MOSCOW -- Russia has lost two airplanes over Chechnya in three days, and if they were shot down by the portable Stinger surface-to-air missile, the war has escalated to an unexpectedly sophisticated level.
During nearly two years of an earlier war, from the end of 1994 until mid-1996, the Chechens never managed to shoot down a Sukhoi-24 bomber, and during the entire war shot down only about five Sukhoi-25 attack planes, according to various reports.
Chechen fighters, armed with a U.S.-made Stinger missile, shot down a Sukhoi-25 on Sunday, according to Col. Islam Khasukhanov, Chechnya's deputy chief of staff, who said the pilot was killed in the crash.
The next day, a Sukhoi-24 sent to search for the first plane was apparently hit by a missile, according to an Associated Press reporter who watched the plane buzz a town and swoop low over the ground before crashing. The plane's two crew members were apparently killed.
Stinger missiles could have reached Chechnya through Russia's southern border, supplied by the Islamic fundamentalists from Afghanistan's Taliban, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing sources in the security services. The United States sent Stinger missiles to Afghanistan in the 1980s for use by rebels fighting Soviet forces supporting a government installed by the Soviet Union.
The acquisition of Stingers would be a serious development in the conflict, said Tomas Valasek, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Russia has been trying to rely on bombing, rather than on the kind of large-scale ground invasion that inflicted heavy casualties on its soldiers in the earlier Chechen conflict. Russia has been counting on little anti-aircraft fire -- in the earlier fighting, Chechens shot down what planes they could with heavy machine guns.
"That could seriously disrupt Russia's plans," Valasek said. "Up to now, they have been flying over Grozny with impunity."
If the Chechens have Stingers or similar, Russian-made Igla missiles, Russian planes will have to fly higher and, thus, have even more trouble finding the small bands of Islamic guerrillas they say they are seeking to destroy.
"It's pretty worrying to the Russian military command to lose two planes," said Dmitri Trenin, a military analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Clearly, there was a feeling of euphoria, a scent of victory in the air. Now they are confronted with the fact that the enemy is far from defeated and that a solution to Russia's problems in the south will take a very long time."
He said Russia has been trying to carry out the kind of air campaign that the United States and its NATO allies used successfully against Yugoslavia last spring.
But Bill Odom, a retired Army general and former director of the National Security Agency who is now an analyst with the Hudson Institute, said that Russia was conducting something more akin to the Mongol invasions of old, mowing down everything in its path. Russia's talk of a NATO-like, precision-bombing campaign in Chechnya was simply propaganda, he said.
"I see no evidence of it," he said. "You didn't have 80,000 refugees leaving Serbia. Instead, you had couples dancing on the bridge."
By yesterday, the number of Chechen refugees had risen to about 100,000, most of them trying to find sanctuary in Ingushetia, a poor Russian territory to the east.
This morning, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov imposed martial law, saying it was needed to preserve "sovereignty and integrity."
Russia has been bombing Chechnya for 10 days and has sent troops to occupy a buffer zone -- what it calls a sanitary cordon -- around Chechnya. Russian troops have advanced to the Terek River, putting about one-third of Chechnya under Russian control, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday.
Putin said four Russian soldiers have died and 22 have been injured in the recent fighting, which erupted into a serious confrontation after Chechen rebels took their battle against Russia into neighboring Dagestan over the summer.
Russia has deployed 30,000 troops and 24 strike aircraft, including the two planes that have been lost.
The Sukhoi-24, designed to penetrate NATO defenses during the Cold War, is similar to the U.S. F-111 fighter-bomber. The Sukhoi-25, a highly maneuverable anti-tank aircraft, is similar to the American A-10 Warthog.
"This operation to create a security zone is far from over," Putin said. "It is only one stage of this operation. The final goal is the full destruction of the terrorists and their bases on the whole territory of Chechnya."
Trenin said that if Chechen anti-aircraft fire forces Russia to change its strategy, incurring more casualties, support among the Russian people for the war could quickly erode.
"People have not seen the heads of Shamil Basayev and Khattab," Trenin said, referring to the field commanders blamed for taking their fight for an Islamic republic into Dagestan. "Instead, they're seeing more and more Russians being killed.
"I see some of the same mistakes being committed again," he said. "At the end of the day, there's no military solution, only a political one."
Pub Date: 10/06/99