Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Army Fights Wiser Enemy

Russian forces are moving deeper and deeper into Chechnya, the rebellious North Caucasus republic that has defied Moscow's rule since 1991. The Chechen resistance up to now has been insignificant. One third of Chechnya is already under Russian control and Russian casualties are relatively low. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is talking of establishing a pro-Russian administration in "liberated" Chechnya as if victory is already at hand.

This new invasion of Chechnya began as a limited operation to create a cordon sanitaire around Chechnya to prevent rebel attacks against Russian-controlled regions. However, soon after the operation began, Russian generals reported to their political masters that there were not enough troops to create a solid defense line covering the hole 700-kilometer-long Chechen-Russian border. So a decision was made to shrink the perimeter by occupying part of Chechnya's territory and taking up militarily advantageous positions in order to make the Russian cordon sanitaire into something more than just a propaganda slogan.

The northern third of Chechnya is a sparsely populated, arid steppe. Occupying it was an easy job for the Russians. The northern bank of the Terek River that goes through Chechnya from west to east is a good line of defense. It is deep, wide and fast - a good barrier to stop hostile infiltration.

Chechen territory north of the Terek has been inhabited for centuries by Russian Cossacks. This region only became part of Chechnya in the 1950s after a decision by the Communist Politburo in Moscow. Today, many Russian nationalists support the occupation of northern Chechnya as a first step toward its incorporation back into Russia.

The gradual invasion of Chechnya has made Chechnya's defense line some 20 percent shorter and has been, in general, supported by most Russian political parties and by the Russian public. But this same cordon sanitaire strategy has united all Chechen fractions in opposing a new occupation. The defense perimeter may be 20 percent shorter, but the number of Russia's enemies in the region has increased tenfold.

In recent fighting in Dagestan against no more than a couple of thousand Chechen-led Moslem rebels, Russian forces sustained more than 1,100 casualties, both dead and wounded. In future battles in Chechnya the Russians may be forced to face tens of thousands of determined fighters and Russian casualties will grow accordingly.

Russian leaders are fools if they believe that the coming war will be a cakewalk and that the currently insignificant Chechen resistance is a prelude to a collapse of their independence movement. Today the Chechens are retreating in an organized manner, but this is a prelude not to surrender, but to impending fierce and well-planned counterattacks. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov - a brilliant military tactician - is, apparently, again taking over coordination of Chechen forces. During the1994-96 war, Maskhadov planned many a Chechen victory.

The Chechens are much better prepared to face the Russian army than during the last war. This week the Chechens shot two Russian bombers out of the sky. The Russians also lost one Su-25 bomber last month in Dagestan, whereas during the 20 months of intense combat in 1994-96 the Chechens downed only one Russian attack warplane.

At the beginning of the 1994-96 conflict, the Chechens had several hundred portable surface-to-air, heat-seeking Igla-1 missiles. However, the Soviet-made Igla has a built-in "identification of friend or foe radar interrogator" designed to prevent the loss of aircraft from friendly fire.

During the previous Chechen war, these "smart" weapons recognized Russian airplanes as friendly and could not be activated. Apparently, the Chechens have managed to rewire some of the Igla missiles. In any event, the Russian air superiority in the Caucasus has been compromised.

Of course, the Russian air force has hundreds and hundreds of warplanes. But the number of first class pilots is much more limited, so each loss is a significant blow.

The Russian forces in and around Chechnya face a prospect of a bleak winter: defending a cordon sanitaire that the enemy will penetrate with growing efficiency and vigor, while having much less air support than they hoped for. The quagmire the Russian government said it wanted to avoid seems all set.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent Moscow-based defense analyst.