Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting Wars That Can't Be Won




After the war in Vietnam ended, a proverb appeared in the U.S. military that is still popular today: "The United States did not have 10 years of experience in Vietnam; it had a one-year experience repeated ten times in a row."


Politicians do not learn, militaries do not learn; they do not learn the good way, and they do not learn the bad and bloody way. Today, 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the American people are still asking the same question: What were we doing? They still have found no clear answer.


Russia today is in its 10th year of dealing with a separatist rebellion in Chechnya. An entire generation of Russian political and military leaders has matured. President-elect Vladimir Putin was an obscure KGB officer serving as a spy in Germany in 1991 when the trouble in Chechnya first began. Still, it is clear that a decade of war, confrontation and negotiations with Chechen warlords have not taught anyone in the Kremlin anything good.


Last fall, when Russian troops marched on Grozny again, Putin told the nation that this time it would be done right: The enemy would be defeated, casualties would be low, the war would be short, and the Chechens themselves, not the Russians, would fight the rebels and chase them out of villages. It actually seemed at times that Richard Nixon was back, talking of "Vietnamization of the war" (a notion that the Vietnamese would fight Vietnamese, while the U.S. soldiers would go home). But this time the conflict was in the Caucasus, and it was Beslan Gantamirov leading a pro-Russian proxy force against the guerrillas.


Putin's scheme did not work. Official Russian casualties of dead and wounded are today nearing 10,000. At night, Russian troops, besieged in their dugouts, cannot know who is shooting at them today. Gantamirov's "militia," or "regular" rebels?


And there seems to be no end in sight. Russian troops officially have occupied all of Chechnya's territory, but, as happened once before in 1995-1996, occupation does not mean victory. On the contrary, Chechnya has turned into a quagmire, with guerrilla attacks becoming even more efficient and deadly; casualties continue to mount.


Winning an anti-guerrilla war is no easy matter. Today it is fashionable within the Russian military to recall the experiences of the 1940s and 1950s, when Soviet forces quashed separatist guerrilla movements in the Baltic republics and in Western Ukraine. Recently I took part in a round-table discussion on anti-guerrilla warfare with some former KGB officers. One of them was a veteran who took part in the Stalinist anti-guerrilla campaign against nationalist Ukrainian rebels as an undercover agent. He said: "It's easy to win an anti-guerrilla war; just put a company of soldiers in each Chechen village and give them a KGB operative as chief."


But there are some 200 villages and hamlets in Chechnya. More than 200 companies add up to divisions, some 150,000 troops. Stalin had the men, but Putin's Russia does not have such resources.


But the Stalinist victory in the Baltics and Ukraine turned out to be a defeat in disguise. When Mikhail Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Union, it was in Western Ukraine and the Baltics that the most vicious separatist movements emerged. The Soviet Union would not have disintegrated so dramatically if the anti-guerrilla war was lost and the Baltics with Western Ukraine were outside its borders in 1991.


The United States did much better after its defeat in Vietnam than did the victorious Communists. Russia should learn this lesson: If the Chechens so desperately want to isolate themselves into a self-imposed tribal homeland - let them. That's their problem, not ours.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.