Moscow Poised for Chechnya Invasion

By Chris Treadaway
Date: October, 1, 1999


Russia is poised to launch a limited invasion of Chechnya and Moscow is likely to accomplish its goals. Russian forces will have little time and with winter approaching, they will be forced to hurry to retake north central Chechnya by the end of November, driving the rebels south into the mountains for the season. Right now, the tide of political support for war runs strong in Russia, though the international community and some politicians are encouraging non-aggression. But Russian forces are not fully prepared. As a result, the cost in resources, personnel and finances will be severe.


The momentum for launching a war in Chechnya is at a crescendo in Moscow and cannot be ignored by the Kremlin or the Defense Ministry. The Russian population is feverish for retaliation against terrorist attacks. Chechen rebels are being blamed for bombing civilian apartment buildings throughout Russia, killing 292 people. The extent of public outrage has caused center-left parties and politicians to join the witch-hunt. To make matters worse, Russia’s NTV aired videotapes this week of Chechen soldiers mutilating Russian invaders during the first Chechen war.

These sentiments are already starting to ebb, however, and invasion plans may be threatened if not carried out soon. Opposition to war is building in the West, but has not reached critical mass, certainly not to the point of sending observer missions into Chechnya. Though Russian media support the war effort, it is skeptical of the capabilities of Russian forces. If momentum flags, the Defense Ministry may be unable to use the harsh winter climate against the guerrillas. Due to weather conditions, Russian forces cannot sustain a massive campaign into December and January. Accordingly, a second Chechen war will come to a screeching halt if the Russians delay a ground invasion.

Russia’s window of opportunity for a successful ground invasion is 60 days, starting now, according to Segodnya, a Moscow daily. Russian officials at the Kremlin, Federal Security Bureau and the Defense and Interior Ministries have done more than just cultivate an appetite for war at home. They have also guarded against dissent among the ranks, having learned some strong lessons from the first Chechen war.

The bombing campaign in Chechnya over the last seven days demonstrates that the Russian commanders have learned from the debacle in Chechnya in 1994 to1996. This time, air forces will likely ferret out guerrilla hideouts ahead of ground forces moving in. This will allow more aircraft to fly close air support and evacuation. It also reduces the risk of friendly fire from the air, which was arguably the most lethal threat to Russian troops in the first war. More Su-34s are likely to appear in combat as well, placing ground forces under cover of Russia’s most advanced fighters.

The decimation of Chechnya’s infrastructure before the ground offensive was a poorly coordinated but effective measure. More than 1,500 sorties were flown over Dagestan and Chechnya in the past two weeks, with a sustained campaign over Chechnya since Sept. 23. The government loosely defined "military targets" as homes, bridges, hospitals, TV stations, broadcast towers and radar.

Targets were chosen for two reasons: to clear the territory of civilians and to limit damaging information from coming out of Chechnya. The high incidence of civilian casualties in Chechnya last time turned the international community – and Russians –against the war. Barring any stable communications relay from Chechnya to the outside world, Russia can preclude any substantial information war by the guerrillas and establish an information blockade.

This will change once Russian troops encounter rebel forces in the field. First, the tight schedule for a ground invasion will hamper a sweeping success in Chechnya. Since an invasion must begin and end within 60 days, planning is likely to be rushed and the capabilities of Russian forces may be over estimated. Institutional support, consent of the people and morale within the armed forces may sell this war at home and abroad. These factors are so compelling that the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense are likely to hastily commit forces to a war they cannot lose – nor easily win.

Russian planners have also not field-tested most lessons from the previous Chechen war. If Dagestan is a guide, Russian forces will have command and control problems. A major problem in Dagestan was the disparity of skills among combined units, particularly paratroopers working closely with regular infantry and Dagestani volunteers. The breakdown of discipline and poor combat skills among regulars endangered paratroopers, putting the two groups at odds during combat.

Some elements of air support will also act as a liability. The weapons and on-board systems of the army’s Mi-8 and Mi-24 combat helicopters are technically obsolete. They are also more prone to anti-aircraft weapons and sniper-fire and easily damaged. The Ka-50 Black Shark would be a better attack helicopter, but some reports indicate this and other precision weapons will not be used. Chechens, on the other hand, will use dated technology to their advantage, including ZU-23-2 mobile anti-aircraft launchers, Shilka ZSU-23/4 anti-aircraft guns, Stinger missiles and RPG-7 grenade launchers. This capability will raise the flight ceiling of support aircraft, leaving ground forces vulnerable to ambush.

The planning for the ground campaign this time has certainly been better. But Russian forces have not learned as much as rebel forces over the past five years, despite the advantages of preempting a rebel information war and encouraging the flight of the civilian population. Rebel forces essentially participated in a war gaming exercise with their enemy in Dagestan. What little Russian forces may have rehearsed since the previous war is unlikely to apply here. The rebels are quick to accommodate changes in battle tactics and are superior in mobile warfare. To add to the burden, Russia’s weaknesses are embedded in the organizational structure of the armed forces and cannot be overcome with planning.

... Russia is not fully prepared for this war, and will struggle, simply because political motives will supercede military ability.


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