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Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus.

Talking about what sort of wars the U.S. is likely to face in the coming decades, Gen. Charles Krulak, the commandant of the Marine Corps, likes to ask, "Are we going to have Son of Desert Storm or the Stepchild of Chechnya?" His answer. "I feel it will be Stepchild of Chechnya."

That grim prediction is one reason this journalistic history of the recent Chechen war has been attracting attention from the U.S. military even before being published in the U.S. (In fact, it was recommended to me by a smart Marine colonel who read the British edition that appeared last year.) If Gen. Krulak is correct and we face encounters like the Chechen War, the US military is in for a rough time. One example: At one point in this book, a group of Chechen fighters moving through a dark sewer en route to an ambush run smack into a group of Russian commandos. "A furious gun battle lit up the pitch-black tunnel as half a dozen rifles opened up," sending bullets ricocheting along the walls and ceiling of the sewer.

As Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, the two young British reporters who co-authored this account, tell it, "The conflict in Chechnya started imperceptibly." Chechnya declared independence in 1991. Russia disputed that claim, but President Bons Yeltsin at first said there would be no military response, and in fact Russian troops were withdrawn from the area in 1992.

Then Moscow began supplying the pro-Russian opposition with arms. Escalating its involvement as it grew more exasperated with the breakaway republic, Russia in the fall of 1994 sent 40,000 troops to the Chechen border -- a move that provoked the interesting charge from Jokhar Dudayev, the Soviet general turned president of Chechnya, that Moscow did indeed head "the evil empire."

President Yeltsin is the villain of this book. Seeking a quick resolution through intimidation, he sent a tank brigade and attack jets into the Chechen capital of Grozny in an ill-considered show of force that actually permitted the Chechens to display their own guerrilla-like military prowess. By day the tank column was swarmed by civilian protesters; that night it was smashed by the rocket-propelled grenades of Chechen fighters. It was spirit, not numbers, that counted: The authors estimate that at first the Chechens were able to counter the 40,000-strong Russian invasion force with only about 1,000 fighters. Purposely permitted by the Chechens to penetrate to the center of the city, the Russian Maikop Brigade was first surrounded and then destroyed.

Russia responded ferociously. The authors claim that at one point, Grozny was hit with the heaviest artillery bombardment since World War II, which seems an overstatement in light of the firepower used in the Iran-Iraq War. Three months later, the Russians took Grozny. According to the authors, 27,000 civilians were killed in the process, many of them ethnic Russians who, unlike the Chechens, had no relatives in outlying villages to whom they could flee.

Moving the war southward into the mountains of the Chechen countryside, Russian forces committed a variety of atrocities, from burning villages to terrorizing prisoners by throwing them from hovering helicopters. The Chechens sometimes were equally vicious. Even so, to the Russians the war seemed all but won.

Backs to the wall, the Chechens responded in mid-1995 with what is generally called terrorism, but what contemporary military theorists analyze as an "asymmetrical response": They drove north into a Russian town and took hostage some 1,200 people in a hospital, spectacularly humiliating a Russian government that thought it had resolved the Chechen problem. Months later Chechen fighters roared back out of their mountain retreats. In August 1996 they recaptured the remains of Grozny from 12,000 undertrained and demoralized Russian troops. A Russian sergeant told the authors, "The (Chechen) fighters aren't scared to move around and we are, that is the difference. They are the bosses here." By the end of the month, Moscow had agreed to recognize Chechen independence, and Russian troops again withdrew.

This book should be read as a companion to the recent Philadelphia Inquirer series on the U.S. Army's disastrous firefight in Somalia in October 1993. Both works should be required as cautionary reading for policymakers and pundits prone to under-estimating the difficulty of intervening in the cities of the Third World, whether Baghdad, Mogadishu, or Grozny. The two studies also should prove instructive to anyone who thinks future wars will be high-tech, low-sweat affairs.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Wall Street Journal's Pentagon correspondent, is the author of Making the Corps.
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Author:Ricks, Thomas E.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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