The crash of a Russian army helicopter on August 19 near Johar-Gala (Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, also known as Ichkeria), in which at least 114 Russian soldiers, many of them officers, died, was a great embarrassment both to the military and to president Vladimir Putin. Putin, who launched the second phase of the Chechen war in October 1999 while he was prime minister, called the crash a “catastrophe” and ordered an immediate enquiry.
Chechen mujahideen claimed the credit for shooting down the giant Mi-26 transport helicopter, which had been carrying at least 127 soldiers, while conflicting reports by Russian officials and journalists attributed the crash both to engine failure and to “rebel missile attack”. The crash and the subsequent disarray among senior military officers and government officials contradict Moscow’s claims that the war in Chechnya is more or less over, and confirm recent reports that suggest that the war is in fact escalating.
The incident is a severe embarrassment for the Russian army, occurring close to one of its main operational headquarters, in the suburbs of the capital. The helicopter was carrying servicemen returning to Chechnya from leave and soldiers who had never fought before in Chechnya. They probably felt safe from enemy fire because their helicopter was flying close to Khankala, the main Russian base in the war-torn country. Another source of embarrassment to the Russian army is the fact that the base is surrounded by a minefield put in place to protect it against attacks. When the helicopter crashed into the minefield, the mines, far from protecting the soldiers, in fact hindered the rescue efforts and may well have been responsible for the deaths of soldiers in the helicopter who were not killed in the crash itself. This incident follows a series of military helicopter crashes in recent months, forcing Sergei Ivanov, the defence minister, to highlight the lack of investment in equipment for the Russian army.
The political implications for Moscow (and for its Chechen quislings) are causing Putin even greater embarrassment: he has invested his regime’s credibility in defeating the Chechen fighters, rather than in reaching a political settlement with them. In fact he has been claiming for some time that the military phase of operations is over, and has accordingly been urging Chechen refugees in neighbouring areas to return home. His preferred agenda is to hold elections and draw up a constitution under the auspices of the local administration (which was created with Russia’s support), a programme designed to keep Chechnya within the Russian Federation. The crash has highlighted the fact that even in the suburbs of the capital the Russian army needs minefields in order to protect itself, and has led to questions being asked about why it needs such protection if it is indeed in control, as Putin and his ministers have been claiming.
Moscow is also embarrassed by the conflicting early reports made by officials about the cause of the crash. For instance, an unnamed military official told Interfax, the government newsagency, that the crash had been caused by deliberate attack. “According to preliminary information, the helicopter went down after being hit either by a missile or [by] heavy machine-gun fire,” he is quoted as having said. However, a defence ministry spokesman denied that the helicopter had been hit by “rebels”, insisting that the crash had been caused by engine malfunction. Appearing on Russian television, Nicholai Deryabin dismissed any Chechen involvement, although state-owned RTR television reported that an enquiry had already been opened “under the part of the legal code dealing with terrorist acts”. To compound the disarray, Russian military headquarters in Chechnya initially said that there had been no deaths. But later Sergei Ivanov offered condolences to relatives of servicemen killed in the crash, although he did not say how many of them there were at the time. Only after arriving in Chechnya did he admit that 114 men had been killed.
There was no such disarray among spokesmen for the Chechen mujahideen. A statement on a Chechen website (www.chechenpress.com) announced that “with the help of a Zenit missile, a Russian Mi-26 helicopter was shot down.” Khazri Aldamov, a Chechen representative in Georgia, also said that the helicopter had been brought down by Chechen fighters, according to a Reuters reporter who spoke to him by telephone. Another spokesman, Mayarbek Vachagayev, said that the helicopter had been shot down by an anti-aircraft missile fired by Chechen fighters. “Russian troops will have no peace in Chechnya’s skies [or]... on Chechen land,” he added.
That Russian troops have no peace in Chechnya was already known before August 19 by the series of helicopter crashes and casualties among Russian servicemen, although Moscow automatically denied any involvement by the “rebels”. Two generals and 11 troops were, for instance, killed last September when a shoulder-launched missile brought down a helicopter shortly after it took off from Johar-Gala. In January an Mi-8 crashed; this the Russians initially blamed on technical failure: investigation later unearthed fragments in the wreckage that suggested that it had been hit by a missile. And even as recently as August 19 media reports were showing that clashes between Russian troops and Chechen mujahideen are still occurring, and that the Chechens are inflicting serious losses on the Russians. For instance, fighting in areas southwest of Johar-Gala has reportedly left 12 soldiers dead and ten or more wounded. Elsewhere in Chechnya ambushes and landmine explosions have recently killed ten Russians and Chechen policemen, and wounded 14.
But these setbacks are unlikely to persuade Putin to seek peace with the Chechens, although according to polls 60 percent of Russians now believe that peaceful endeavours are better than waging war. Putin’s credibility both in his own country and abroad now rests firmly on demonstrating that Russia’s position in the world is that of a “superpower”.