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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Terrorists Didn't Start War

For many months Russian acting President Vladimir Putin and other leading officials have insisted that they were forced to invade Chechnya because Russia was attacked. However, last week former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin blew this nicely prepared official cover story.

The official line from authorities was that the war "to wipe out terrorists" started after several provocations against Russia, including an attack on Dagestan led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and the bombings of apartment buildings that killed 300 people.

Then last week Stepashin announced in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Russian authorities actually already decided to invade Chechnya many months before Basayev's "unprovoked aggression" in March 1999.

Stepashin says that a full-scale invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops was planned for August-September 1999. Stepashin also says that after the decision to invade Chechnya was made, he personally visited the Caucasian region to oversee the preparations of troops concentrating for the attack.

Stepashin insists that a major invasion of Chechnya would have taken place no matter what - "even if there were no explosions in Moscow." Stepashin also insists that Putin, as director of the FSB (the KGB successor security agency), knew all along that an invasion of Chechnya was secretly planned and prepared. (Putin probably also knew a lot about the apartment bombings that happened just in time to whip up public support for a war in the Caucasus that was preplanned by the Kremlin.)

In Chechnya, Russia and many other countries Basayev is still accused of having provoked a terrible war for no good reason. However, Stepashin's statements vindicate Basayev to some extent. If the Russian government was fully intent on invading Chechnya in any event, Basayev's raid into Dagestan may be seen not as an unprovoked aggression, but a clever preventive strike that thwarted Russian military plans and postponed the inevitable invasion for two critical months. It also may be that Russian secret services actually lured Basayev into Dagestan to create a pretext for the coming Russian invasion. But if so, the Russian authorities got more than they bargained for.

The mountains of Dagestan in the Botlikh region, where Basayev's men invaded last August, are totally barren. The invaders were thus vulnerable to air attack, so the Russian command obviously hoped that Interior Ministry troops, heavily supported by air power, would send them fleeing. But the rebels efficiently dug themselves in and put up stiff resistance, inflicting heavy casualties on the Russians.

The Russian command was forced to send in reinforcements in a hurry. Troops that had been slated to invade Chechnya from the north were tied up for several weeks in Dagestan and several units were decimated by the rebels. Stepashin says that the initial plan was to reach the Terek River in August or early September, but it took the Russians until October to achieve this goal.

Russian troops encountered heavy resistance from rebels in Dagestan, so when the delayed invasion of Chechnya began, they advanced step by step, in constant fear of ambushes. The end result: Grozny was surrounded only in December and the Russian command only managed to organize a serious assault on the city this week - in the middle of January - the worst possible time of year to fight in Chechnya.

The invasion of Chechnya has obviously gone wrong, but the Russians have only themselves to blame. Stepashin insists that the original plan was to occupy only the northern half of Chechnya. Russia had sufficient forces for such an endeavor. Basayev's Dagestan diversion would have had no lasting effects if the Russians had actually established full control in the north and lured ordinary Chechens to live in a better Russia-controlled Chechnya where pensions are paid and law prevails. But in October Putin decided to march south with insufficient forces and the Russian military got bogged down in a bloody quagmire.

In Chechnya, Putin has acted as an irrational warmonger - a leader who is ready to commit war crimes but cannot evaluate the consequences of his actions. In many respects Putin resembles Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, leaders who have also ignited wars they could not win. It is possible that Putin - the political unknown - is in fact a Russian version of Milosevic, an aggressive, irresponsible nationalist armed with thousands of nuclear warheads.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.