- is stormed. Raising the Russian flag over the building will not signal the capitulation of Grozny. And even taking control of Grozny -- which amounts to destroying the city's entire male population -- will not bring "constitutional order" to Chechnya. Even killing Dzhokhar Dudayev himself will not bring Chechnya to its knees.

"Russian troops are not fighting against Chechnya. They are trying to disarm its armed formations." Criminals, we are told, are oppressing the citizenry. But the Russian government's solution to this problem -- which has already cost thousands of civilian lives -- has stirred up the entire Caucasus region. While the year-long war between Dudayev and the Russian-sponsored opposition was considered an internal Chechen matter, the introduction of the Russian Army has considerably expanded the limits of the conflict.

Ingushetia and Dagestan, the most immediately affected regions, opposed the Russian tank columns passing through their territory. The first confrontations and the first casualties occurred in these republics. To a large extent, the future of the conflict depends on the positions these governments take.

It is impossible to overestimate the value of the assistance that Ingushetia has provided to Chechnya so far. That republic has already had a taste of war with Russia, when tanks rolled in two years ago. "History is repeating itself," my Ingush driver told me last week. "The same 'armed bands,' etc. In 1944, they turned Soviet Army Day into a day of mourning for us. Now they have ruined New Year's. Yeltsin is even worse than Stalin. After all, 96 percent of Chechnya and Ingushetia voted for him. We were voting for our own deaths."

Azamat Analgiyev, a deputy in the Ingush legislature, says much the same thing. "On Jan. 2, a bomb fell in the market in Shali, and dozens of people were killed. When a bomb hit the market in Sarajevo, the whole world was outraged. But who heard about Shali? Such things are happening in other mountain villages as well. Orshty, Orekhovoye, many others. Practically wiped off the map. This isn't just a war; it is genocide." That is why so many Ingusheti, many with battle experience in Abkhazia and Afghanistan, are fighting side by side with the Chechen militia.

Since the introduction of Russian troops into Chechnya, it has become clear that relatively few Chechen fighters are personally loyal to Dudayev. "Dudayev as a leader?" one Chechen fighter told me. "No one is listening to him, except maybe for his personal guard." This is the general opinion among the small, highly mobile units of fighters that are giving the Russian Army the most trouble. Ranging in size from five to 50 men and armed with rifles and grenades, each of these units has its own commander and they say that even if Dudayev orders them to withdraw from the city, they will not give up the fight.

Generally speaking, the fighters from other regions who have come to Grozny are also not bound to Dudayev. They have come to wage a holy war, and many of them have passed through the Islamic ritual that guarantees them entry into paradise if they are killed in battle. They do not fear death.

Locals in Grozny are certain that there will now be a long partisan war, although they do not know what form it will take or how it will turn out. Weapons continue to come in from Dagestan through the village of Kharav-Yurt, where particular "friendly" trading relations have sprung up between the locals and the Russian units in the area. From Azerbaijan, weapons pass directly into the Chechen mountains.

Although the Chechen militia says it will not abandon Grozny, it will soon be forced to. Russian aircraft have already begun a concentrated assault on many mountain villages and reports of the damage are particularly distressing to the Chechen fighters. These villages are crowded with women and children evacuated from the capital, often with several families living in each house.

"In 1944, there were a million of us. Stalin cut that down to 300,000. As soon as we nearly got back to a million, Yeltsin began this genocide. It is obvious that this is our fate: We can never live peacefully with the Russians," a Chechen fighter from the town of Argun said. That town has now been completely destroyed. Even the children's hospital, which they did not have time to evacuate, was levelled.

Constant reports from the Russian government that hundreds of "highly professional mercenaries from Afghanistan" have joined the battle in Grozny have only one object: to at least somehow justify the incompetent actions of the Russian Army. Meanwhile, the government continues to lie about the number of Russian soldiers killed and wounded. As a result of the failed New Year's Eve assault alone, hundreds of Russians were killed and their bodies still litter the streets in the center of the city. The parents of these soldiers have begun receiving letters from the Defense Ministry: "Your son deserted, voluntarily leaving his unit." The main political question in Russia today is, who will bear the responsiblity for the thousands of deaths that both sides have suffered?

Dmitry Ukhlin is a reporter for Moskovskiye Novosti. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.