MOSCOW -- Every night, Russian television news programs show tanks firing and bombers bombing in Dagestan. Ordnance explodes and smoke billows in the mountain valleys. But some here are beginning to suspect that this latest war in the Caucasus is not all that it seems.
Two weeks ago, Islamic militants led by Shamil Basayev stopped fighting and melted back across the border into neighboring Chechnya, leaving the Russian air force to spend several hours flattening what was by then a deserted village.
This week, the rebels suddenly materialized again in Dagestan, and the bombardment picked up as if it had never left off.
News services describe the fighting as intense, the rebel losses heavy, the situation complicated. The last of those, at least, is certainly true. But there are growing signs that, on the ground, this might be something less than a full-scale war.
Yesterday, two Dagestani political leaders called on the Russian forces to show more resolve in their struggle. A report in the newspaper Kommersant said the equipment being used by the federal forces seemed remarkably old and the military formations remarkably casual.
And a traveler from Khasavyurt, who left her home just a mile or two from the rebel position, said as she got off a train in Moscow yesterday that the Russians weren't doing any shooting at all.
"The impression I have is, they're indifferent," said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Saikha. "I don't think they've gotten a serious order to fight. It's only the locals who are actively fighting." Among them, she said, is her father, a Dagestani volunteer who has taken up arms against Basayev's men.
She and other Dagestanis who arrived on the train from Makhachkala, the capital, were united in their desire to see Basayev defeated, but all appeared wary of the Russian forces. Saikha suggested the Russian troops weren't fighting because they were too busy selling their weapons.
"The war may end in success," she said, "but with a lot of victims, and only after they grab a lot of money. I mean by that, first of all, the government, and then the Chechens."
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry dismissed her suspicions as "nonsense."
But the federal response to the rebels in Dagestan, which is technically an autonomous republic of Russia, has been disjointed at best. First, the Interior Ministry held overall command, then that was switched to the Defense Ministry when the rebels were on the verge of heading back into Chechnya. Command has switched back and forth twice since then.
An apartment house for officers' families was blown up on Sunday by a car bomb, and President Boris N. Yeltsin criticized the military services Tuesday for their inability to keep the situation under control.
This week, Russian officers said they were bracing for a major rebel assault on the city of Khasavyurt. Basayev told the Interfax news agency that he had no such plan, but was only trying to relieve the pressure on a group of rebels holding the village of Karamakhi.
"What is Karamakhi? It's a small plot, the size of a 5 kopeck coin, in a dale," said retired Gen. Salikh Khaliloiv, chairman of Dagestan's Council of Veterans, according to the Associated Press. "Yet for two weeks now, a huge army grouping has been unable to suppress separate gun emplacements and to restore constitutional order in the region."
Kommersant described what happened Sunday to a group of about 60 riot police and local volunteers who were surrounded in the village of Novolakskoye by a rebel force of about 500. Thirteen federal troops were killed and five wounded. They fought on for 16 hours, the newspaper reported, yet federal reinforcements never attempted a rescue. Finally, the federal fighters managed to escape; one wounded soldier was left behind and taken prisoner.
Support in Dagestan
From the beginning, in mid- August, Moscow has been assiduously pointing out that Basayev's men entered Dagestan from neighboring Chechnya and met with virtually no support among the local population. But the fighting around Novolakskoye and Karamakhi involves Dagestani Islamic militants, and some have argued that there has been at least tacit support among some of Dagestan's three dozen ethnic groups all along.
"The so-called invasion of Islamists from Chechnya could not have happened if there were no support in Dagestan itself," said Vakhit Akaev, a Chechen academic who has studied the region's ethnic and religious conflicts.
And with the Russian forces destroying villages from the air while they stir resentment on the ground through perceived inaction, anti-Russian feeling seems certain to grow.
"If the war drags on," Akaev said, "people in Dagestan will become more and more unhappy about the Russian forces, and about their own government. The longer this goes on, the more opposition there will be."
A reported 12,000 refugees in Dagestan have fled the fighting. Most have made their way to Makhachkala. Every day, a long train packed with people leaves the capital for the north, for the 48-hour trip to Moscow.
"We are so scared, we are even scared to stay on our own soil," said Fatima Saligova, who rode north with her son, Magomed. "Who needs this war?"
"I tell you, I think this is going to end like the war in Chechnya did," said Magomed, "with nothing really settled."
The ghosts of Chechnya
Memories of the war in Chechnya, in which Basayev and other rebels bested an ill-trained and poorly led Russian army, at a cost of up to 80,000 lives, haunt Russia. Three years after that war ended, Chechnya exists as an independent state that is unrecognized by Moscow and almost every other country, and that is a constant source of anxiety for the Russians.
The army and Interior Ministry have gone to some lengths to suggest that there are few similarities between the two conflicts. (To some extent that might account for the relative lack of action on the ground, with commanders reluctant to repeat the bloody frontal assaults that marked the Chechen war.)
A telling scene appeared on Russian television last night. Viewers saw videotape of a military funeral in Samara for one of two Russian men from the city who have died in Dagestan. The funeral procession went down a city street. A band played. The coffin was draped with a flag.
In 1995, a regiment of draftees from Samara made the first, ill-fated assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny. Because of a lack of support and generally poor tactics, the regiment was practically wiped out. For months, anxious mothers in the Volga River city heard no news of their sons. The army refused to provide information about casualties. And when the bodies did come home, there were no organized funerals.
One lesson, at least, seems to have been learned: better public relations.
But the Russian forces have yet to show that they have the will and the cunning to defeat a man like Basayev.
Pub Date: 9/09/99