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How the US Helped Yeltsin Avoid Another Afghanistan

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Wayne Madsen
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Did NSA Help Russia Target Dudayev?

Covert Action Quarterly, 1997.

The former Soviet Air Force general knew the rules. When talking on the portable satellite telephone bought for him by his Islamist Refah Party allies in Turkey, he had to keep conversations to an absolute minimum. Nothing less than his life depended on it. Chechen leader Dzokhar Dudayev was especially aware of the capabilities of the Ilyushin-76 aircraft and its A-50 Mainstay radar to pinpoint his phone's signal- The plane and its suite of equipment was the Soviet version of the more sophisticated US AWACS electronic warfare aircraft.

Four times during the first three months of 1996, the Russians had tried unsuccessfully to lock onto Dudayev's phone signal- But the general never gave the Russian army's vast array or signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft and mobile vans enough time to conduct radio direction finding ("Dfing") to determine his exact location.

Dudayev had good reason to be nervous. Both Moscow and the West wanted a quick end to the Chechens' two-year long war for greater autonomy. The conflict had become a mini-Afghanistan. It was draining the lives of hundreds of Russia's young soldiers, the country's precious cash reserves, and Yeltsin's chances for winning the June 16 1996 presidential election against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

The West too was eager to keep the Chechen conflict from contributing to a Communist victory at the polls. For President Clinton, who also faced reelection a Communist win was especially unwelcome. The rallying cry of "Who lost Russia to the Communists?" would be heard over and over again at the Republican convention and campaign rallies and would certainly be used against him in the televised debates.

To make matters worse, the Chechens were dealing the Russians some devastating battlefield blows. In mid April, Dudayev had severely bloodied the noses of the Russians when his forces (including some Mujaheddin volunteers from Pakistan) attacked the Russian Army' s 245th regiment convoy with anti-armor grenades from both sides of perches near the town of Yarysh-Mardy. After the attack, some 90 Russian troops were dead and another 50 wounded- A few civilian women and children who were traveling with the convoy were also killed.

The Yarysh-Mardy attack would become Russia's worst defeat of the Chechen conflict, topping even the bold Chechen attack of June 1905 on Budenovsk, within Russia itself, and assaults within the neighboring Republic of Dagestan. It also made Yeltsin and the army look impotent.

Yeltsin, Clinton, and Yeltsin's other close ally, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, all needed a quick fix to the Chechen problem. Yeltsin blamed the Russian military for the defeat at Yarysh-Mardv and began to extend peace feelers to Dudayev. While the president was huddled with Clinton and other Group of Seven leaders in Moscow. he told the press that be was ready to cut a deal. King Hassan II of Morocco agreed to act as an intermediary. Face-to-face meetings with the Russians were too dangerous for Dudayev; negotiations would be conducted over the rebel leader's heretofore stealthy satellite telephone.

Yeltsin's peace gestures sounded good to Dudayev. Perhaps too good. Soon he was on his satellite telephone to discuss Yeltsin's peace offerings with Hassan and Konstantin Borovoi, a liberal Duma deputy who served as Dudayev's Moscow intermediary.

During the evening of April 21, Dudayev went outside his headquarters, a small house near the village of Gekhi Chu, some 20 miles southwest of Grozny, the Russian occupied Chechen capital. At 8:00 p.m., he phoned Borovoi in Moscow to discuss Yeltsin's latest olive branch. "Soon, it could be very hot in Moscow," he told Borovoi. "Do you live in the center?" In the center of Moscow and even next to the Interior Ministry, Borovoi responded. "You should probably move out for the time being," Dudayev warned. Dudayev may have been telling Borovoi that a Chechen attack on the Interior Ministry was imminent. "That's out of the question, Dzhokar Mussayevich, Borovoi responded, using the familiar Russian term of address. Then Dudayev said, "Russia must regret what it is doing." Borovoi's line suddenly went dead. This time, Dudayev had stayed on the phone too long.

Dead shot

Just seconds before what were to be the Chechen's last words, a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 jet, armed with air-to-surface missiles, had received his coordinates. It locked on to Dudayev's phone signal and fired two laser-guided missiles. As one exploded just a few feet away, shrapnel pierced Dudayev's head. He died almost immediately in the arms of one of his bodyguards.

There was immediate speculation that the signal from Dudayev's satellite phone had been beamed directly into the sensitive ears of a satellite which relayed his coordinates to the jet. According to Agence France Presse, a source inside Chechnya's rebel government charged that, the attack was carried out by the Russian secret services with the participation of the spy satellite services of certain Western countries.

Martin Streetly, editor of Jane's Radar and Electronic Warfare Systems, thought that the state of the Russian armed forces would preclude it from accurately pinpointing Dudayev's location.

The Russians had previously tried some less advanced methods to kill Dudayev and failed. On one occasion, Dudayev had been given a knife with an electronic horning device embedded in the handle but it was discovered before Russian aircraft could lock in on the signal.

Suspicion centered on the US and the National Security Agency's Vortex, Orion, and Trumpet, the world's most sophisticated SIGINT spy satellites.

They were partially designed to intercept the mobile telephone systems used by the big brass in the Soviet and Warsaw Pact high commands. The NSA SIGINT birds were, therefore, extremely useful against the kind of telephone Dudayev had been given by his Turkish friends. Furthermore, the US and Britain were the only Western countries with sophisticated SIGINT satellite capabilities. (In fact, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters merely "rents time" on the NSA's Vortex satellite so it is arguable whether London has its own independent SIGINT satellite capability.

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