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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Has Few Good Options in Caucasus

Russia is continuing airstrikes, Dagestan is arming civilian volunteers and acting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he has a secret two-week plan to solve the nation's worst security crisis since the war in Chechnya.

But military analysts say none of the options before the government right now are very attractive - and add that the big question will be what lessons have been drawn from the 1994-96 war with Chechnya, and also from the NATO conflict in Yugoslavia.

In Chechnya, Russia sent in a massive ground operation against guerrillas fighting on their own territory, only to be trounced and to lose thousands of soldiers. No one is in a hurry to repeat that experience.

"The authorities are being cautious because they are afraid the bloodshed of Chechnya could be repeated," said Irina Kobrinskaya, director of a Moscow-based think tank, the East-West Institute.

Instead, the Russians so far are talking about airstrikes. Russian air force chief commander Anatoly Kornukov announced Tuesday his opinion that aviation will play a decisive role in driving the Chechen rebels back out of Dagestan.

Military analysts said the response is not surprising, given the success of NATO's air war in Yugoslavia.

Of course, Russia also conducted an air war in Chechnya - destroying civilian neighborhoods of Grozny and killing tens of thousands of innocents, including thousands of children, for almost no military gain.

The memory of that horror, as then-Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin noted over the weekend, has left the Russian leadership gun-shy.

But while Stepashin and others have been chanting the same mantra about avoiding civilian casualties at all costs, security officials pondering bloody-minded options will surely see a few remote, sparsely populated mountainous villages as far easier to destroy then Grozny city neighborhoods filled with people and television cameras.

In any case, ground operations seem doomed to a repeat defeat against the well-trained Chechen rebels.

Since the end of the Chechen war in 1996, Russia has done little to improve the poor state of its armed forces, which remain underpaid, disillusioned and poorly supplied.

Moreover, nothing has been done to train either Interior Ministry or Defense Ministry troops for mountain combat, said Alexander Iskandaryan of the Center for the Caucasus Studies.

"A [ground] campaign in the [Dagestani] mountains will certainly turn into a defeat for federal forces," he said.

A ground war would stand a far better chance of success if Russia's elite troops could be thrown into it. But as former general and Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed has noted, Russia's elite units are stationed abroad - in peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia, Georgia, in Bosnia, and in Kosovo. This week the last of Russia's roughly 3,600 KFOR troops were deployed in Serbia.

Oksana Antonenko, program director for Russia and the CIS at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that those well-trained and well-equipped troops could certainly repel Shamil Basayev's rebels.

She added that it raised obvious questions about the government's priorities that the nation's best troops are in another country despite serious domestic security concerns.

Between ground war and air war, however, there is a third option put forward by Antonenko and other Caucasus observers: Do nothing.

At the moment, anti-Chechen sentiment is far stronger than anti-Russian among the region's 30-odd ethnic groups, and the Moslem population mostly does not support secession.

That could all change if less-than-surgical aerial bombing starts killing civilians, or if poorly supervised Russian troops run wild in the Dagestani countryside - as they did in Chechnya in 1995 and 1996.

Iskandaryan suggested it would be smarter to just leave the seized villages in the hands of the rebels. For one thing, the guerrillas do enjoy localized support in those villages, if not more broadly in Dagestan; for another, radical Wahhabite Moslems have already taken over other Dagestani villages in recent years and declared them independent, but this has made no big difference in Dagestani or Russian affairs.