A traveler driving southeast from Grozny along slick, winding, mountain roads, through the rugged, fogshrouded Caucasus landscape, ends the trip convinced: There is no way the Russians will conquer this territory.
Residents of Nozhai Yurt, a regional center of 6,600 people, are certain of it too, and they have one message for Moscow: If Grozny, the capital, falls to Russian troops, tens of thousands of fighters will take to Chechnya’s hills and commence a protracted guerrilla war.
“They can control the air, but the ground will burn under their feet,” said Merzho Pedayev, who is helping organize the defense of this town about two hours southeast of Grozny, the capital.
“The Russians thought that they could just walk into Grozny, install a government, and the entire nation would bow their heads to them and obey,” said Alikhadji Madarov, 35, a deputy head of the regional government. “But they’re wrong, and if they do take Grozny, the war will not end. Every village will become a fortress.”
As Russian artillery and warplanes pulverize Grozny and elite troops slowly push back the Chechen fighters, the chances grow that Moscow’s forces soon may take the center of the city and eventually expand their control over much of Grozny.
And then what? It’s a question that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin doesn’t appear to have contemplated in much depth. If he had, he would not like the answer: The feeling is widespread in Chechnya and in Russia that Moscow is blundering into a domestic Afghanistan.
Chechens interviewed here, in Grozny, and in other regions of this breakaway, Connecticut-sized republic, said that if Grozny falls, they expect Moscow to appoint a puppet Chechen government. But, they predicted, it will be virtually powerless - hunkered down in the ruins of Grozny, protected by Russian troops but subject to guerrilla strikes, issuing orders that Chechnya will ignore.
The Moscow-backed government may be able to exert shaky control over some cities, such as Shali and Gudermes, but there is widespread belief that the mountainous southern section will be solid guerrilla territory.
Here in Nozhai Yurt, a poor agricultural area in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, local leaders say they will resign if a Russian-backed government replaces that of President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Madarov, the deputy head of the regional government, said there will be mass civil disobedience and virtual paralysis throughout the republic.
Should the Russians try to send in troops - here or in any of the 18 other regional centers in Chechnya - they will meet stiff partisan resistance. Tavli Etiyev, 37, the war commissar for this region of 52,000 people, said each of its 63 villages and hamlets has been incorporated into a para-military structure. Hundreds of men are armed, albeit lightly, and a system of lookouts has been organized to warn of the arrival of airborne or other troops.
“We have everything ready for our defense,” said Etiyev, a high school teacher who, like most men here, now devotes himself full-time to the war effort.
The obstacles facing a Russian garrison here would be be formidable, the Chechens said.
Troops would be harassed constantly. The roads are narrow and treacherous and invite ambush at nearly every bend. While the Russians could be resupplied from the air, even helicopters are vulnerable because the Chechens possess thousands of rocket-propelled grenades.
Although Russia has blocked off all roads leading into Chechnya from neighboring Russian republics and from Georgia to the south, rebel leaders here said partisans could be resupplied by means of countless mountain trails. The Chechens also are confident they will capture large numbers of Russian weapons.
“I’m ready to take them on, with a knife if I have to,” said Vakha Tsatsayev, standing in a steep, muddy street lined by houses of stucco and brick.