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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Talk of Victory a Delusion

By Pavel Felgenhauer

The Russian army has finally managed to free Tando and several other mountain Dagestani villages that were occupied by Chechen-led rebels earlier this month. It took more than two weeks of constant bombardments and heavy fighting before the Russians managed to dislodge the rebels. The village of Tando was reduced to rubble by Russian bombs as it was "liberated."

After the fighting subsided, the Defense Ministry proclaimed victory. The Russian commander of the combined forces fighting the rebels in Dagestan, Viktor Kazantsev, told journalists that 1,000 rebels were killed. Earlier the Russian military reported that more than 1,000 rebels were wounded.

If the official Russian casualty figures are true, there was hardly a rebel left standing. The Russian military,. in fact, says that only a handful of rebels f no more than 300 f managed to skim through the Russian blockade back into Chechnya.

However, the official Russian body count is deceptive. It seems the Russian military has learned some lessons from the recent war in the Balkans, when NATO officials reported more Yugoslav MiG-29 fighters destroyed than the Serbian air force actually had.

In fact there was no genuine body count made after the fighting in Dagestan. The military authorities simply assumed that the rebels removed most of the bodies. But how could the presumed 300 surviving rebels carry away thousands of dead and dying comrades, especially when the Russian authorities say they blocked the route into Chechnya?

The Russian official claim of victory in Dagestan sounds hollow. When true victory happens f when an enemy infantry force is effectively smashed f then many prisoners are taken, enemy officers are captured and so on. That's not the case this time in Dagestan. Apparently the Chechen account of the recent fighting f that the rebels withdrew in an organized fashion before the final Russian assault f is more realistic than the story the Defense Ministry is telling.

During the fighting in Dagestan, the rebels, led by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, have proven that they can face the regular Russian army in battle. As during the war in Chechnya in 1994-96, the military deployed heavy guns and used air power extensively. But the coordination of infantry action with firepower was as ineffective in Dagestan as during the Chechen campaign.

Basayev's Chechen war veterans know how to dig in and avoid heavy casualties from bombardments. The military reports that even though Tando was razed to the ground, rebel dugouts survived intact. Russian infantry assaults several times ran into enemy opposition that could have been suppressed if the bombardments were better coordinated. As a result Russian forces have, according to official reports, suffered heavy casualties: 59 dead and 210 wounded.

The covert rebel withdrawal caught the Russian generals as unaware as did the initial rebel incursion. Russian guns and bombs were apparently pounding rebel strongholds long after the rebels had left. The Russian brass seemed to never know for sure where the enemy was, or what were his intentions, equipment, numbers, organization and so on.

When the conflict began, Interior Ministry police units were sent to deal with the rebels f as if this was indeed an assault by some "bandits." An Interior Ministry general, Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, was appointed chief commander. After a week it turned out that this was not exactly a police matter.

Kazantsev, an army general, replaced Ovchinnikov and army units were rushed to the front. But Basayev had the military initiative from beginning to end.

Basayev's plan to oust the Russians from Dagestan seems clear: To infiltrate here and there, provoking the Russian military to "liberate" region after region with bombs and artillery.

The depleted Russian army does not have any battle-ready crack infantry units that can confront Basayev's veterans man-to-man. Without heavy guns, Russian soldiers are lost. In future engagements in Dagestan, the military will hardly do better than in Tando. At present most Dagestanis do not want Chechen warlords to take over their country and are backing federal troops. As more towns are "liberated," their attitude may begin to change.

Basayev obviously hopes that Russia will, as it threatened, bomb "terrorist bases" in Chechnya. Such raids can provoke an all-out war in the Caucasus, which Basayev and other Chechen warlords expect to win because they know how weak Russia is militarily.