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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Battles for Hearts and Minds

GUDERMES, Chechnya -- What the Russians tell you is that the war has ended here in Gudermes. But it hasn't.

For one thing, the sound of artillery fire thuds steadily through the muddy streets of this former railway depot, once the second-largest city in Chechnya. The few residents left say the booming from Russian positions north and west of the town is a constant reminder that their "liberation" by Russian forces 10 days ago is no guarantee that peace has come at last.

But while the rockets and bullets are confined for now to the outskirts, another battle is being fought in town, street-by-street, house-by-house. It's a fight the Russians have lost consistently, not just in the eight years since Chechnya declared independence, but for centuries.

The battle, to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam War, is for the hearts and minds of the Chechen people. And at the moment the front line is Gudermes, which the Russians say they hope to turn into the new capital of a new Chechnya.

"We don't want to repeat the mistakes we made last time," explained Colonel Yury Em, commander of the Russian regiment that has encircled Gudermes. "We don't want to destroy the villages. We don't want to destroy the people. This time there is dialogue, dialogue with the residents and with the local authorities. The soldiers aren't storming the towns and villages. We are talking to the people."

The people who are left, anyway. Residents estimate that only 20 percent to 30 percent of the prewar population of 50,000 remains in Gudermes. Those who are left seem to be those who either support the Russians or had no means of escape.

The fact that they are preaching mostly to the feeble or the converted doesn't appear to trouble the Russians. They boast openly of the ease of their victory and warm welcome by the local population.

"The people chased the rebels out themselves," the colonel says. "They wouldn't feed the fighters. They are sick of war. When we arrived, there was no one left to fight."

Colonel Em is part of a Russian propaganda effort to convince locals - and a chopper-full of foreign journalists flown in for the purpose - that the second time around, Russia is doing things right in Chechnya.

"It took us just one day to encircle Gudermes," Em recalled, showing the foreigners around his picture-perfect camp on a hill west of town. "The local population came out to greet us - older men, everyone. They thanked us for coming into the city, asked us to turn on the gas, the electricity."

So this past weekend, that's what the Russians did. With as much fanfare as they could muster on short notice in a war zone, they turned on the gas. Anatoly Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems, and Nikolai Koshman, the Russian-appointed administrator for Chechnya, flew in Saturday to do the honors, relighting the newly refueled "eternal" flame at the town's World War II monument.

"Today we are in Gudermes, a city liberated without a single shot being fired,'' Koshman said. "The most important task we face now is to restore normal life to the citizens of the town and the region.''

It was supposed to be a triumphant moment, full of symbolism and reconciliation between Russian and Chechen. But, as hundreds of Gudermes residents looked on, in what the Russians can only hope was not a portent, the relit flame sputtered and died within about a minute.

"They are promising so much," said 37-year-old Isa Natsayev, catching the mood. "But so far we see little."

The previous Chechen war was about preventing the republic from seceding. This war has at least rhetorically been transformed into a war against little except "bandits and terrorists."

But in Gudermes, it's clear that the issue of independence hasn't died and that for the "liberated" Chechens, relations with the Russians remain unresolved.

Larisa Bashayeva is a 29-year-old secretary whose entire adult life has been spent at odds with Russia. She supported independence in 1991, and voted for Chechnya's pro-independence president, Aslan Maskhadov, in 1996. But two cycles of war and three years of deprivation in Maskhadov's "independent Chechnya" have sapped her zeal.

"Independence is probably impossible to achieve, and simple people don't need it anyway," she says. "Eight years ago there was something to it - there was an idea, a vision. But what do we have to show for it now?"

She says the Russians are right when they claim that the residents of Gudermes chased the rebels out.

In her neighborhood, "the fighters moved into an abandoned house," she recounts. "And everybody, especially the grandmothers, went to them every day and asked them to leave. And eventually, the fighters listened to them and left."

If the Russian strategy for winning Chechen hearts and minds seems at times obscure, so also does the Russian strategy for winning the war.

Gudermes is only one of a string of cities the Russians claim to have retaken "without firing a shot." But all that means is that there is no street fighting when they roll into town. In Gudermes and elsewhere, the Russians have spent weeks lobbing shells and rockets at rebel positions first, and they don't enter the towns until the rebels have already abandoned them.

As a result, the real question in this war is whether and where the rebels will choose to take a stand.

In the last war Chechen fighters evaded the Russians by seeking refuge in the republic's southern mountains. It is not clear whether the Russians intend to pursue them that far this time, or draw the line somewhere short of total victory.