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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Resistance Missing in Action

GROZNY -- In Chechnya's previous war, the tenacity and guerrilla tactics of the rebels brought the once-mighty Russian military to its knees. Now Russian troops are back in the breakaway republic - but the legendary Chechen resistance is conspicuously absent.

What happened?

There are plenty of reasons why the Chechens don't appear to be putting up much of a fight this time. They're short of artillery and cash. They're disunited, disorganized and disillusioned by years of fighting and a war-shattered economy.

They're also facing a more experienced Russian army, one relying largely on air power to cripple Chechen towns instead of marching blindly into the kind of street battles and mountain warfare that proved so punishing in the 1994-96 Chechnya war.

And there's also a theory that the Chechens are not really out of commission - they're just saving their limited number of arms and men for a big fight.

Chechnya's most prominent warlord, Shamil Basayev, said recently: "The Chechen army hasn't been in a serious battle yet."

That battle could come at Urus-Martan, 20 kilometers southwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny. The Russians have been bombing Urus-Martan for weeks, but the Chechens appear to be bringing in more fighters and pledged Tuesday to defend the city through the winter.

Three years after withdrawing from Chechnya in humiliation, Russian forces returned in September after Chechen-based militants invaded Russian territory and were blamed for apartment bombings in Russia that killed about 300 people.

To the surprise of many observers, the Russians have advanced swiftly without suffering any major setbacks. Last time around, the outnumbered Chechens relentlessly harassed the Russian forces, staging frequent ambushes and daring raids, keeping the Russians off balance throughout the conflict.

This time, Russian aircraft and artillery guns have been hammering Chechen towns, and the Chechen fighters have often retreated rather than engage in all-out combat. Government troops now occupy large parts of the republic and are tightening a circle around Grozny.

A Chechen parliament deputy, Vakhid Bamatgireyev, said the Chechens aren't resisting because they're broke. The fighters have to buy their own weapons, he said, and "the boys in the trenches are starving."

Thanks to subsidies from Moscow, Chechnya had a functioning economy when the Russians invaded in 1994. But the war crippled Chechnya's industries, agriculture and infrastructure, and President Aslan Maskhadov's government hasn't had the resources to restore them.

The last war brought Chechnya's fractious clans together under the banner of independence. Maskhadov then won an overwhelming election victory in 1997, a few months after the war ended, but has been unable to impose order or revive the economy.

The moderate president has failed to rein in powerful warlords, including Basayev, who was pushing for Maskhadov's ouster before the Russians invaded.

It's unclear how closely Basayev's forces are coordinating with the Chechen government forces. The Chechen army acknowledges it has organization problems, and its fighters have complained that rival bands are sabotaging their campaign against the Russians.

Meanwhile, war-weary Chechen civilians are less willing to take up arms for the national cause. This was evident when Russian troops seized Chechnya's second city, Gudermes, with little resistance earlier this month.

Aslanbek Abdukhadzhiyev, one of the leaders of the defense of Gudermes, said: "Women and children were standing before us. They wanted us to leave the trenches and leave the town. We could do nothing but open fire on them or leave our positions."

The Chechens also concede that they are facing a shrewder enemy this time.

"The Russian military has changed its tactics. In contrast to the last war, they practically don't engage in contact fighting. They clear the staging area for the advance of their forces with intensive artillery and bombing strikes far from the front line," said Mumadi Saidayev, Chechnya's military commandant.

Another Chechen commander claimed the Chechens were scoring victories that the Russian military isn't reporting.

"Because of this, the world doesn't know about the bold operations of our fighters. Moreover, the Russian command is hiding its losses, so that society is not upset," said Said-Magomed Chupalayev, head of the Chechen army's eastern front.

High military and civilian casualties fueled public opposition in Russia to the last Chechen war. While Russian society largely supports this campaign, that backing could disintegrate if the war drags on and the death toll mounts.