An army prepared for ignominy
By Christian Schmidt-Hauer
The army that once repulsed Hitler's Wehrmacht, occupied half of Europe and parts of Asia, and served as the bogyman of the cold war has been driven into seemingly incomprehensible disgrace and frightful barbarity by a tiny group of mountain people. But in reality, it was the political leaders in Moscow who pushed completely unprepared troops into the murderous adventure in Chechnya and demoralized them in a way no foreign enemy ever had.
The attempt by the Kremlin guard around President Boris Yeltsin to revive Russian militarism and the suffering arms industry with the bloodbath in Chechnya has brought the weakened military to the very brink of collapse. Although the blood-flecked Russian tricolor now flies over the ruins of the presidential palace in Grozny, the war will continue as a guerrilla conflict. That will further feed the rage and thirst for revenge within the army leadership.
According to Yuri Deryugin, chairman of Russia's Military Sociologists' Association, "The army is in a state of collapse. The budget covers only 50 percent of its most minimal needs. Just last year, almost two thirds of all commanders reported that under real conditions their units could not fulfill the requirements for combat."
A severe lack of recruits leaves most units at 50 percent or less of full strength. Hundreds of thousands of Russians avoid the call-up annually: In 1994, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev disclosed that the army was expected actually to enlist no more than a quarter of the year's conscripts. Meanwhile, many of the most talented soldiers continue to leave for civilian jobs.
Add to this the fact that the military command can only look on in frustration at the technological breakthrough to "smart" weapons in the West. Moreover, the transformation of the Soviet army into the Russian army has required large parts of the armed forces to be moved and regrouped.
A highly qualified, precisely trained infantry would have been needed to face the heavily armed opponent and house-to-house fighting that Russian troops confronted in Chechnya. Yet Yeltsin's Security Council slapped together a military contingent from all across Russia and had it march into Grozny without preparation. This left the Kremlin no option other than bombardment of blocks of houses, hospitals, orphanages, marketplaces, and farms full of refugees. Poorly trained fighter pilots who typically log only 30 to 40 flying hours per year, afraid to fly within range of heat-seeking rockets, instead bombed from such great heights that they hit even their own troops and armored vehicles.
How did the condition of the army and the ignorance of the war planners play out on the invasion front? "Routine service, supplies, and rear-line units," said Lieutenant-Colonel Aleksandr Prolov after his return from the war zone, "are like an overturned beehive." Commanders' topographical maps resembled normal motorists' maps, and makeshift tank units often headed for Grozny with no maps at all. A tank rolled up in front of the presidential palace, and a young soldier got out and asked a Chechen defender where he could find cigarettes. Those were his last words.
Platoons sat in the cold and damp, often without billets for the night and without electricity. They got drinking water from melted snow. "We live here in absolute darkness and do not know what is going on," one recruit complained for the microphone. Most motorized defense battalions had only one portable radio weighing When that broke, down, the battalion was, for the most part, cut off. No wonder, then, that many soldiers began to give the local people ammunition and weapons in exchange for blankets, bread, and vodka.
The accusation that soldiers have been unconscionably sacrificed in this war draws support even from many officers. General Eduard Vorobyov concluded that the troops under his command were completely unprepared for the action in Chechnya and asked the defense minister to excuse him from the assignment. Lieutenant Aleksandr Labzenko, one of the few survivors of a particularly bloody action at the Grozny train station, says, "We were not trained at all for fighting in the city. Tanks were sent into the narrow streets without protection on their flanks by infantry, paratroopers, motorized riflemen. Without help to your left and right, without someone covering your back, in fighting like that you are betrayed, dead. That is common knowledge. Why did our leaders forget that?"
How is Labzenko's desperate question to be answered? The government didn't forget. But now there is much it would like others to forget.
The Yeltsin government would prefer to forget that power struggles and rivalries in the army and secret service had surfaced long before the march into Chechnya. It would like to forget the army's warning in the December, 1993, elections, when half of all career soldiers reportedly voted for [ultra-nationalist Vladimir! Zhirinovsky. It would rather forget the president's promises to help the army with military reforms, only to secure his own power with the help of the Security Service and the Interior Ministry.
Democrats and soldiers who have not forgotten or kept silent are now in danger of becoming the next political victims. The army, which has always held Russia together but has never governed it, does not want to be drawn into politics. But the misuse of the army in Chechnya will now give it a stronger role in making important decisions concerning the fate of the nation--and in lobbying for more money. Many in the military are tom between their suspicion of the politicians who got them in so much trouble in Chechnya and their support for the government's goal of rearming Russia and rescuing the military-industrial complex.
The catastrophe in the military-industrial complex is a hidden key to the current crisis. For too long, the West, Russian reformers, and Yeltsin paid it too little attention. One result has been the tragedy in Chechnya, which will be followed by many more disasters unless despair is ultimately met with reason.