January 25, 2000

Washington Post


By David Hoffman

MOSCOW, Jan. 24-When two Western journalists reported that an attack had killed 100 Russian troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny last month, the deputy chief of staff of the Russian military, Gen. Valery Manilov, denounced the reports as "lies and disinformation."

After a top general threatened publicly to tear off his shoulder boards if Russia began peace talks with the Chechens, Manilov denied that there were any disagreements or splits between the Russian top command and civilian leaders. "Outright lies, slander and misinformation," he said.

When reports suggested that Russian casualties were mounting into tens of soldiers killed every day, the Defense Ministry issued a press release saying these were "conscious lies."

So goes the other war--the information war. Ever since hostilities reignited last summer between Russia and Chechen rebels, both sides have been fighting a battle of the airwaves, flinging charges and countercharges back and forth with ferocity.

The information war has kept pace with the information age, too, as the Chechen fighters, often isolated from the news media either in the besieged capital Grozny or in the southern mountains, have been primarily using an Internet Web site as their platform. They have posted on the site what they claim are secret Russian documents, which the Russians say have been altered from the originals or forged.

On the Russian side, the military and the government have carried out a propaganda campaign that reflects what they feel was a lesson of the last war in Chechnya, in 1994-96, when public opinion turned against them. The Russians have fiercely denounced any information or sources that conflict with their own version of the war. They have also enjoyed support from Russia's television networks, which so far have not broadcast from the Chechen side of the conflict as they did four years ago.

Acting President Vladimir Putin, the career KGB agent who has earned broad support by prosecuting the war, has been a key point man in the propaganda effort. His carefully chosen language--sometimes spin, sometimes obfuscation--has shaped public opinion about the conflict.

For example, in November, when he was prime minister, Putin said, "For the first time in many years, I have been able to prevail upon the military leadership to allow journalists into Chechnya. To let them be on site, so that they would see for themselves and inform the public of what they see." He added, "We simply have nothing to hide. Perhaps if there were some other circumstances, compelling one to keep something away from the public eye, then there would not have been such a command from our side."

But the word about allowing journalists into Chechnya apparently did not reach those Russian troops who detained seven Western journalists, including a correspondent for The Washington Post, Dec. 29 and flew them out of the battle zone. Even access to Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya has been severely restricted.

Putin also took the lead in soft-pedaling the idea that Russia was rushing headlong into a conflict similar to the last Chechen war. In his statements, Putin has cast the military offensive in Chechnya as a "counter-terrorist" operation in response to the apartment house bombings in Moscow and other cities in which more than 300 people were killed.

But a link between the bombings and Chechnya has never been firmly established. Russia recently showed reporters what it described as a bomb-making or training facility it had discovered at the Chechen town of Urus-Martan. But a top Federal Security Service official, Vladimir Kozlov, told a Russian newspaper recently, "The main organizers and perpetrators of those acts are still at large."

At the outset, Putin and his generals also spoke guardedly about the goals and scope of the military offensive, apparently trying to avoid alarming Russians before the December parliamentary elections that troops were heading into a major battle.

Asked in September what would make this military campaign different from the last one, Putin said, "The difference is that this time we will not thoughtlessly send our boys to absorb hostile fire. We will act with the help of modern forces and means and destroy the terrorists from a distance. We will destroy the infrastructure. . . . There will be no frontal assaults any more. We will be protecting our men."

In fact, Russian forces, which now number about 100,000 in Chechnya, have been engaged in frontal assaults with the Chechen fighters in Grozny and elsewhere, and have sustained ever heavier losses in recent weeks. After a Chechen counterattack last week, 26 soldiers were killed in one 24-hour period, the highest single official death toll.

Manilov said Oct. 2 that a large-scale military operation in Chechnya "is not being conducted and is not planned to be conducted." At first, after the Chechens staged cross-border attacks into another Russian region, Dagestan, in August, the generals said they were sending men and materiel to the Chechen border to create a "security zone."

Then they moved farther, crossing into northern Chechnya to the Terek River, saying they were expanding the security zone. More recently, they have abandoned all talk about the security zone as troops have sought to surround and break into the capital, Grozny, and attack the fighters there and in the southern mountains.

When tens of thousands of civilians began to flee Russia's fierce artillery and bombing in Chechnya, and filled miserable refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia, Putin denied it was Russian attacks that had forced them to flee.

The Russian military has lectured journalists on how to write and broadcast about the conflict. For example, on Nov. 30, the Interfax news agency, quoting the Russian military headquarters, reported that Russian warplanes "made 95 combat missions to deliver rocket and bomb attacks on Chechen militant positions."

But the same day, Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, Russia's chief commander in Chechnya, remonstrated to reporters: "I have a request to the media. . . you scare civilians by saying things like: More than 100 sorties have been made. Dear comrades, we do not deliver any strikes that could be described as carpet bombing."

Both sides appear to be exaggerating the number of battle deaths, while underestimating their own losses. Russia widely underreported deaths of its own soldiers in the last war, and some critics say the same thing is happening again. Russian statistics often do not include soldiers who die later in hospitals. Another way of hiding the casualty tolls is to report separately those of the different fighting forces--the army and Interior Ministry troops--so as to avoid a larger, overall total.

"There are no statistics in this country, there are only lies and big lies," said Maria Fedulova, a leader of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, a group formed in the last war that has challenged the official casualty counts. Based on reports from its regional members, the committee said today it estimated that 3,000 soldiers have been killed, compared with the 926 reported by government officials today to Interfax news agency.

Fedulova said visits to some Russian military "identification centers" for men killed in action indicated that far more deaths had occurred than the government had acknowledged. "It appears that somebody in the military is deliberately failing to report the real numbers," she said, "in order to create an impression that the war is popular with the people and that these soldiers are eager to fight it. But you only have to see the eyes of the boys who come here to realize that there is no such popularity."

Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Kremlin Security Council and a close associate of Putin, told reporters earlier this month that "one must admit the obvious fact that along with the real fighting there is a virtual war underway, a media war . . . Lies come out of Chechnya every day."