From Chechnya with love

Date: March 28, 2002
Source: The Guardian
By Ian Traynor


Wednesday night's episode had a bunch of Russian Rambos routing a gang of evil Muslim extremists in the forbidding mountains of Chechnya.

The Chechen Islamists, led by a British-born SAS veteran and mercenary recruited in Islamabad, sported green headbands with white Arabic script.

The Russian commandoes wanted not for the best of gear - automatic weapons, state-of-the-art communications equipment, crisp uniforms.

Fearless and cynical, the commandoes finished off the Chechens in a hail of hot lead in yet another victory for the Spetsnaz, the elite Russian commandoes and the eponymous heroes of the latest Russian TV blockbuster.

The new TV serial, Spetsnaz, started this week on Russia's main channel.

It features non-stop violence, a stirring rock music soundtrack, and celebrates the tough guy New Patriotism of President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The same mood is evident at the cinema in the new box office smash, War, by Aleksei Balabanov, whose previous Brat-2 movie had Russian hit men outwitting and gunning down feckless Americans in Chicago.

War is also set in Chechnya, recounting the exploits of a fierce young Russian warrior coming to the aid of a desperate English couple kidnapped by horrible Chechens.

Balabanov's cameras like to dwell on scenes of shocking violence, with Chechens portrayed chopping off limbs and ears. Some find such scenes pornographic in the way the camera lingers, relishing the blood and cruelty.

Russians are used to such scenes, however, from "reality TV" as news bulletins have shown the charred corpses of bomb victims and a notorious Chechen warlord shooting a kneeling Russian captive in the head at point-blank range.

Spetsnaz started with its tales of heroic exploits in Chechnya at prime time on Monday evening.

The next morning the best-selling tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, offered a very different glimpse of the reality in Chechnya for the crack Russian troops.

"Pitiful" equipment, "clerks" sitting behind desks trying to run a military campaign, huge corruption and incompetence, and rank insubordination mounting among the very crack units who are the vanguard in Mr Putin's 30-month war.

The newspaper revealed that elite Russian military units are increasingly refusing to do combat duty in the war in Chechnya, embittered by the wretched conditions, poor pay, and the corruption of the Russian officer class.

"We won't be cannon fodder in Chechnya," declared a police ministry rapid reaction unit from Cherepovets, 400 miles north of Moscow.

They set the authorities an ultimatum to which the men expect a response by next week. "If not, we see no sense in further taking part in the Chechen adventure," the men announced.

The picture they painted of the situation in Chechnya was a far cry from the uplifting scenes depicted in the new patriotism of the TV serial and the smash Balabanov movie.

In the past six weeks, anger and bitterness have been evident among special police units in Kaliningrad, Syktyvkar, Vorkuta, Vologda, Kirov, and Murmansk, all in northern Russia and all part of a spreading mutiny against serving in Chechnya.

When eight members of a special police unit refused to go to Chechnya last month, they were sacked.

The men had to be reinstated after more than 20 of their colleagues then joined the rebellion.

It is not difficult to see the grounds for complaint. Day by grinding day, the Russians are sustaining heavy casualties, although the issue is barely publicised and there has been no public uproar.

According to statistics released this week by the defence ministry, 2,331 Russian soldiers have been killed and 5,898 wounded in Chechnya, since Mr Putin launched his war in August 1999.

That works out at nine Russian troops killed or maimed every single day on average for the past 30 months, although these figures are widely viewed as understated.

In any case they refer only to army conscripts and not to security service troops or interior ministry paramilitaries, who represent a large part of the 80,000-strong Russian military in Chechnya.

In this context, the damning and defiant indictment of the Russian war effort by the men from Cherepovets, highlighted the plunging morale of the Russian forces almost three years into a conflict that shows scant sign of ending.

"The leadership of our mobile units in Chechnya is in the hands of those who know nothing about special units' tactics and methods of operation," the Cherepovets ultimatum stated.

"There has effectively been a halt to payments to combat units although you can get a bullet or be blown up by a mine any time.

"Many billions are being directed at the reconstruction of Chechnya. The results are not visible. But the Chechen administration is drowning in luxury.

"You get the impression that everything is being bought and sold. So give us a reason why we should be cannon fodder?"

Pavel Felgenhauer, a military affairs analyst, said: "This sort of thing is happening all the time, though it's seldom reported. It's all risk and little pay. Officers are resigning rather than go to Chechnya."

The venality of the Russian officer class is a persistent cause of the low morale, and a trial that ended with acquittals of two senior officers last week in Moscow has done nothing to restore motivation.

The trial revolved around the worst known case of "friendly fire" and who was to blame for the deaths of 22 Russian troops in Grozny, the Chechen capital, two years ago this month.

The special police paramilitaries were killed by a fellow Russian unit in an enormous bungle. The authorities then sought to cover up the tragedy by blaming the deaths on an ambush by Chechen gunmen.

The acquittals last week meant that no one alive was held responsible, although one officer who died in the shooting was singled out for chastisement.

But the trigger for the Cherepovets mutiny was an attempt to extend the tour of duty in Chechnya from three months to six months.

The rapid reaction forces refused and insisted instead on serving only two months.

"You'd think we had no families, no homes, and no jobs to do," the men stated. "Go to Chechnya without a clue, without money and come back to find your family gone? Why? What for?"

Money is also a major grumble, with the paramilitaries complaining they are not receiving the combat bonuses they are supposed to receive. But the criticism is more broadly targeted.

On television and in the cinema, the Russians, of course, are winning the war. The Kremlin, in any case, proclaimed victory a long time ago without ever officially having declared a war.

This also angers the men from Cherepovets. "There is still not martial law but a state of emergency law which does not reflect what's going on. There's a war on in Chechnya."


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online