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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From Gallantry to Savagery

Maybe the main lesson from this week's events in the North Caucasus is that if the Chechen rebels cannot win the war, they at least want to be sure that Russia will lose it. It is all part of a Chechen strategy going back to the last century.


Dzhokhar Dudayev will never again be master of the presidential palace in Grozny. Russia has invested too much in destroying his regime and installing its own government in Chechnya. Besides, a majority of the Chechen people, whatever their feelings about the Russians, almost certainly do not want him back.


The Chechen tactics at the moment are all about making life impossible for the enemy. Their motives probably have as much to with Chechen mythology as wanting to force concessions out of the Russians.


The fighters performing the raids on both Kizlyar and Budyonnovsk see themselves in the old Chechen tradition of the nabeg, the daredevil lightning raid on the enemy. Its origins lie in the Chechens' reputation as the best cattle-rustlers of the Caucasus, but in the 19th century it turned into a military tactic as well.


The Russian chronicler of the 1820s, Sergei Bronevsky, has a description of how around a group of 20 Chechens would swim across the Tereks, hide among the boulders and then leap out on unsuspecting individuals walking by. They would then tie up their hostages and gallop back across the plain with them.


"They are so possessed by ferocity that they spare no one," Bronevsky said.


As a military tactic a nabeg has the advantage of surprise and terror, as long as you don't mind the high risk of getting killed, which the fighters obviously did not. Kizlyar, built as a fortress on the Terek in 1735, has been the target for nabegi ever since. When Alexandre Dumas went there in 1858 even the children carried arms and he was told, just as in Grozny any time over the last five years, that it was not safe to go out after dark.


This time round both Kizlyar and ? although this is not so well acknowledged ? in Budyonnovsk, the prime targets were military airfields. In Kizlyar Salman Raduyev said he had destroyed two helicopters, which had been ferrying in ammunition to attack Gudermes, and one transport plane. In Budyonnovsk the object was the military air base full of Sukhoi-24s which were bombing Chechnya. The Russian official position is that Shamil Basayev's men did not get into the base. The Chechens, for their part, say that they did and killed several pilots (this is in addition to the three pilots they killed in the hospital). I have even been told the story that Basayev's men killed 43 pilots, the last one frozen to death by being pushed into a refrigerator.


This is where the historical parallels run out. As so often in this war, the contemporary fighting seems a cruel parody of the myth of gallant heroism fostered by Imam Shamil, the Caucasian tribal leader in the 19th century. By implacable resistance, Shamil staved off defeat for 30 years. He was so respected by the Russians that they kept him under house arrest in St. Petersburg and then let him travel to Mecca to die. Dudayev and Basayev cannot expect the same treatment.


After their raids on the bases, both Basayev and Raduyev ended up seizing a hospital and using children and sick patients as human shields. Not much gallantry there. And the latest attack is especially cynical because it was on neighboring Dagestan, a fellow Moslem republic. Imam Shamil, an Avar, would be turning in his grave. (The Russians, of course, have been far from gallant with their indiscriminate bombing and drunken atrocities, but one viciousness should not justify another).


Both Budyonnovsk and Kizlyar are huge embarrassments to Boris Yeltsin and his team and huge morale boosts for the fighters in southern Chechnya. But they are also huge propaganda own-goals for the Chechens, both in Russia and the North Caucasus.


In the popular imagination, Lermontov's mythical "evil Chechen" with his dagger has come back in blazing color and carrying a rocket-launcher. The question is ? do the fighters care?


Dzhokhar Dudayev almost certainly does not. He has spent most of the last year preparing for a heroic obituary in Chechen folklore in which, Samson-like, he brings the whole temple crashing down and the Russians with it. Now more and more of the rebels seem to be following his lead.