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Rob Parsons answers your questions from Mozdoc
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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 15:07 GMT
Chechnya - your questions answered

As the Chechen conflict continues, BBC Moscow correspondent Rob Parsons has been providing extensive coverage.

Battle for the Caucasus
Talking from Mozdok, the Russian military base in North Ossetia, he answered your questions about the progress and reporting of the war, the plight of soldiers on both sides, and the fate of the refugees.

Rob has been spending much of his time watching the Russian military at work on and around the Chechen border, so has a special insight into the workings of the war.

Alex Beatty, UK: With almost no independent verification of territory gained and casualties suffered by both sides, how do you assess how the war in Chechnya is progressing?

Rob Parsons: Well, Alex, you've got a very good point there. It's very difficult to be quite frank. The Russian military provides us with a daily analysis of what has been going on there in the last 24 hours, including casualty figures. But the figures are clearly ludicrously unrealistic. For instance, the sort of figures one gets is that during the last week of fighting there were 500 rebel soldiers killed, and nine Russian soldiers. Now, anyone with a basic knowledge of warfare knows that the attacking side generally suffers heavier causalities than the defending sides. But in this war it appears that it is the reverse.

On the other side, the Chechens say that the Russian casualties are astronomically enormous. We can't believe that either. So somewhere between the lines we have to get a rough estimation. And we do that moreorless by talking to eyewitnesses that we come across, Russian soldiers, including the wounded that we come across in the hospital here. Clearly the Russians are suffering heavy casualties, but nothing like on the scale that the Chechens are suggesting.

Daniel Paul de Gracia, USA: Is there any possibility that the Chechen fighters may be able to withstand the Russian attack and prevail as they did in 1996?

Rob Parsons: It's a difficult one to answer. If you're talking about Grozny, I think the Chechens can only withstand a an attack for so long. The problem for the Chechens is that the Russians have a huge advantage in numbers, and armour and weaponry. I'd have thought they could withstand an attack for one, two or three weeks, but no longer.

It becomes much more problematical for the Russians when the warfare moves into open country, particularly into the mountains, where the Chechen target becomes much more elusive, and the Chechens are able to move around with a great deal more mobility than the Russians. It might well be that the Chechens are able to sustain this war for as long as the last one. I think that the problems that the Chechens will find is that it doesn't seem this time round that they have the popular support that they did in the last war, and that may prove decisive this time.

Katerina, U.S.A: We hear very few news reports concerning the condition of the civilians and refugees. Are the refugees adequately cared for, or is the Russian military giving them just enough aid for them to survive?

Rob Parsons: Well the plight of the refugees is very severe indeed. Aid organisations have set up so-called tent cities in the outskirts of the cities, but they provide a very small percentage of the total number. Something like 10,000 people at the very most are provided with tent accommodation, and they tend to get most of the aid as well. The rest - and we're talking about as many as 200,000 - aren't provided for particularly well, but many of them do have relatives, especially in Ingushettia, so the problem is offset to some extent.

The Russians aren't giving much support, and so one can say that the refugee problem is a very severe one, particularly with the onset of winter. More refugees are coming out all the time, and the men in particular are being subjected to political harassment by the Russian military authorities.

Bostjan Vrechar, Slovenia: What is the current public opinion on the state of the conflict among the Chechen Russian minority?

Rob Parsons:It's a difficult one to answer because nobody really knows. What one can say about the Russians living in Chechnya is that they have a very hard time indeed. Most of them live in Grozny, which has been subjected to the heaviest bombardment, both in this war and in the last one.

The problem for the Russians is that unlike the Chechens of Grozny they're unable by and large to move out of the city and find shelter in the surrounding countryside. The Chechens for the most part have relatives living in the country with whom they can come and shelter, but the Russians have by and large moved into Chechnya from outside and so they're pretty much stuck there, unless they can escape to cities like Moscow. Many of them are very elderly, many very sick. And a large number of those in Grozny at the moment are ethinic Russians. They're suffering large. Many have been killed by aerial bombardment and artillery, and of course they're very angry about this.

And they blame not just the Chechens but the Russians. Although they're not happy that the quasi-independent Chechen government have made their lives a misery over the past few years - many of them were kidnapped and taken to the mountains and held to ransom. But they're not happy either that their own government - the Russian government in Moscow - have been bombing their houses to smithereens, smashing their shelters and cellars, and killing them. So they feel very ambivalent.

Nordin Mohd Nor, Malaysia: Why is the west not taking any action against Russian aggression? Isn't this a double standard by the west?

Rob Parsons: It is undoubtedly a double standard. We're talking about real politick here. Russia is simply a very big power. It's not the Soviet Union anymore, it's not a superpower. But it's a not a country with which Nato or any body else can very easily meddle. One can give advice but that's as far as it goes. Nato is simply not going to intervene in Russia in the same way as it intervened in the former Yugoslavia. Real politick still plays an enormous role in world politics, and that's what we're seeing in Chechnya today.

Andrej, Russia: Do Russians leave an impression of stone-age militaristic barbarians, invading a country for nothing? Why do they consider this war necessary: to secure Chechnya and neighbouring territories or just to flex their muscles?

Rob Parsons:I don't think there's any simple answer to that Andrei. It 's a number of different things brought together. It's part it's a question of geopolitics. Russia is very sensitive about Chechnya. It's on the border with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan, the former transportation republics of the former Soviet Union. Russia doesn't want to lose any more of its territory. It's very sensitive too about the fact that the oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan runs through the North Caucasus. It doesn't want to lose that. Perhaps the Russians are also concerned that if Chechnya was to go, it might trigger a domino effect through the North Caucasus. They are concerned too about the spread of militant Islam within Chechnya. I don't think it's one particular factor that concerns them. I think it's a multitude of factors all brought together.

Mark Rolfe, Scotland: Is there any substantial evidence linking Chechen terrorists to the spate of bombings in Moscow, which Russia is using, at least partially, as justification for this war?

Rob Parsons: I think it has to be said at this stage that the evidence is circumstantial rather than concrete. The Kremlin has certainly pointed the finger very strongly at, what they call, Chechen terrorists but the evidence at this stage is certainly no more than circumstantial. Certainly the Chechens are among the prime suspects. They do have a motive but it hasn't been proved. Nobody has been brought to trial and the evidence is very sketchy at best.

What one can say is that very shortly after the explosions went off in Moscow, the rubble from the buildings was cleared away very fast, nobody was able to sift through the rubble. There is a certain amount of doubt about what happened. Some people are saying that there nay be those within the Kremlin apparatus who may have been interested in the explosions for reasons of their own. Certainly it has to be said that the Chechens are the prime suspects but it hasn't been proven yet.

Jose Fernandez, Netherlands: On my visit to Russia I spoke to a Dutch journalist who covered the first Chechen "campaign". He said that the Russians made it very hard for him and his Chechen guides to do their work. How much interference are you getting from the Russian military?

Rob Parsons: I think this time round even more so than the last time. I covered the first Chechen war as well as this one. Last time there was much more freedom of movement than the last time. During the last two or three weeks in Chechnya I have found it virtually impossible to work at all. Every time I try to do anything, the Russian military authority creates a new hurdle for me to jump over.

Over the past two weeks I have attempted to play by the Russian rules, as it were. I have my accreditation, I've got my registration but every time I get over one hurdle, another one is created for me. There is no doubt in my mind, and those of my international colleagues, that the Russian authorities, particularly the military authorities, are determined that we don't report on this war at all.

Madina Chochaeva, U.S.A: I am a Chechen living in the United States. Since the start of the conflict I have not been able to contact any of my relatives back in Chechnya, neither do I know what happened to them. Has there been any shift in Russian media coverage of this conflict?

Rob Parsons: I think there has been a shift. Before the parliamentary elections, the media coverage was almost universally hostile toward the Chechens and pro the Kremlin policy. Since the elections there has been a shift slightly away from the Kremlin point of view. Certainly the main television stations, ORT and RTR, remain pretty solidly behind government policy but the main independent TV channel has become more independent in its coverage. For instance, it reports much more freely on Russian casualties than it did before, it's much more critical of Russian strategy, it interviews people with a much more hostile view of what the Kremlin is trying to do in Chechnya than before the parliamentary elections.

Nick Preston, England: Do you feel that Russia's revision of its defence doctrine making it "easier to press the nuclear button in an international crisis" has any link to the Chechen crisis?

Rob Parsons: I don't really think so, or if so only partially. I think there's a feeling in Russia that the West has ceased to be friendly to Russia, that it regards Russia as hostile and would like to do all it can to make sure that Russia remains as weak as it is today. And that it's policy in Chechnya is part of a general scheme. But by and large I think the Russian decision was guided by a number of other factors and was taken well before the current war in Chechnya started. Part of the problem is that the Russians realise that their conventional weapons are much weaker than they used to be, and that if Russia is to remain a meaningful power in the world, then its nuclear forces will have to play a much more important role in its general defence posture.

Koketso Mashao, South Africa: Who is arming the Chechen rebels? They seem to be well armed and well trained.

Rob Parsons: Well this is the question that the Kremlin, the Russian government repeatedly ask themselves and one of the questions that the Russian media repeatedly ask. The answer to your question is that there is no easy answer. The finger, however, is repeatedly pointed in the direction of the Middle East and, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

I think the reason for this is probably because there has been a spread of militant Islam in parts of Chechnya over the past two or three years, in particular, what they are calling Wahabbism, which has its centre in Saudi Arabia. The assumption is that because Wahabbism is spreading at the moment through parts of Chechnya, that the money for the revolt in Chechnya must be coming from Saudi Arabia as well. However, having said that, there could well be other sources. But certainly, the suspicion at the moment is that the money is coming from the Middle East.

F. Edward Gonzales, USA: How is the morale of the Russian forces? Stay safe and keep up the great reporting!

Rob Parsons: The morale among the Russian forces is mixed. Amongst the conscripts I think it's not particularly high. Morale in the last war of course was very low indeed, and I don't think it's that low yet. But at the moment of course the war is tending to go the Russian's way.

They've had it very easy over the first two or three months. It's becoming a little bit more difficult now, and there are signs I think that the mood among the Russian military, particularly among the conscripts is changing.

However having said that, there do seem to be many more professionals involved in this war, and amongst them morale appears to be quite high. They're getting much better paid than the last time round. Amongst the officers, there's a great deal more confidence this time round that the war has been thought through better on the Russian side, that the strategy is correct and that ultimately they're going to achieve victory. So because of that I think overall morale tends to be rather higher than the last Chechen war.

Martin Waller, England: How will the Russians keep the peace after the war has finished?? The expense and the hatred the Chechens must feel towards the Russian people will surely make peace in this region impossible?

Rob Parsons: Well I think you've put your finger on a very good question there. This is something that the Russians really haven't got round to answering. The approach of the Russian government both last time round and this time round has been entirely military without any thought to what happens afterwards.

The history of Russian-Chechen relations is of repeated wars with intervals of maybe 30 or 40 years. It's very possible this time round that the same thing is going to happen again. The Russians have done nothing over the last five years or so, certainly nothing over the last few months to convince the Chechens that it's possible for the two peoples to live together in peace.

All they've done over the last three months is to sow destruction. Certainly they've tried to bring in other Chechens to rule once they've what they call 'liberated' territory formerly controlled by the Chechen government. But these are Chechens who they themselves have recognised as criminals.

At the moment they're thinking of trying to set up a separatist administration in Chechnya's second city. But the problem for them is going to be how do they convince the Chechen people that it's possible for the Chechens to live in peace with the Russians. That it's in Chechnya's best interests for the two people to live together.

This is the psychological hurdle that the Russians have got to overcome somehow if they're going to prevent this constant cycle of warfare going on and on and on.

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See also:

18 Jan 00 | Europe
Russians 'reach Grozny centre'
10 Jan 00 | Europe
Can Russia win the Chechen war?
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