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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grozny's 1812 Overture

They say in the East: "Don't brag when going to battle." Boris Yeltsin's generals think otherwise. No important battles have been won yet in Chechnya yet, nor has any serious fighting taken place. But Russian media are overflowing with bravado from military authorities. This new war in Chechnya has been heralded by a storm of propaganda and incantations from the military that "we won't make the same mistakes that we made in 1994." Nobody, however, has explained what those mistakes actually were.

General Pavel Grachev's strategic scheme in 1994 was to invade Grozny - in one swift thrust of ordinance - and defeat the Chechens before they could get their guerrilla forces organized. His plans were neither reckless nor criminal, as they were labeled at the time, but simply the only ones that made sense from a military point of view.

Their implementation, however, was beneath contempt: The Grozny invasion failed and a lingering siege of the city gave President Dzhokar Dudayev the needed time to set up a political and military base in the mountains of southern Chechnya.

The plans of Grachev the general, however, were ruined because Grachev the politician had humiliated and demoralized the army by proffering it as a tool for whomever could make the best offer during the averted coup of 1993. A year later, most soldiers perceived their actions in Chechnya as a continuation of the civil war that started on the streets of Moscow.

The 1994-96 mountain war was a lost cause. Afterwards, the generals persuaded both themselves and the politicians that the war had been lost because of inconsistent policy from Moscow and negative public opinion.

The moral they drew from the story was that, prior to launching a military assault, they need unanimous support from political elites and they need to shut up dissenters. As the new war began, Russia's Joe Public was hit by a wave of propaganda. Opponents of the war either can't get on the air or are afraid to go against the grain. The generals have a free hand.

This sets the scene for a serious defeat rather than a triumphant crusade. The army is advancing slowly without engaging in any serious combat. Chechen soldiers are squeezed out of their positions by artillery and air attacks. After every such strike - and more often before - Russian soldiers retreat. Then, they report a victory and advance by a couple of kilometers until they again face resistance.

These tactics suggest a mortal fear of the enemy. Though our generals may have missed reading the works of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara on guerrilla warfare, they surely would be familiar with the War of 1812, when the Russians routed Napoleon. Aslan Maskhadov, a graduate of a Soviet military school, would certainly recall the lesson.

In 1812, the French were slowly advancing deep into Russia, with Russian troops, led by Mikhail Kutuzov, on the retreat. But when the French took Moscow and declared victory, partisan warfare broke out throughout the occupied territory. This instance differs from the Chechen campaign in that Napoleon tried to force a decisivebattle on Russia. The Russian generals in Chechnya are not trying to do that.

Maskhadov will not surrender Grozny without a fight - just as Kutuzov wouldn't have parted with Moscow without a fight. But - recalling the half-hearted defense of Moscow in 1812 - the Chechens won't fight for Grozny with all means at their disposal. Their only task is to wound the advancing Russian army as badly as possible.

Because of this, the Russians will be forced into an all-out assault on the city and the intensity of the assault will be their proof of victory. But taking Grozny will have very little effect on the course of the war. Since Russian troops are moving so slowly, there is no need for Chechens to defend Grozny. They will mount their defense in the south. Any resistance they put up for Grozny is purely symbolic - like Kutuzov's strategy in the battle of Borodino.

What comes next is easy to predict. The Russian army for some reason has the impression that it will be hard for the Chechens to sit out the winter in the mountains. But nobody has considered whether the same thing will be difficult for the Russians. Lines of communication are in poor shape and the ruins of Grozny after the invasion will be an unsuitable command post.

Three years of quasi-independence has disappointed the Chechens. What they have been left with is poverty, religious extremism and uncontrollable, corrupt field commanders.

The Kremlin assumes the Chechens will make the comparison and opt for Russian rule. But the chaos wreaked by Russians at refugee border checkpoints, coupled with the corruption and racism rampant in both Russia's civil and military authorities, appalls even Chechens who sympathize with Russia. Chechen soldiers, on the contrary, will look like heroes.

All of these failures will be obvious as spring approaches. Possible consequences range from lasting warfare with invisible guerrillas to a general retreat and total decay of rule, as occurred with the French in 1812. Lost wars have always been at the core of Russian revolutions and reforms. In this sense, the Chechen crusade may trigger new upheavals within Russia itself. It is this seemingly unanimous support for the war that ensures a profound crisis if the war is lost. Meanwhile, Yeltsin's generals are walking cheerfully into the traps prepared for them. But it is the soldiers who will pay.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.