Why can't the Russian military take Grozny?
Date: January 28, 2000
Despite weeks of bitter fighting, the Russian military is bogged down in the ruins of Grozny, unable to capture the shattered Chechen capital or defeat its outgunned rebel defenders.
Why has one of the world's largest armies been struggling for months to take a single city? Why can't a military with 1.7 million troops defeat a few thousand guerrillas who have no tanks, planes or heavy artillery?
After years of political and economic decline in Russia, the military is more like an armed mob than a modern army. Most combat units are made up of untrained teen-age conscripts who can barely use a weapon. Many officers are as ill-trained and demoralized as their men.
Trained infantry is the backbone of any army. Combat training in Western armies lasts up to a year, with even more for officers and noncommissioned officers. Some of the Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya had been in the army for six weeks.
Most soldiers, drafted for two years' service, are desperate to get out of the military. Life in the ranks is hard, with soldiers sometimes going hungry and enduring brutal hazing by older soldiers. Morale, the psychological force that gives soldiers the will to fight, has collapsed.
All these weaknesses have been exposed in the battle for Grozny. Reluctant Russian soldiers are being hurled against experienced guerrillas fighting with fanatical determination for their homes.
Urban warfare is among the most difficult and dangerous kind of combat. The defenders of a city have thousands of places to hide and every building can be turned into a fortress. Attacking forces must clear a city house by house, street by street. The defenders can slip around the attackers, striking them on the flank or from behind at any time.
The untrained, demoralized Russian infantry is totally unprepared for this kind of war. When their fumbling ground attacks meet resistance, the Russians call in air and artillery strikes to clear the way.
But the airstrikes rarely cause casualties among the Chechen fighters, who know the Russian tactics and pull back before the bombardment. The shelling demolishes empty buildings, creating new hideouts for the Chechens in the rubble and new obstacles for the Russian troops.
At night, the Russians often pull back to fortified bases, giving up territory they have just taken. The guerrillas reoccupy the ground and the Russians must seize it again, losing more men day after day.
Despite Russian claims, the military's encirclement of Grozny has failed to seal off the city. The rebels can move in and out with supplies, especially at night when the Russians pull back.
Grozny will almost certainly fall, but not because the Russian military will outfight the Chechens. The Chechens chose to fight in Grozny because it gave them the best chance to inflict casualties on the Russians, which is their chief aim. The guerrillas, who are taking some losses, will pull out before their own casualties reach a point that threatens their ability to keep the war going.
The Russian military has based its strategy on taking Grozny, gambling that a high-profile victory will destroy the Chechens' will to fight. But the rebels likely will shift the struggle into the countryside and fight on as they did after they lost Grozny during the 1994-96 fighting a war they eventually won.