Mighty Russia?: She's Not What She Used to Be

By Anatol Lieven


"The great majority of Russians are cheap hawks; and whatever can be done in Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic states, it won't come cheap."

"The Russian infantry wouldn't get out of their armor to fight. We just stood on the balconies and dropped grenades onto them as they drove by."

That Russia continues to be a potential threat has been one of the cornerstones of thinking on regional security. But journalist Anatol Lieven, a recent fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a correspondent in Chechnya during the war there, writes that the days of Russian military prowess are far behind it.

"In war, the moral is to the physical as ten to one" - Napoleon.

The Chechen War may come to be seen as one of the greatest disasters in Russian military history, not because of Russian losses, which have been limited, but because of what Chechnya says about the humiliating depths of contemporary Russia's military decline. Quite simply, the Russian army today is weaker than it has been for almost four hundred years-a fact which, if it persists, may be of incalculable significance for the future of Eurasia.

The hard evidence of the Chechen War should make Russian military weakness in the conventional field obvious to everyone-but it is still necessary to emphasize since so many in the West have a vested interest in avoiding the issue. It is also true that even when the present state of the Russian army is admitted, a question remains as to whether this collapse is temporary and reversible, or is likely to prove long-lasting.

The evidence suggests that Russian generals are well aware of their forces' weakness and that they themselves would speedily disabuse a new Russian regime of any plans for major external aggression. The consensus among Western military attachés in Moscow is that it would take ten years at least to work such a transformation, and then only in favorable economic circumstances-which are unlikely to be forthcoming.

One would be tempted to rejoice in this weakness-and it certainly ought to make the Balts and Ukrainians feel safer-but for two worries. The first is that the demoralization of the army derives partly from the demoralization of Russian society, leading to a wholesale criminalization that indirectly threatens the West as well. The second concern is that sooner or later some outside power will be tempted to take advantage of Russian military weakness-as in previous ages they certainly would have. And since intercontinental missiles do not suffer from demoralization, Russia may become a very weak conventional power and yet remain a very-indeed increasingly-dangerous nuclear one. The very weakness of the conventional forces would encourage an early recourse to the threat of using nuclear ones-as Russians have already threatened unofficially in the case of NATO expansion to the Baltic states.

Communist hopes of restoring the Soviet Union are partially shared by the Yeltsin regime, which speaks less expansively of "reintegrating the Commonwealth of Independent States." Both ambitions are largely negated by the facts of Russian military and economic weakness, and also by a sheer lack of what can only be called national will. Since much of the Western debate about Russia today revolves around the question of rebuilding an empire, it seems fair enough to ask what the great European empire-builders, or imperial prophets, would have made of Russia today. Someone like Rudyard Kipling would surely say that this is a feeble, shiftless, demoralized, decadent, undisciplined people. They would say that the Russian ruling elites are utterly cynical and corrupt, that they are ruthlessly obsessed with short-sighted personal gain, and that their patriotic rhetoric masks a fundamental lack of real patriotism, the spirit of self-sacrifice and a capacity for fulfilling great imperial tasks.

The Debacle in Chechnya

On the other hand, how Kipling would have loved the Chechens! In fairness to the Russian soldiers, one must admit that the Chechens one finds are extraordinarily brave, tough, resourceful, and skillful opponents, who would have given even the best army in the world a hard time.

Western military analysts should be looking hard at Chechen military success and Russian failure. The West's victory in the Gulf War has contributed to a current obsession with technological superiority; but it cannot be stressed too strongly that the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait, as flat and bare as a parade ground, were a highly unusual battlefield. As the world's cities spread and spread, it is likely that more and more wars in the future will take place in settings like that of Grozny. Urban fighting at the best of times is a bloody, nasty, hole-and-corner, terrifying business, in which artillery and air power are of limited use, and small groups of men often have to fight alone, separated from their officers and chain of command. The key to success is thus above all good infantry; and the key to good infantry is less equipment than a mixture of training and morale. The Russians in Grozny had neither; but to fight such a war successfully, Western troops, too, would need not just assiduous preparation, but a strong moral conviction that the war in question is necessary-or one could say, to use an antique phrase-a belief in the righteousness of their cause.

The single bloodiest Russian defeat in Chechnya and a striking example of the demoralization and tactical incompetence affecting the Russian forces occurred on December 31, 1994, when several Russian armored columns launched an assault on Grozny. The result was a virtual turkey-shoot. As a Chechen fighter told me, "The Russian infantry wouldn't get out of their armor to fight, so their vehicles had no cover. We just stood on the balconies and dropped grenades onto them as they drove by underneath." Several hundred Russian soldiers died in the course of a few hours, and complete disaster was only narrowly averted. This was a failure at every level-for the individual soldier, the tactical platoon and company commander and the generals who sent their troops into the city with no plan and often even without maps. Drivers were told to "follow the vehicle in front." The fighting in Grozny also drastically exposed a classic failure of the Soviet and Russian imperial army-its acute lack of good and respected non-commissioned officers.

As in Afghanistan, poorly-led, poorly-trained and poorly motivated infantry simply will not leave the shelter of their armored personnel carriers to brave enemy fire. The result is that the safety of these carriers proves largely fallacious. The rocket-propelled grenade, or more precisely, the hand-held anti-tank rocket, has been the Queen of Chechen battles. In urban areas and broken country, and in the hands of men trained in the Soviet army, and knowing the precise weak spots of Soviet armored vehicles, it had a most devastating effect.

But if Grozny would have presented any army with a horrible problem, the same cannot be said of the Chechen campaign as a whole. The most astonishing aspect of the war was not the botched assault on Grozny, but the repeated tactical failures since-beginning with the failure to surround Grozny by driving armored formations through the open country to the South, and continuing with the failures this year to trap and destroy Chechen units, even when these were cut off and surrounded. The usual problem in fighting guerrillas is to get them to stand and fight. In Chechnya, the Russians repeatedly had the Chechens pinned down-and then let them slip away.

The portrayal of Chechnya as ideal guerrilla country is to a great extent a false one. Only the southern third is mountainous. Most of the rest, where most of the fighting has taken place, is rolling open plain-ideal tank country. The Russian army's failure to use tanks and motorized infantry to surround and destroy Chechen positions shows that it is no longer even capable of the massive armored assaults that used to be its tactical hallmark.

In many ways, the failure of the Russian army in Chechnya is reminiscent of that of Western armies in wars like those in Algeria and Vietnam. The difference is that those were big countries, with big populations, hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory-much of it ideal guerrilla country-and with bordering states which supported the guerrillas. At around six thousand square miles, Chechnya is hardly bigger than Connecticut. For guerrilla units in an area this size to be able to run rings around what is supposed to be the third largest army on earth is nothing less than bizarre. Only an army in a truly advanced state of decadence would allow it to happen.

Shortage of Men and Spirit

Part of the reason for the failure of the Russian army is that even numerically it is not nearly as strong as it looks. Reports suggest that the Russians were even incapable of launching two local offensives in Chechnya simultaneously. This may seem absurd for a force with a paper strength of 1.7 million men, but the real disposable strength of the army is much lower, and the number of effective combat units lower still. According to Western estimates at the start of 1996, the Russian Defense Ministry had only seven divisions which it even pretended were battle-ready.

As Chechnya glaringly demonstrated, several so-called elite divisions were also greatly under-strength. Thus, according to their official strength, the Russian forces that moved into Chechnya should have numbered some seventy thousand men. The real figure, according to analysts, may have been as low as twenty thousand-which was simply not enough to do the job.

That said, a shortage of troops can only very partially explain the Russian failure, which occurred in every field. In the analysis of Western military attachés in Moscow, the only arm that has functioned at all competently has been air transport. The rest-from intelligence through artillery, armor, infantry, airborne troops, special forces, the air force-have all failed miserably and repeatedly to do their job and achieve their goals.

Failures of equipment and training also provide part of the explanation, stemming above all from the savage cuts in the military budget over the past seven years. For two years before the Chechen War, the Russian air force commander, General Pyotr Deinekin, had been warning that lack of money meant that his combat pilots were getting only ten hours flying time a year, and that this was insufficient to maintain even basic combat efficiency-a warning absolutely borne out by the event. In January of 1995, I was sitting with Chechen commander Shamil Basayev at a Chechen military command post in the southern suburbs of Grozny while Russian fighter bombers made repeated attempts to hit the hill on which it was situated. Each time they missed or sheered off without dropping their bombs, despite the fact that the only weapon the Chechens had arrayed against them was a single heavy machine-gun. So acute was the Russian shortage of competent and determined pilots that early last year they were reportedly reduced to creating combat squadrons for the war from test-pilots and aerobatics teams.

In the same month, I was staying at a house in Grozny near which the Chechens had established a mortar, which went on firing for day after day, apparently from exactly the same position. Once again, repeated Russian attempts to hit it failed. A veteran French war correspondent was utterly bewildered: "But the Russians have equipment to track where mortars fire from, every modern army has it, that's why you have to keep moving mortars around. What are they playing at?" The old Russian hands present proposed a variety of explanations: that the equipment had all been defective; that it had all been broken and never repaired; that it had been illegally sold, possibly to the Chechens; that the only men who knew how to use it had left the army and had never been replaced; or finally, that it contained some alcoholic or potentially alcoholic element-in which case no further explanation of its fate was necessary.

But even many of the military-technical failures come down in the end to a failure of morale. Russian pilots who knew what they were fighting for and were willing to risk death for it, would have hit that hill, machine-gun or no machine-gun. The Russian soldier in Chechnya-like the American soldier in the later years of the Vietnam War-simply does not want to be there, let alone to fight and die there. As with Western armies in similar circumstances, many of the brutalities and atrocities committed by the Russians in Chechnya-from the reliance on indiscriminate air-bombardment, to random attacks on civilians-stem ultimately from this deep demoralization.

The only explanation of successful Chechen raids deep into allegedly Russian-controlled territory is that, leaving aside the possibility of bribery, Russian posts confronted with well-armed, determined Chechens frequently just stand aside-something I've seen with my own eyes. This is a clear difference from the Russian armies that conquered the Caucasus in the nineteenth century. No one ever accused the soldiers of the Russian imperial army of a failure to stand still and be shot at. One reason for this was obviously a mixture of blind serf obedience and fear of their own officers; another was the obvious willingness, shown by the casualty figures, of those officers to stand and die with their men. Those officers were recruited from the Russian elite, and whatever their other faults, were committed by personal conviction and family tradition to the Russian empire and Russian glory. Today, as I heard again and again with minor variations, from Russian officers it is a case of, "We serve in the army because we're not trained for anything else. These days, who'd be an officer if you could work in a bank?"

As to the Russian military command, it seems most unlikely after the Chechen experience that it will seek or agree to any more military adventures in the foreseeable future. The evidence-especially the complete lack of planning-suggests very strongly that it was not the generals who sought military intervention in Chechnya. This was a politicians' war.

Old Fears/New Realities

This reiteration of Russian military weaknesses may strike some as redundant. After all, it has been the stuff of tens of thousands of reports by Western journalists on the ground. Yet as is so often the case, the message of the news pages has failed to get through to many of the op-ed writers, who still write as if a Russian army which has so utterly failed in Chechnya poses a major threat to Ukraine, the Baltic states, or even Central Europe; or could be made to do so in a few months or years.

For example, two supposedly expert briefing papers compare the position of the Baltic states today to that of South Korea in 1950-the argument being that if NATO does not give them an explicit security guarantee, Russia may take this as an invitation to attack, on the analogy of Dean Acheson's failure to fully include Seoul under the American security umbrella. If pressed, no doubt the authors of these analyses would qualify their remarks and point out that there may be other means of pressure short of outright invasion-which is quite true. Nonetheless, you don't have to be a deconstructionist literary critic to figure out that the mental image at the heart of the Korean parallel is that of hundreds of thousands of infantry pouring across the border, driven by a fanatical ideology and iron-willed leaders; cut down in their thousands, they continue to advance, charging with the bayonet, climbing over the bodies of their fallen comrades. This is a powerful image, with deep roots in traditional Western fears of the Russians and the East in general. It is also grotesquely, fantastically far from the reality not just of the Russian army today but of any army that could conceivably be created on the basis of contemporary Russian society-unless Russia herself were to be invaded. On the basis of what I've seen, I firmly believe that one Estonian volunteer fighting for his home and his homeland could see off ten or more unwilling Russian conscripts-and there are tens of thousands of volunteer militia in the Baltic states.

This is not the eighteenth century, and successful modern armies cannot be constructed along the lines of Catherine the Great's armies of conscript masses driven into battle by fear of their own officers and NCOs. For one thing, highly educated technical specialists are far too important; for another, the ordinary soldiers fight not in large, easily-controlled columns, but in small, dispersed groups. In these circumstances, men lacking a real will to fight will not advance into serious enemy fire. Why on earth should they?

Rhetoric and Reality

The conviction that their country is a great power and that it should behave as such is nonetheless probably eternally rooted in the Russian mind and this will intermittently make Russia an uncomfortable presence. Russia will also do its best to maintain some form of sphere of influence over its immediate neighbors. The question is, what price would Russians be willing to pay for the restoration of great power status in the sense of a new territorial empire-and here the evidence is largely of a deep unreadiness for personal and national sacrifice, whether in lives or money. The great majority of Russians are cheap hawks; and whatever it may be possible to do in Central Asia, Ukraine and the Baltic states, it won't come cheap.

It is important, therefore, not to take what either Russian politicians or ordinary people say too seriously. Not every American reader of Soldier of Fortune magazine would have made a good U.S. Marine on Tarawa; and not all the Russians who roar about how Ukraine is really part of Russia would be willing to go there to kill and perhaps die-or send their sons to do so-to back up their claims. A representative figure in Russia today is the woman who, after expressing a range of aggressively chauvinist opinions, admits that she would do anything to save her son from serving in the army, both because of the risk from the Chechens and because the army itself is such a notoriously brutal, brutalizing and dangerous institution for its conscripts. An enterprise on the scale of the restoration of the Soviet Union would require a people with a steely sense of national solidarity and of commitment to national goals-and you do not find many such people in Russia today.

The Shrinking Pool

One aspect of the general demilitarization of attitudes in both East and West has been urbanization. Traditionally, most military experts have believed that peasants make better natural soldiers than urbanites, being more obedient, physically tougher, more accustomed to enduring the elements, and more used to blood and killing-if only of animals. The problem for modern armies is not simply that there are not enough peasants, but also that peasant societies tend to lack technically-educated cadres. Of course, assiduous training can make up for physical, moral, and educational weaknesses, but such training is extremely expensive. The Russian army still tries to conscript rural youths for combat units, but the pool is drying up as Russia's rural population gets smaller, older, and more drunken and physically decrepit. As for Russia's urban youth, some of them may think they're tough enough, but acting as enforcer for some mafia kinglet is not the same thing as spending weeks on end in a freezing trench under enemy fire.

In this sense, the Soviet military victory in the Second World War, which so mesmerized the West for decades, may be understood as the consequence of unusually favorable historical circumstances. A crippling weakness of the old Russian imperial army, with its illiterate peasant troops and dilettante officers, had been the lack of technically educated personnel. By 1941, however, thanks both to the scale and the nature of the Soviet education drive, the army could mobilize huge numbers of technically educated people, educated moreover in the appropriate technical fields; yet it could also still call on a mainly peasant population to provide the physically and emotionally tough cannon fodder, and a totalitarian state and party to provide the ideological and organizational backbone. The result was-briefly-one of the greatest armies the world has ever seen.

But another element was also necessary: that Russians by the end of 1941, as in 1812, were fighting on Russian soil, in desperate defense of Leningrad and Moscow. It is sometimes pointed out, as an example of rapid Russian military regeneration, that in 1939 the Soviet army was thoroughly beaten by the tiny Finns, but went on barely two years later to crush the mighty Germans. This misses the whole point. If, today, NATO were to invade Russia and attack Moscow, then, after the usual confusion and slaughter, the end result would probably be the Russian battle-ensign flying over Paris and Berlin. But none of this is going to happen.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online