As recently as late November, Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev boasted that it would take a single parachute regiment only two hours to subdue unrest in the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya. But to be on the safe side, President Boris Yeltsin last month sent 40,000 troops, backed by heavy artillery and massive air power, to defend the "territorial integrity" of the shaky Russian Federation by crushing a three-year-old separatist bid by the predominantly Muslim region. As shells, missiles and warplanes rained destruction on Grozny, the Chechen capital, Grachev continued to insist that only limited force would be required to bring the rebellious Caucasus mountain territory to heel. Only an "incompetent commander," the defence minister said, "would use tanks in a city."
Grachev's predictions, like much of Grozny, have since gone up in smoke. After the initial Russian bombardment failed to break the resolve of the ragtag Chechen guerrillas, Moscow ordered tanks into the city on New Year's Eve for what was supposed to have been the final assault on the rebel stronghold. But the Russian troops, mostly inexperienced conscripts and many still in their teens, soon found themselves bogged down in ferocious street combat with Chechen irregulars, lightly armed but heavily committed to their rallying cry of "freedom or death."
Last week, charred tanks and bodies of Russian soldiers littered the streets of Grozny as makeshift troop carriers loaded with Chechen reinforcements from outside the city careered through its rubble-filled streets. Many of the rebels, convinced that dying for independence would assure them a place in heaven, wore the green ribbons of Islamic suicide fighters and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" - God is great. On the ground, others opened fire on Russian troops from behind trees, kiosks or burned-out buildings.
Although reliable casualty figures are unobtainable, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians and soldiers - both Russian and Chechen - have been killed or wounded in the intense battle for Grozny. On Saturday, the commander of Russia's interior ministry troops in Chechnya, Maj.-Gen. Viktor Vorobyov, became the first senior officer to die in the fighting when he was killed by a mortar explosion. And some 1,500 km north, in Moscow, there were suggestions that the ill-fated war could also have grave consequences for Boris Yeltsin's presidency - and perhaps the Russian Federation itself. Declared Sergei Kovalyov, a reformist Russian parliamentarian: "It is not only the fate of Chechnya alone but the fate of all Russia which is being decided in Grozny."
All week, official Kremlin propaganda attempted to put the best face on what was clearly becoming a desperate, perhaps even intractable, situation. Even as Russian forces took a pounding, they continued to rain artillery, mortar and rocket fire on the centre of Grozny. The government insisted its troops had "snatched the initiative" by taking control of much of the city. But criticism of Yeltsin mounted.
In recent months, Russian hardliners, egged on by ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have become increasingly embittered by what they regard as an erosion of the power and prestige of the former empire. Opponents now maintain that the once reform-minded Yeltsin has fallen victim to a power struggle between hawks and doves in his inner cabinet - and that the Russian president may have ordered the assault on Chechnya to placate a "war party" of security and military officials. Some even suggested last week that Yeltsin was no longer in control, and that his security chief, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, was instead running the country.
Leading the domestic attacks on Yeltsin were several liberal Russian newspapers, which lashed out at the president, his advisers and the army for their handling of the situation. "In the Chechen crisis, the Russian authorities have shown their inability to see the immediate consequences even one or two moves ahead," wrote the Moscow paper Izvestia, likening Russia's leaders to a collection of bad chess players. And a banner headline in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, which ran above a photograph of Yeltsin offering a New Year's toast to the nation superimposed over the bodies of dead Russian soldiers, read: "There is no power left, no truth and no president."
On the streets of Moscow, several hundred demonstrators, clearly haunted by the gruesome television images beamed back from the front, gathered with placards bearing such slogans as "Stop the bloodshed" and "Shame on the executioners." Many said that they feared Yeltsin had plunged the country into a replay of the bloody 1979-1989 Afghanistan war. Among the protesters, soldiers' mothers, fearing the worst, wept openly for their sons. More worrisome for Yeltsin, several reformist deputies and former allies demanded that he abandon the presidency. "For us, it has become clear that now neither Boris Yeltsin nor his ministers in uniform can regulate the conflict in Chechnya," said leading liberal legislator Grigory Yavlinsky.
The future of Russia, in fact, has rarely been less certain. Last week, liberal ex-prime minister Yegor Gaidar, onetime architect of Yeltsin's economic reforms, said that the country is now facing its greatest threat since the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Gaidar, who leads the largest pro-reform faction in the lower house of parliament, urged Yeltsin to dismiss those "who pushed him to this adventure" - including Grachev, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov and National Security Council Secretary Oleg Lobov. Gaidar blamed Yeltsin and his aides for a "military catastrophe."
Even within the Russian military, there is a growing rift between those who support the operation and those who oppose it. Since the invasion began, several senior officers and two deputy defence ministers - including Gen. Boris Goromov, former commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. Alexander Lebed, who some analysts say has designs on the defence minister's job - have condemned the Kremlin's actions. Morale among the Russian conscripts in Chechnya, meanwhile, is extremely low. Moscow TV has broadcast interviews with young soldiers who complain they do not even know why they are fighting.
Yeltsin's woes, however, extend well beyond the military - or the borders of the Russian Federation. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl described the suffering and killing in Chechnya last week as "complete madness." Several other countries, including Canada, expressed concern that the Kremlin may have gone too far. "We recognize that this is a matter internal to Russia," Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet declared in Ottawa, "but we have been deeply disturbed by the suffering of innocent civilians and the violations of human rights." The European Union announced that it would delay a planned economic accord with Russia to eventually eliminate trade quotas and increase investment opportunities. Under pressure from the Europeans and the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said he may be prepared to give the 53-nation Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Canada is a member, a role in helping to resolve the conflict.
Whatever the outcome, there is much at stake. The patchwork Russian Federation contains nearly 100 ethnic groups and nationalities in 89 political units - 21 of them, including Chechnya, constituent republics with their own laws and constitutions. Several, including Tatarstan, have declared that their legislation takes precedence over Moscow's and have said they want to collect their own taxes and issue their own currencies. And the fighting in Chechnya could well sow unrest in other former Soviet republics.
Yeltsin himself seemed to grasp the possible consequences during a tour of regional governments last August. When asked by reporters if he would intervene militarily to crush Chechen separatists, he replied: "If we were to apply pressure by force against Chechnya, it would arouse the whole Caucasus. There would be such a commotion, there would be so much blood, that nobody would forgive us." Unfortunately for Yeltsin, the headstrong president failed to heed his own words.
Maclean's January 16, 1995