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September 29, 1999
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Central Asia/Russia

Russia employs NATO's 'barbarous' tactics
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - When NATO launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia earlier this year, Russia described the action as ''barbarous'', but learned lessons it is now applying in Chechnya.

Not only was a military lesson learned - daily air strikes do wear down the enemy - but also a public relations one - look effective, cool, professional and make failures look like part of the strategy.

In Chechnya, the air attacks are meant to tackle the issue of terrorist threats from Islamic militants, much as the NATO air raids were supposed to protect the Kosovo ethnic Albanian from Serbian atrocities. On the internal political front, tough language backed by tough action seems to be getting public approval, as it brings back pride to an impoverished and humiliated former superpower.

Moscow accuses Chechnya of providing safe haven for Islamic extremists, presumably involved in a series of bomb attacks against apartment blocks in Moscow and other Russian cities in which some 300 people died. As a result, in the eyes of many Russians, the terms Chechen and terrorism have become somewhat synonymous. Therefore, there is little opposition to Russia's pouring terror down on Chechnya.

On Monday, the Russian top brass, led by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, announced that the air strikes will continue. In yet another parallel with their Western counterparts, the Russian generals even announced in advance the number of strikes to be carried out during the day - fifty.

Russian Sukhoi-25 jets are hitting industrial targets in the northern and southern suburbs of Grozny, notably makeshift oil refineries. The oil installations are believed to be controlled by Chechen warlords. The Russian government argues that oil revenues are funding Chechen militants. The latter are also blamed of stealing some 120,000 tons of crude oil from the pipeline between Azerbaijan and the Black Sea.

Air strikes have also hit the Chechen television station and the mobile telephone network - considered by the Russian military as an enemy propaganda machine and a communication network, respectively.

Air Force chief Anatoly Kornukov vows that the air raids will continue until all terrorists' bases are destroyed. He says the Russian jets are carrying out precision strikes that spare civilian areas, and he proudly exhibits satellite photos just like NATO generals did every day just a few months ago.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has praised the long-term bombing strategy aimed at destroying ''terrorists and their infrastructure in Chechnya''. In recent days Putin has made increasingly bellicose statements, sometimes bordering the bizarre, about destroying the militants. Once he argued that Chechen terrorists should be killed ''even in toilets'' - a remark that he regretted later as it was widely ridiculed by media commentators.

The latest air strikes have forced thousands of Chechens to flee to neighboring regions, especially Ingushetia. By Monday, the number of refugees fleeing from Chechnya reached 50,000, according to Russia's Federal Migration Service. The authorities of Ingushetia say they already face ''a humanitarian disaster'' and have requested urgent aid from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Russian border guards are meanwhile engaged in setting up a ''sanitary cordon'' between Chechnya and the rest of Russia, Konstantin Totsky, head of the Federal Border Guard Service said on Monday after meeting with President Boris Yeltsin. According to Totsky, Yeltsin ordered him to stop terrorist infiltration from ''some foreign countries''.

Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov, who Moscow believes has lost control over the militants, has called for an urgent meeting with Yeltsin. But Prime Minister Putin replied that the meeting would take place when the time is ''good for Russia''. Putin made it clear that Moscow is not going to allow talks to give ''terrorists'' a breathing space to recover after the air-strikes.

Defence Minister Sergeyev has also said that ''several variants'' for a land operation have been outlined by the generals, and Russian television has repeatedly shown tanks and armored vehicles reportedly moving towards the border with Chechnya. The land invasion scenario instantly revives memories of the disastrous 1994-96 military campaign against Chechen separatists in which tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, died.

A consensus in support of a violent solution to the present problem seems to be emerging. One Moscow daily has called for an ultimatum to Chechnya - either they stop terrorist attacks in Russia or face annihilation with air raids, biological weapons, ''nerve gas, napalm, everything that the once-mighty Soviet army used to have''. Some experts are said to be discussing in all seriousness the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Chechnya. Even liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky said on Monday that the Russian government should take a tough stance.

Thus the Russian government is waging another war of attrition - one with full public support and even some hesitant Western backing. However, bombings could do more harm than good. Over-reliance on bombing to deter a mobile, well-armed enemy, analysts say, is reminiscent of the incremental, and ultimately doomed, strategy employed by Washington in Vietnam.

It remains to be seen whether more bombing brings a ''final solution'' to the Chechnya question or marks just the beginning of another disaster.

(Inter Press Service)

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