Abandoning their failed effort to take the Chechen capital of Grozny by storm, Russian forces are now trying a new tactic - unrelenting artillery barrages followed up by cautious, blockto-block street fighting.
The new approach seemed to pay off Saturday for the Russians, who advanced to within 1,500 feet of the presidential palace.
But the cost of their success is enormous: To move forward, they must level everything in their path.
Many buildings, including the presidential palace and Kafkaz Hotel across the way, were in flames Saturday as the Russians, approaching from the north, inched toward the center of the city. One Western reporter who visited the burning city Saturday said the shelling reached a crescendo of 15 rounds per minute.
“The Russians are using new methods, trying to move forward block by block with tanks and heavy artillery,” a Chechen commander told Reuters as he prepared to lead his men from a suburb into the middle of the fray.
“They’re not gaining any ground, but they’re destroying the city,” he said. “There’s a lot of shooting … but no real battle. It’s just Russian tanks and artillery, no infantry. They’re frightened; they don’t want to face us.”
The Russians are still stinging from their failed New Year’s Eve tank assault on the city, in which they lost at least 300 men and 100 tanks.
The motley Chechen fighters practiced a skillful divide-and-conquer strategy, first separating the Russian tanks from their infantry support, then incinerating the armored vehicles with hand-held rocket launchers and Molotov cocktails.
But even this new, slower advance into the city, which could take weeks to finish, cannot be done without heavy losses. During an artillery exchange Saturday, a senior Russian commander, Maj. Gen. Viktor Vorobyov, was killed when a mortar shell exploded next to him. At the time, he was attempting to move his headquarters closer to the city center. He commanded elite interior ministry units that were called in especially for the street fighting in Grozny.
Russia’s decision to step up its bombardment of the city will not likely sit well with Western leaders. As the campaign to reassert Russian authority over the breakaway Chechen province has grown more brutal, many countries have voiced concern. Denmark Saturday suspended a NATO-backed program to help modernize Russia’s armed forces, while German Chancellor Helmut Kohl begged Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to stop the “madness.”
But Yeltsin, who had resurfaced Friday for a meeting with his Security Council, once again seemed to be retreating from public view Saturday, which was the day Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas.
He canceled his planned appearance Saturday at a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a new Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, to replace the cathedral torn down by the Communists. More significant, he also postponed his traditional start-of-the-year speech to parliament, scheduled for Wednesday, until the end of the month.
Now, thousands of elite Russian paratroops are pouring into the region, and it seems certain Moscow will apply ever-greater force against the Chechens, who declared themselves independent in 1991, amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Chechens have proved to be superior city fighters. But their mood Saturday was unusually sober as Grozny was pounded by the most intense shelling of the war.
One rebel fighter told AgenceFrance Presse, “I saw so many dead, I couldn’t count them.”
The whereabouts of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev were not known, though unconfirmed reports said he might have left the burning presidential palace for the relative safely of a bunker.
The stepped-up Russian bombardment turned Lenin Street, Grozny’s main thoroughfare, into a strip of burning buildings. The asphalt street had been hit so many times it looked like freshly plowed ground. Thousands of Grozny inhabitants, many of them elderly and ethnic Russians, are holed up in bomb shelters in the center of town, living without electricity, heat, running water or reliable food supplies.
Even applying overwhelming force, it is expected to take the Russians several weeks to control Grozny. Many Chechens predict the Russians will never occupy the capital. And even if they do, they will essentially have taken control of a ruined city surrounded on all sides by hostile guerrillas. Chechen fighters have vowed to take to the hills and fight for years against the Russians, if necessary.
But some believe Grozny is not what really matters to Moscow. In this view, the Kremlin launched the war to quash Chechen independence because it is determined to reassert its control over the strategic oil pipelines and rail links that pass through the valley leading to the rich oil fields of Azerbaijan. That country recently concluded a multibilliondollar deal with Western oil firms, and Moscow wants to make sure it retains influence in the area.