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Russian War in Chechnya Marks 10 Year Anniversary

Ten years ago Saturday, three armored columns, carrying thousands of Russian troops and weapons, roared into the southern region of Chechnya, attempting to crush a bid for independence. The first war in Chechnya ushered in a new era in post-Soviet Russia.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops into the small Caucasus Mountain republic, after Chechnya's leader refused to rescind a declaration of full independence from Moscow.

Saying he had to defend Russia's territorial unity, Mr. Yeltsin hoped what he called a small victorious war would quickly bring the majority-Muslim region to heel.

It did not turn out that way.

Highly-motivated Chechen fighters managed to resist the Russian onslaught, mostly with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, killing or capturing young Russian conscripts, as they fled from their burning tanks in disarray.

Russian fighter jets flew constant sorties over the capital city, Grozny, and other towns, the start of a steadily-mounting toll on the civilian population.

The fierce Chechen resistance also showed how far the once-mighty Soviet military had fallen since the earlier, disastrous conflict in Afghanistan, due to low morale and inexperience.

Russian troops ultimately withdrew from Chechnya. A peace deal was signed, after rebels retook control of Grozny in August 1996.

But three years of de facto independence led to lawlessness, rampant kidnappings for ransom and terror attacks.

In 1999, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent tens-of-thousands of troops back into Chechnya, after rebels made an incursion into a neighboring region.

Mr. Putin also blamed Chechens for bombing several apartment blocks in Moscow that killed hundreds of people, earning him widespread popularity that helped propel him into the presidency.

Human rights groups have repeatedly charged Russian troops with employing brutal tactics, amid signs the conflict has attracted foreign fighters.

And the Kremlin's tight control over major broadcast media keeps the conflict largely out of the public eye, in spite of an almost-daily death toll among Russians and Chechens alike.

President Putin rules out negotiating with Chechen separatist leaders, whom he calls terrorists.

Alexei Malashenko with the Carnegie Center is one of Russia's leading experts on Chechnya and the Caucasus. He says there is little hope the long-running war will end anytime soon. "I don't believe in the possibility to solve the conflict by military means. Also, I don't believe in negotiations, because nobody knows with whom and about what to negotiate," he says.

Mr. Malashenko says any attempt to talk with moderate Chechen separatists would probably bring little result, as hard-liners would continue their fight against Russia.

In recent years, there have been suicide bombings and hostage-taking incidents, like the siege at a school that killed over 330 people in September.

Mr. Malashenko says most people in the war-shattered republic now just try to survive as best they can, knowing that little is likely to change soon.