The plight of the Chechens trapped in Johar-Gala (‘Grozny’) was briefly brought to the west’s attention earlier this month when the western media highlighted a leaflet dropped in the city by Russian aircraft. This warned the Chechens to leave the city by the end of Saturday December 11, otherwise they would all be killed.
The west professed shock at this warning, and made impressive-sounding but ultimately empty threats of the consequences if the Russians killed civilians in the city. However, concrete sanctions were not forthcoming, and no-one seriously expected them to come. US president Bill Clinton said on December 8 that “sanctions can only come from the United Nations and Russia has a veto there”.
This is brazen prevarication in view of the US’s established record of defying or by-passing the UN when it wishes to take action. More pertinent was Clinton’s further comment that sanctions against Russia over its policies in Ichkeria “would not be in the best interests of the United States”. So much for a humanitarian foreign policy!
The European response was similarly half-hearted, with the European Union warning that cash aid to Russia could be stopped if the Russians maintain their ‘illegal activities’.
What all observers are well aware of, however, is that it is not fear of western threats that has kept the Russians from invading Johar-Gala in recent weeks, but the far more real threat of the Chechens’ whole-hearted defence of the city. While the Russians have made progress in other parts of Ichkeria, capturing the low ground in the northern third of the country and gradually taking control of major towns and roads south of the Terek River, the Chechens have been focusing on two main short-term objectives: slowing the Russian advance wherever possible, and fortifying Johar-Gala in order to ensure that the Russians suffer massive losses if they try to enter the city.
In the 1994-96 war in Ichkeria, Russian troops suffered major losses whenever they fought in Johar-Gala. The city was the centre of some of their most humiliating defeats, first as the Chechen mujahideen held it for months against massive Russian assaults, and then as the mujahideen repeatedly demonstrated that they could enter and leave it at will, despite all the Russian defences.
In the process, the Russian troops suffered massive losses trying to match the Chechens in hand-to-hand fighting on the ground. The key difference, as one observer said, was that the Chechens were fighting for a cause that they were willing to die for, while the Russians were trying to avoid fighting for a cause that meant nothing to them personally.
Three years after their humilitaing defeat, the Russians now have an estimated 100,000 troops committed to the siege of Johar-Gala alone, a massive number considering the size of Ichkeria.
It is also clear that, despite their boasts of stealth, manoeuvring and deception in press releases issued from Moscow, the Russians are actually desperate to avoid confronting the mujahideen in battle. Despite the Russians’ territorial successes, they have actually engaged and defeated only relatively small numbers of mujahideen, whose priority has been to frustrate and hold up the Russians as much as possible rather than trying to defeat them directly, a battle which they would ultimately be unable to win simply because of the sheer numbers of troops the Russians could bring to bear.
The Russians are unwilling to attack mujahideen positions directly, for fear of the losses they know they would suffer. Instead, their strategy is to bombard towns and villages from a distance, in order to kill as many people - civilians and mujahideen alike - and cause as much damage as possible. This has worked while the mujahideen have been willing to withdraw in order to fight another day; but the Russians are operating in constant fear of the losses and humiliations they are likely to suffer the day that the Chechens decide to take a stand and fight back. They are also aware that that time is likely to come when they try to enter Johar-Gala.
Some military analysts have suggested that the Russians had actually begun their all-out assault on Johar-Ghala before dropping the now-infamous warning leaflets. It would be in line with the Russians’ duplicitous tactics in the past. Alternatively, they may attack at or shortly before the December 11 deadline (after Crescent press time). Either way, they know, and everyone knows, that they will have a fight on their hands quite possibly unlike anything they experienced even during the height of the 1994-96 war.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999