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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dagestan War Raises Policy Questions

Russia is fighting smarter in the North Caucasus this time around, having learned from its mistakes in the disastrous Chechen war of 1994-1996, an Interior Ministry spokesman said Friday.

But analysts said Moscow still lacks a long-term strategy in the region and might have more success using economic and diplomatic weapons to combat Islamic extremists.

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst of the Moscow Carnegie Center specializing in the Caucasus, said the Kremlin is so lacking in strategy that "Russian leaders do not even know whether Russia needs to remain in the North Caucasus at all."

A military expert, Makhmut Gareyev, suggested the Kremlin send high-ranking emissaries to those Middle Eastern countries that support separatists in the North Caucasus, such as supporters of the Islamic Wahhabi movement.

The emissaries should offer "beneficial treaties" in exchange for agreements to stop fueling separatism in Russia, said Gareyev, a retired army general who heads the Academy of Military Sciences.

Gareyev cited the example of the Russian Empire's State Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov who helped conquer the North Caucasus by persuading France, Turkey and other powers to withdraw their support for the region's freedom fighters in the 19th century.

Part of Russia's strategy should be the allocation of subsidies to revive the economy in Dagestan and other North Caucasus republics, according to Charles Blandy, a North Caucasus expert at the Conflict Studies Center of Britain's elite Sandhurst Academy.

Only an economic revival will help to weaken Islamic separatism, Blandy said. "They need to come up with an economic package, create new jobs as extremism feeds on poverty," he said.

As for the best tactics for mountain warfare, Blandy said Russia should have its best-trained troops advance "slowly and methodically" with air power and artillery employed first to pave the way for ground troops.

That is just what they are doing, said Yevgeny Ryabtsev, an Interior Ministry spokesman in Dagestan. Troops are "patiently and slowly mopping up" pockets of resistance in Dagestan with Su-24 reconnaissance aircraft, Mi-24 gunships and Su-25 attack planes, he said.

"We are no fools. ... We have learned hard from the Chechen campaign," Ryabtsev said.

The federal force is made up mostly of police crack troops, paratroopers and army commandos, he said.

Federal troops were humiliated by Chechen commanders. Experts blamed the defeat on lack of coordination between Interior and Defense Ministry troops, poor personnel training and attempts to conquer cities with tanks.

"It is already good that they are not sending hordes of tanks" and cannon fodder into Dagestan, Malashenko said.

The experts predicted that federal troops would take over the settlements that were seized by the Chechen-led Islamic rebels last weekend. But they said it would be much harder to wipe out the rebel forces because they have already split into small mobile groups and are using guerrilla tactics, which are especially effective in the mountainous terrain.

Malashenko and Blandy both said that Russian commanders were indeed performing better than in Chechnya.

Malashenko noted, however, that the rebels' success in destroying at least three helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles shows carelessness.