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Phase Two - The Ground Campaign - October-November 1999

The Chechen conflict entered a new phase on 01 October 1999, when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and his parliament illegitimate. By calling Chechnya's 1996 parliament its only legitimate (governing) body and supporting the idea of a Chechen government in exile, the premier signaled the start of a land operation. Although Russia denied its objective is a takeover of Chechnya, an effort appeared underway to create a puppet government.

Russian forces were reported advancing as much as 15 kilometers inside Chechnya and capturing strategic positions to establish a security zone. It was believed to be the first time Moscow had sent ground troops into the breakaway region since the humiliating defeat at the hands of Chechen rebels three years ago. But Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev cautioned that the move was not an invasion, saying that the plan was to capture territory bit-by-bit, by expanding a so-called "sanitary cordon." Russian military planners hoped the go-slow strategy will avoid the heavy casualties that undermined public support for the previous Chechen campaign in the mid-1990s.

By 05 October Russian ground forces had seized the northern one-third of Chechnya, advancing to the Terek River that cuts across northern Chechnya. Initially, the Russians apparently planned to divide the republic and establish a pro-Moscow administration on the Russian held-portion while tightening the economic and military squeeze on the other side. With Russian troops setting up positions within 25 kilometers north of the capital, Grozny, President Aslan Maskhadov declared martial law in the region, and called for a holy war against federal forces.

On 15 October 1999 the commander of federal forces in the Caucasus, General Viktor Kazantsev, said the first phase of Russia's military campaign -- to create a security zone around Chechnya -- was complete. He said his forces would begin a second phase of military operations designed to wipe out Chechen militants throughout the republic. Russian forces took control of a strategic ridge within artillery range of the Chechen capital Grozny after mounting an intense tank and artillery barrage against Chechen fighters. The first deputy chief of Russia's armed forces, General Valery Manilov, said there will be no frontal attack on Grozny, but Russian forces would destroy Islamic militants in the capital.

On 21 October 1999 a Russian surface-to-surface missile strike on Grozny killed more than 140 people and left even more wounded. The rockets slammed into the center of the Chechen capital killing civilians, including many women and children. The explosions occurred in several areas in Grozny, including a downtown market and near a Chechen presidential building. A Russian spokesman said the busy market place was targeted because it was used by rebels as an arms bazaar. This was the most visible indication of the long range fire support provided by some combination of SS-1 SCUD and SS-21 SCARAB missiles fired from the large Russian airbase at nearby Mozdok, in Dagestan. These attacks were preceded by air raids and artillery shelling of non-combatant villages, homes and farms in the northern part of Chechnya.

By 23 October Russian military columns closed off the last road out of Chechnya. Russian tanks blocked the road leading west from Grozny to neighboring Ingushetia. The crumbling two-lane highway had been the only link between the breakaway republic and the outside world for several weeks. Most of the 180-thousand people who fled Chechnya when the Russian invasion began used that road.

Russian forces reportedly made several attempts to seize positions on the outskirts of the capital, but were rebuffed two-kilometers from Grozny. The majority of the city's civilian population fled, leaving the streets mostly deserted. Russian forces also focused air and artillery raids on the eastern city of Gudermes, about 35-kilometers east of Grozny. Seizing Gudermes would be a major step towards full Russian control of eastern Chechnya, but the city is heavily fortified. Russian warplanes and artillery continued to bomb targets in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, as well as the republic's second largest city, Gudermes. Russian forces also shelled the town of Bamut, close to Chechnya's border with Ingushetia.

On 08 November 1999 it was announced that Russia was sending reinforcements to the estimated 100-thousand troops stationed in and around Chechnya. Interior ministry reinforcements were sent to northeastern Chechnya, where federal troops encircled the region's second city, Gudermes, 35-kilometers east of the capital Grozny. Russian warplanes made new attacks against what military leaders said was a rebel stronghold in the southwestern city of Urus-Martan. Russian forces also bombed what they say were militant camps in the region's southern mountains, and unleashed a fresh wave of rocket attacks against rebel positions outside Grozny as well as in Chechnya's southern regions.

Russian jets continued to bomb and strafe different parts of Chechnya to assist the slow, methodical advance of Russian troops. The gradual advance is in sharp contrast to the tactics employed by Russia during the last war with Chechnya. The Russian strategy demonstrated that lessons have been learned since the last war against Chechnya several-years ago. Then, thousands of young soldiers died in frontal attacks against Chechen fighters who showed they were adept at urban street fighting. The Russian advance has been much slower, with almost constant bomb and artillery strikes to push fighters back before troops move in. In some areas, Russian officers have negotiated with village elders who were more interested in saving their towns from destruction than putting up resistance. After systematic bombing and artillery attacks on towns and villages, residents are issued an ultimatum: either the rebels leave and Russian troops take the town quietly, or civilians are ordered out and the town is reduced to ruins. In other towns, refugees have even returned home after receiving assurances there would be no more bombing.This "heart and mind" strategy also includes Russian civilian officials who deal with vital services such as gas and electricity. In some northern parts of Chechnya, teachers and medical workers will soon receive their wages, and elderly people their pensions.

On 12 November 1999 the Russian flag was raised over Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes, signaling a significant defeat for Chechen forces. And on 17 November the Russian military captured the Chechen stronghold of Bamut along the western border. Bamut had symbolized Chechnya's battle for independence during the earlier war in the region, from 1994 to 1996. The next day federal troops captured Achkoi-Martan, a town on Chechnya's western border that was earlier a target of artillery and rocket attacks.

As of late November the cordon around Grozny was 80-percent complete, with only the southern approach remaining open, and Russia's military expected to have the Chechen capital encircled by mid-December. The population dwindled from 300,000 before the latest fighting to a level variously estimated at between 4,000 and 40,000. Military officials estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 Chechen fighters were preparing to resist any advance into Grozny.

Urus-Martan, 20-kilometers southwest of Grozny, lies near a main road going south through the mountains to Georgia which was a major rebel supply route, and so would be a significant prize for the federal forces. The city was the main target of Russian air and artillery attacks in late November. Several thousand Chechen defenders were believed to be in the city, and Russian army commanders had ruled out a ground assault for fear of suffering heavy casualties.

With Russian troops holding more than 50-percent of the breakaway region, rebel fighters began preparing to counter attack. Overall, the campaign had been marked by heavy Russian air and artillery strikes, with the Chechen fighters offering little resistance.

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