The Chechen Crisis: Background and Future Implications
Excerpts from article by Magomet Galaev
By the spring of 1992, the bulk of Russian soldiers and officers had deserted their units in Chechnya, and as a result, army units suffered from an acute shortage of men to guard munitions, weapons and equipment. The MoD in Moscow, certainly aware of these facts, therefore had to confront the prospect of leaving the entire arsenal of the North Caucasus Military District to Dudayev. For the future Russian Minister of Defence, Pavel Grachev, and the Commander-in-Chief of the High Command of CIS forces, Yevgeniy Shaposhnikov, the question was how much of this arsenal could be recovered and withdrawn. In this uncertain and perilous position, it seems that they reluctantly struck a deal with Dudayev, leaving him large quantities of weapons. By June 1992, the Russian Armed Forces had withdrawn completely from Chechnya much earlier than from any other former Soviet republic, union or autonomous.
From that moment onwards, Russia had virtually no control over Chechnya. The Russian government basically had two options: either to recognise Dudayev as Chechnya's legitimate leader or to oust him and install a pro-Moscow government in Grozny. Whether Moscow could have achieved some sort of accommodation with Dudayev similar to the one it struck with the Tatar leaders must remain a mystery. What is certain, however, is that Russia's refusal to deal with Dudayev and recognise his government fortified his resolve to pursue a course of complete independence for the republic. Indeed, by making Dudayev a by-word for secession, Moscow directly tied the issue of Chechnya's independence to Dudayev's political and personal future.
Since Russian recognition of Dudayev was out of the question for the reasons given above, the Russian government was left with the second option: ensuring that Dudayev's regime fell and installing a more loyal regime in its place. Altogether, there were five attempts to oust Dudayev prior to the invasion of December 1994, each coinciding with important political events in Russia itself:
(1) March 1992 on the eve of the signing of the Federation Treaty between the central government and the Federation's autonomous republics.
(2) October 1992, during the Ingush-Osetian conflict. The authorities in Moscow anticipated that Dudayev would enter the fighting on the side of the Ingushetis, thus providing the Russian army with the necessary pretext for invading Chechnya.
(3) April 1993, on the eve of the national referendum in Russia concerning the division of powers between the President and the Russian parliament. Coinciding with this crisis, the Chechen opposition and the Chechen trade unions organised rallies demanding Dudayev's resignation and new elections. At the same time, the Russian Minister of Nationalities and Regional Policy, Sergey Shakhray, tried to reach a deal with the Chechen parliament and Chechnya's Prime Minister, Yaragi Mamodayev, behind Dudayev's back. As a result, Dudayev sacked Mamodayev, disbanded parliament and stormed the office of Beslan Gantemirov, the mayor of Grozny, who by then had gone over to the opposition camp. (4) Summer 1994. It was at this point that the Russian government openly declared its support for the anti-Dudayev opposition. Shakhray and Sergey Filatov, President Yel'tsin's Chief of Staff, stated that healthy forces appeared in the republic that are worth considering and working with'. The statement referred to Avturkhanov, head of the Interim Council, as well as Gantemirov, the former mayor of Grozny.
This sudden recognition of healthy forces' was doubtless prompted by the emergence on the Chechen political scene of Ruslan Khasbulatov who, along with the other leaders of the October, 1993 coup in Moscow, was amnestied by the Russian parliament and released from gaol.
Yel'tsin plainly feared that Khasbulatov, who was the only serious alternative to Dudayev at the time, might utilise the turmoil to become Chechnya's new leader and, being solidly against Chechnya's independence, would return to the centre of Russian politics as Chechnya's member of the Federal Assembly's upper house, the Federation Council. So dreaded was this scenario that rumours surfaced in Moscow to the effect that Yel'tsin was contemplating a deal with Dudayev at Khasbulatov's expense.
It is at this point that the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (FSK) and the Ministry of Nationalities and Regional Policy began active and open co-operation with the opposition leaders. Avturkhanov and Gantemirov not only received money from Moscow (a figure of 150 billion roubles was mentioned) but weapons as well. August and September 1994 saw the outbreak of fighting between the opposition and Dudayev's forces. By this time, the opposition had established a force of several hundred men, tanks and APCs, backed by Russian helicopters based in Mozdok airfield. This military campaign climaxed in mid-October 1994, when the opposition tried to take Grozny by assault for the first time. As in the consequent assault on Grozny the following month, Dudayev let the opposition forces enter the city, then split them up and defeated them one by one.
(5) 26 November 1994. Disappointed by their failures
and aware of their military weakness up to and after the
October assault, the opposition intensified their
lobbying with the FSK and Yel'tsin's staff in favour of
more direct involvement on Moscow's part. Khasbulatov
had well expressed the prevailing sentiment of the
opposition in September:
At the same time, opposition leaders argued that the situation in Chechnya had acquired the critical mass sufficient for the overthrow of Dudayev a conclusion that seemed persuasive enough given the catastrophic state of the Chechen economy, the transport blockade and the near collapse of the oil industry, Dudayev's main source of revenue. Roughly at the time of Khasbulatov's September statement, it appears that the authorities in Moscow decided that it was time the opposition sorted out the Chechen problem once and for all.
As a result, Avturkhanov and Gantemirov, who by then had joined their military forces, received all the weapons, instructors, training and media support they requested. The ground was thereby set for the final assault, which took place on 26 November 1994. This assault was an unmitigated disaster for the opposition. After nearly twelve hours of intense fighting, Dudayev's forces destroyed the opposition's armoured columns and captured a large number of ethnic Russian soldiers and officers who had manned the crews of the tanks and APCs. This defeat was truly catastrophic, not only in military but in political terms. The employment of ethnic Russian soldiers, secretly hired by the FSK, vindicated Dudayev's long-standing propaganda tune, namely, that there was no Chechen opposition, only tools in Moscow's imperial' game.
Miscalculation in Moscow
The 26 November defeat exhausted Russia's means of waging war against Dudayev by proxy. Yet in the wake of this defeat, a deal with Dudayev was as anathema to Moscow as it had been before. Given this self-imposed impasse, the only recourse to Moscow was all out intervention. By then, this step seemed to fit well into the wider context of Russian politics. As with earlier steps, it seemed that several goals might be achieved simultaneously:
to demonstrate that Yel'tsin was the champion of the Russian nationalist cause by eliminating what was widely perceived to be the greatest threat to Russia's territorial integrity, i.e., Chechnya;
to demonstrate that the President had the will to uphold law and order and the determination to fight organised crime, whose main centre of activity was believed to be Chechnya;
to achieve geo-economic objectives in Russia's struggle to control Caspian Sea oil and especially its means to transport to world markets. If Russia was to impose its preferred export route upon Azerbaijan i.e., through Chechnya and block the development of alternative routes through Iran and Turkey, then the Chechen pipelines obviously had to be placed under Russian control.
Yet for all this, the crux of the matter is that Russia invaded Chechnya out of a mixture of frustration, anger and humiliation resulting from the 26 November blunder. Far reaching considerations of strategy, geo-economics and domestic politics were secondary. As regards the military campaign which started on 11 December, one should bear in mind the following:
The Russian Army was called upon only at the latest stage of the crisis. It had been denied the benefit of a presence in Chechnya since 1992 and had no direct encounter with or knowledge of Dudayev's military capabilities. In terms of intelligence and political advice, it relied on the FSK and the Ministry of Nationalities and Regional Policy, both of which believed that Dudayev had no popular support and that his military forces were no match for regular Russian troops.
Furnished with this flawed intelligence, Grachev and the military commanders obviously concluded that the sheer size of the Russian force (40,000 troops) would be sufficient to scare off Dudayev and his gangs'. They also must have believed that the Russian Army would be met by the Chechens as a liberating force from a criminal regime. To judge from Yel'tsin's address to the nation made some two weeks after the start of the campaign, the Army had entered Chechnya to fight 2,500 criminals hiding from Russian justice. It was also assumed that public opinion in Russia would be strongly in favour of this operation, given the notorious image of the Chechens as the most powerful mafia of the former Soviet Union.
The military plan called for a campaign in three stages. During the first stage, three Army groups would advance upon Grozny from the north, the west (through Ingushetia) and the east (through Dagestan) respectively and proceed to encircle Grozny, leaving the south open for Dudayev to withdraw his forces to the mountains. In the second stage, Dudayev's forces would be locked up in the mountains and the opposition would be installed in power in Grozny and its control over the lowlands gradually established. In the third and final stage the last pockets of Dudayev's resistance in the mountains would be eliminated. By this time, it was hoped that the population of the highlands would shift their allegiance away from Dudayev in the face of the tranquillity and rising standards of living visible in the country's newly liberated areas. According to Shakhray, the third stage would be the longest, with the entire campaign estimated to take three years.
Almost every point of this plan went wrong, right from the start of the operation. The western and eastern groups immediately became bogged down in Ingushetia and the Dagestani-Chechen border, which was inhabited by ethnic Chechens. The northern group, despite advancing through opposition held territory, met stiff resistance before reaching Grozny. The commanders of the Russian units were shocked by the hostile welcome that they received. And public opinion in Russia itself did was not well disposed to the affair, to put it mildly.
To avoid further confrontation with civilians, the western and eastern groups had to retreat to the north and shift their axes of advance from the north-west and north-east respectively. By the end of December, all three groups reached the outskirts of Grozny, albeit with great difficulty.
At this point, contrary to all expectations, Dudayev, far from deserting Grozny, reinforced his positions in the city, anticipating the imminent attack and using the gap left by the Russian Army in the south as his main supply route. Meanwhile, the Russian Air force started its bombing campaign, the purpose of which must still remain unclear. Whatever its intention, its main achievement was to augment the number of people fighting on Dudayev's side by an order of magnitude. An important psychological change occurred over the first two weeks of the operation that explains the behaviour of the Russian troops in Chechnya. For the sake of operational convenience, the Russian Army apparently decided to treat all Chechens, regardless of their political colourings, as one enemy. This was well demonstrated by the air raids on Urus Martan, Chechen Aul, Shali and Staraya Sunja, all of which had been known to be solidly anti-Dudayev.
This operational decision, regardless of the reasons behind it, turned what was ostensibly an anti-Dudayev police operation into a total war with all the consequent political and military implications. It also demonstrated that the military and political frameworks of the operation had, from the start, been completely detached from one another. Long as it took, by New Year's Eve, the three Russian columns had reached Grozny. Instead of sealing the siege around the city and using air power to knock out Dudayev's strong points, the Russian High Command decided to storm Grozny. Different sources offer different reasons for this ill-fated decision including, by several Russian press accounts, the desire of Grachev, in the best Soviet tradition, to announce victory on Russia's national holiday. If one is to believe Russian military sources, the New Year's Eve assault on Grozny was supposed to be launched with a considerable element of surprise. The plan called for four strike groupings to advance to the centre of Grozny simultaneously and, upon joining forces, to destroy the Chechen positions. At the same time, two groups of Spetsnaz troops were meant to be landed in the mountains to the south of the city with the task of disorganising the enemy's rear. Only one of the four groups reached its destination, group Sever [north], comprising 8th Volgograd Corps, commanded by General Lev Rokhlin, who managed to establish a position a few hundred yards north of the Presidential palace. Group Zapad [west], commanded by General Petruk, was supposed to back up the 131st Maykop Motor Rifle Brigade, which occupied the railway station. But 19th Vladikavkaz Division, advancing from the west of Grozny, failed to come to its rescue. As a result, Dudayev's forces locked up the Maykop brigade and almost completely destroyed it. Nearly all of the brigade officers, including its commander, died in action. Twenty out of twenty-six tanks were destroyed and only 18 out of 120 BMPs survived this battle. All six Tunguska anti-aircraft gun and rocket systems were also destroyed. Seventy-four soldiers and officers of the brigade were imprisoned and an unknown number of them killed. Group Vostok [east], commanded by General Stas'ko, Deputy Commander of the Airborne Troops (VDV), which was supposed to take Minutka roundabout, one km south of the presidential palace and advance from there towards the bridge opposite the palace, for some reason hardly moved from its original position. Finally, the Spetsnaz group, which made a heliborne desant in the mountains south of Grozny, surrendered to Dudayev's forces after wandering about hopelessly for three days without food, let alone any clear idea of what they were supposed to do.
It was only after this botched assault that the Russian Army began to reassess its view of Dudayev's army of bandits'. As Colonel General Anatoliy Golovnev, Deputy Commander of the Ground Forces admitted:
The enemy has not turned out to be the one that we originally aimed to confront. Judging only from the number of armoured vehicles already destroyed and captured (more than 200), of various artillery systems, mortars and rocket launchers (about 200 pieces, including 16 MRL), we were dealing with full-fledged armed forces whose number in the event of mobilisation could reach 300,000 men....Moreover, this army was fighting in accordance with the principles of military science, as well as our own combat regulations.
Colonel General Anatoliy Kulikov, Commander of Interior Troops and currently Commander of the Federal forces in Chechnya, provided slightly different figures: The criminals [Dudayev's army] were armed with 42 T-72 tanks, 38 BMPs, 26 BTRs, 14 BRDMs, tactical range rocket systems Luna-8 and Luna-8M, 152-mm SP howitzers, about 150 pieces of artillery and a large number of anti-tank weapons. According to Ministry of Interior sources, Chechnya's so-called armed forces comprised at the beginning of the conflict some 15,000-strong regular and well trained army troops plus some 30-40,000-strong armed home guard, who had been trained for combat for three years.
From early January onwards, the Russian advance became more systematic and better planned. The Chechen resistance in Grozny was in the end overwhelmed by the ferocity of the artillery and air bombardment and squeezed out of the city completely by early March.
Dudayev's HQ was thereupon moved to Shali, about 25 miles south-east of Grozny. And with him, the war moved from Grozny to the countryside. The next likely targets of the Russian attack are Argun and Gudermes (towns that command access to the Dagestani border in the east) and the towns of Achkhoi-Martan, Bamut and Samashki in the west. For the time being, these places are being bombed on a daily basis. Apparently, the aim of the next stage is to occupy the whole of the lowlands of Chechnya until the beginning of summer and then lock Dudayev in the mountains to the south in accordance with the original plan. Although the campaign is far from being over, some conclusions are results are already evident:
It took the 40,000-strong Russian force almost three months to capture Grozny. As of May 1995, the Russian Army fully controls only one-third of Chechnya. The official figure of casualties stood at about 1,200, but is likely to be much larger. Even this figure compared with the 13,000 lost during ten years of war in Afghanistan is shocking.
From the Chechen side, by early February, 25,000 civilians plus some 7,000 Chechen fighters were killed. Groznyy, the capital of the republic, is virtually destroyed, as well as 1,000 houses in the countryside. So far, the overall cost of the military campaign has been estimated at US$ 5 billion. The cost of reconstruction of Grozny alone is likely to be more than US$ 1 billion.
This horrendous cost of the war, which by no means has ended, raises numerous questions about the state of the Russian Army and reveals the extent to which both political and military planners underestimated the ability and resolve of Dudayev's army to fight and organise effective resistance.
As regards the Russian Army's performance, the war in Chechnya has revealed a multitude of deficiencies and mistakes. The most significant of these are: I inadequate preparation for the campaign in terms of training, intelligence, reconnaissance, as well as political and propaganda backup;
II shortage of manpower in army units;
III lack of training both in the Army and Air Force due to inadequate funding. Many commanders complain that their units had no opportunity to conduct military exercises during the last three years. The Air Force pilots had only twenty flying hours per year. The result: an ineffective use of artillery, armour and air power;
IV poor quality of communications equipment and a consequent lack of vertical co-ordination between chains of command and horizontal co-ordination between units. Sometimes, different Russian units fought against each other for hours without being aware of the fact;
V lack of co-ordination between the Army, the Air Force and the Internal Troops;
VI lack of motivation and poor morale
VII inability of many senior officers (up to the rank of general) to command and co-ordinate the actions of their subordinates.
In comparison, the Chechen resistance had several clear advantages over its adversary:
I The Chechen army' is a volunteer and strongly motivated force, and whoever joins it does so of his own volition.
II Many officers and soldiers of Dudayev's force, including Dudayev himself, served in the Soviet Armed Forces, know its tactics, weapons, strengths and deficiencies. They use the same weapons, uniforms and equipment, which sometimes makes it difficult to tell them apart from the Russian troops.
III It appears that Dudayev often had better intelligence than the Russian Army. He knew about Russian troop movements, the names of Russian commanding officers, as well a their plans in good time.
IV Chechen tactics of street fighting have proved to be much more effective than their Russian counterparts. By using small, mobile units armed with light weapons, Dudayev achieved lower manpower losses and much greater manoeuvrability.
Nevertheless, these Russian shortcomings and Chechen strengths have had far less significance than they might have since the Russian government and Armed Forces so far have been able to disregard public opinion, as well as the human, financial and political costs of the Chechen campaign. This ability to sustain criticism at home and abroad, combined with the sheer size of the forces used in this war have already produced results questionable as their long-term value might be to Russia.