Russians smash villages in push towards Grozny

AS SNOW fell in Chechnya yesterday the Russian army continued to steamroller its way through Chechen villages, behind a relentless bombardment by its artillery and air force.

"The Russians are in contact with the Chechen fighters only when the fighters attack them," said Usam Baisaev, a Chechen journalist. "In the last war some places were unharmed by the Russians, but now nowhere is safe. In every village there are 10 or 20 dead civilians."

It is a strategy that has worked so far in the Russian army's six-week- long campaign, which now aims for the total conquest of Chechnya, ending the republic's three years of de facto independence.

First the army easily captured the flat plains of northern Chechnya; now its forces are grinding through the heavily populated centre of the country. Yesterday the army said it had all but surrounded Grozny, the Chechen capital.

The real momentum behind the war is the electoral battle in Moscow over who will succeed President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin next year. Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, has in effect promised Russians a total victory with few casualties on their side. The promise will be difficult to keep. But so far the Russian army has avoided the disasters of the first Chechen war, in 1994-96, when uncoordinated thrusts into Grozny by its tanks and infantry were ambushed by Chechen fighters.

In this war Russia is being more cautious. It is trying to stop isolated detachments from being picked off. "In the last war the Russians tried to fight their way into villages," said one Chechen observer. "Now they blockade them and try to force them to surrender under threat of destruction by their artillery."

The weakness in that strategy is that it inflicts few casualties on the Chechen guerrilla army led by President Aslan Maskhadov. His men have been systematically withdrawing, fighting only in selected places, such as Goragorsky, in north-west Chechnya, and Bamut, near the border with Ingushetia.

In theory the Chechens have 25,000 guerrillas under arms. Mr Maskhadov's presidential guard is about 2,500-strong, and the national army contains 4,000 men. But those figures probably exaggerate Chechnya's fighting strength. And its real problems are less manpower than food, ammunition and equipment. In the last war there were probably only 3,000 full-time guerrillas, and this time round the number is unlikely to exceed 10,000.

The Russian army has an estimated 100,000 men in Chechnya, but that will not be enough for the strategy of static warfare favoured by the Russian generals. The generals have two problems: whether or not to storm Grozny, where their troops were slaughtered in savage street-fighting in the last war, and how to occupy the Caucasus mountains, in southern Chechnya. And there are rumours of a division within the high command.

Russia can win in Chechnya, but only by deploying large numbers of troops for a long time. It would need to garrison every village and hilltop. And the Russian army is up against a soldier of proven skills in President Maskhadov. He will certainly want to fight a long war, in the hope that there will be a change in Russian public opinion - which has hitherto backed the invasion - as time passes and casualties mount.

Leading article Review, page 3