Russians losing the propaganda war in Chechnya

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The conflict in Chechnya is confirming the saying that the first casualty of war is truth. During the fighting last month in the capital Grozny, a Russian armoured reconnaissance unit sent to locate Chechen firing positions was ambushed and suffered heavy losses as it entered Minutka square in the heart of the city.

The conflict in Chechnya is confirming the saying that the first casualty of war is truth. During the fighting last month in the capital Grozny, a Russian armoured reconnaissance unit sent to locate Chechen firing positions was ambushed and suffered heavy losses as it entered Minutka square in the heart of the city.

Foreign news agencies in Grozny reported that 115 Russian soldiers were lying dead amid the wreckage of their armoured vehicles. Russian defence officials denied that any battle had occurred at all.

"In fact the agencies got it a little wrong," said Captain Jury Gladkevich of the independent Military News Agency in Moscow. "Our losses were 52 dead and wounded. It wasn't an attempt to storm Grozny. The Russian commander wanted to draw Chechen fire to find out where they were, but he underestimated their defences."

The incident explains why Russia is doing so badly in the information war in Chechnya. No setback is ever admitted, however strong the evidence to the contrary. A Russian general speaks of 7,000 Chechen fighters killed - yet even a pro-Moscow Chechen politician says the real figure is 200. Official spokesmen lose credibility by the month.

After four months in which the Russian high command trumpeted a trouble-free advance through Chechnya, the ability of guerrillas to strike at the towns of Gudermes, Shali and Argun shocked the Russian media and public. "Suddenly it turned out that no defence was organised against potential strikes," wrote the daily newspaper Izvestia last week. "The troops were scattered all over the territory and mobile armoured units had no unified command."

None of this was a surprise to General Vladimir Kosarev, a dapper middle-aged officer who last year set up the Military News Agency (known by its Russian initials as AVN) just before the start of the latest Chechen war. He had resigned from the army in frustration at its refusal to tell the truth.

"There was always a high wall between journalists and the army," said Gen Kosarev as he recalled his last years in uniform. "I thought I could destroy it, but I failed."

Now is trying again. In a Moscow office he has gathered the former military journalists he considers the best in the field, all of whom were once in the armed forces, none below the rank of captain.

Gen Kosarev and his journalists do not oppose Russia's war in Chechnya, but they are keen to see it properly reported. Capt Gladkevich, a specialist on Chechnya, said that, for example, "the number of Russian casualties is three or four times the official figure". The numbers are massaged to keep them low by various means, such as not reporting numbers of missing soldiers, most of whom are dead.

Capt Gladkevich admits that he does not have an exact figure for Russian losses, despite repeated efforts to find out. It is, he said, a closely guarded secret. "When a senior medical office at the Ministry of Defence asked about our casualties, he was immediately cross-questioned about why he needed to know."

Few of AVN's reports have gone down well with the official spokesmen for the army or the Defence Ministry. With some glee, Gen Kosarev records how one such spokesman accused AVN of helping the Chechen rebels by revealing in advance that two senior Russian generals in operational command in Chechnya - Vladimir Shamanov and Gennady Troshev - were to be moved from their posts. Gen Kosarev promptly got up at a press conference and attacked the spokesman "for misleading the Russian public".

In fact, said Capt Gladkevich, the background to the apparent firing of the two generals - who are now to be promoted - had nothing to do with any feeling in Moscow that the war was going badly, although Gen Shamanov was in bad odour with President Boris Yeltsin for making political statements.This was confirmed by acting President Vladimir Putin at the weekend; he said the authority of both Gen Shamanov and Gen Troshev was to be "expanded, not diminished".

Many Russian generals and defence officials approve of the AVN's record of accurate reporting on military and security affairs. Gen Kosarev proudly showed off a congratulatory letter from the air force commander. But, on more mundane business matters, he concedes that "it is too early to tell if the agency will ever be profitable".

The agency may also benefit from a growing willingness by the Russian media to admit that so far the official account of the war in Chechnya has been grossly misleading. The army announced the capture of villages and towns as soon as local Chechen leaders agreed to run up the Russian flag, but never really controlled them.

The ability of AVN to tap into so many sources inside the armed forces shows that there are plenty of Russian soldiers who believe there is no danger in revealing what is happening.Still, the overall picture of victorious advance in Chechnya is unlikely to change. As the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets points outs: "While losing soldiers and losing the war, the word will be that we are winning, at least until the presidential elections."

Comments