Ashes of Chechen battle hold no warmth for Yeltsin

Phil Reeves looks for the truth behind Russian forces' destruction of Pervomayskoye - and where it will lead
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The Independent Online
IT WAS no matter for celebration when we spotted Major-General Alexander Mikhailov, chief spokesman for the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), sitting at the front of the Aeroflot aircraft. We had heard quite enough from him in the previous few days as we watched Russian forces destroy the village of Pervomayskoye.

But, cooped up for hours flying across Russia's troubled underbelly from Dagestan to Moscow, we gave in to the temptation to prod him for information, however unreliable.

Only two days earlier, we had stood on the edge of the battlefield watching smoke coil up from ruins on the skyline while the major-general told us that "practically all" of the hostages held by Chechen rebels had been killed by their captors.

This was Russia's justification for levelling the village with Grad missiles in a final effort to wipe out the Chechen "boyeviki", or fighters. Yet with the assault over, Boris Yeltsin was now claiming that 82 hostages had escaped or been freed. What, we wanted to know, was going on?

Maj-Gen Mikhailov looked up with the air of a man weary of dealing with nit-pickers. "You are all clever people," he said slowly, "If you follow the basic principles of information you will know it all has to be independently verified. Information policy during military action isn't intended to inform you as to the maximum extent of what's going on, but to ensure the success of the operation." I may be wrong, but I am sure a grin flitted beneath his gingery moustache.

Governments the world over lie to journalists, especially about their wars, but few with such casual brazenness as President Yeltsin's. Either the administration was lying when it claimed to know that almost all the 100 or so hostages were dead and launched the ferocious bombardment regardless of the risk to their lives. Or it is lying now when it asserts that 82 have survived - although, happily, some have.

On Friday, Interfax news agency reported that the FSB had fired Maj-Gen Mikhailov, without saying why. He was, it seems, a victim of Kremlin efforts to manipulate the facts and turn the Pervomayskoye affair to its advantage. Although he is gone, the process is certain to continue.

It is no easy task. Mr Yeltsin set out to teach the Chechens a lesson. Now he vows to push home his point with assaults on rebel strongholds in Chechnya, a republic Russia is determined to hang on to, not least because of its strategically important oil pipeline.

It seems unlikely, however, that the Chechen separatists will draw the same conclusions from the affair as the President. They have learned that the best way to cause havoc in the Kremlin is to stage a spectacular hostage- taking operation, preferably on Russian soil as they did last June in Budennovsk.

Battles in Chechnya's second town of Gudermes last month killed hundreds, but generated few headlines. But in Pervomayskoye, helped by the Russians' sledgehammer tactics and military chaos, the rebels seized the international spotlight and held it for more than 10 days. They can do it again: a well- trained rebel band can easily cross the remote landscape of Russia's sprawling border with Chechnya.

Nor is there any shortage of fighters, despite the dozens lost at Pervomayskoye. Rhetoric about wiping out Chechen "mad dogs" takes little account of their determination. Shortly before the battle began, even while ringed by Russian guns, Salman Raduyev and his men seemed calm, disciplined, courteous and willing to explain their cause,

The contrast was striking with the unease and confusion in the faces of the Russian special forces several days later as they trudged back from the village, having failed after 48 hours struggling to subdue Chechen machine gunners. The Russians complained that their radios failed to work. They were nearly encircled in a Chechen trap and even griped about the boyeviki snipers, as if they hadn't expected to encounter any.

And if, as appears likely, Salman Raduyev and some of his fighters have lived to tell the tale, then the episode will acquire legendary status in the separatist movement, swelling its cast of martyrs. This process is already underway.

Within hours of the barrage ending on Thursday, wild stories of boyeviki heroism were already taking seed in the fertile soil of Kemsiyurt, a Chechen hamlet some three miles from Pervomayskoye. "They shot down seven helicopters," said one farmer, eyes ablaze with admiration. Another popular myth claimed the rebels had seized three Grad missile launchers.

The operation may be even more of a flop on the domestic political front. The claims of the Yeltsin-backed "Our Home Is Russia" party that it would provide security and peace, after all the crime, poverty and division of the post-Soviet years, didn't wash with the voters: it took only 10 per cent in December's parliamentary elections. The sight of Russian missiles hitting a Russian village (albeit in the remote Muslim republic of Dagestan) is likely to breed even deeper scepticism.

It may even have helped Mr Yeltsin's main opponents, the Communists. Their election win in December reflected a yearning for the comfort and security of the now romanticised Soviet era, which this bombardment will have intensified.

Amid the ashes, one of the few sources of warmth for the Kremlin is in the cauldron of American politics. Just as the missiles went in, US Secretary of Defense William Perry announced that Russia's handling of the crisis was "entirely correct".

America's anxiety to see Russia stay on the path of reform is understandable. Its willingness to overlook the Kremlin's disgraceful conduct is not. Indeed, the only person who could have matched Mr Perry's dedication to expediency was the sacked KGB spin doctor sitting at the front of the plane.