OUTGUNNED, NOT OUTFOUGHT
Date: January 21, 2000
DESPITE OVERWHELMING FIREPOWER, RUSSIA'S MILITARY FINDS SEIZING GROZNY FROM CHECHEN REBELS IS FAR HARDER THAN ENVISIONED.
The Chechen military leader acknowledged that Grozny, the capital city of his breakaway republic, would eventually fall to Russian forces. But he could not resist a subtle dig with a clear warning.
"It would be naive to claim that the superbly equipped, numerically strongest army in the world will never be able to capture a city," said Mumadi Saidayev. "But it will do so by paying a huge price."
Nearly four months into its war in Chechnya, the once-vaunted Russian army is once again being bloodied by a minor foe. Relatively lightly armed Chechen separatists are inflicting heavy casualties on Russian soldiers backed by tanks, artillery and unchallenged air power.
Among the casualties, military sources Thursday told the Russian news agency Interfax, appears to be Maj. Gen. Mikhail Malofeyev. Malofeyev, who has been missing since Tuesday when his unit was ambushed in Grozny, was reportedly captured by Chechen rebels. Some reports said he had been shot dead.
The Chechens are holding out against the Russians because of two major factors: They are very good fighters. The Russians are not.
In the end, that disparity may not matter. The Russians have superior firepower and numbers. Thanks to Cold War stockpiles, they are unlikely to run out of artillery shells or bombs.
Russian troops blast away from a devastating array of tank and fixed artillery positions around Grozny and across battlefields in Chechnya's southern mountains. An aging but still potent fleet of bombers delivers payload after payload from altitudes out of reach of Chechen shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons. When weather permits, Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships sweep in lower for more precise attacks on rebel positions.
The firepower has taken a heavy toll.
A rebel spokesman said Thursday that 45 Chechen fighters died in the last four days in Grozny, more losses than the Chechens have acknowledged in the whole campaign so far. Like the Russians, the Chechens understate their losses and exaggerate those of the enemy.
The Russians acknowledge losing about 700 men since the Chechen ground war began in early October. That toll, on a monthly basis, is greater than the one the Soviet army suffered in its unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Despite the losses, the Russian people have supported the Chechen war as necessary to restore order to the Northern Caucasus.
The Russian people also have been heartened by the consistently good news from the battlefield, accurate or not, carried by Russian media.
But if the Russian people believe that their armed forces have been reborn as a creditable fighting force in Chechnya, they are mistaken.
Russian troops in the region outnumber the Chechens by about 10 to 1. [The official numbers from both sides give 10 to 4. N.S.] They have massive firepower in the form of tanks, armored personnel carriers and howitzers. The Chechens possess few armored vehicles and only a handful of mobile mortars. The Russians have enough warplanes to have flown 6,000 sorties since the conflict began. The Chechen rebels do not possess a single aircraft.
Yet it has taken the Russians nearly four months to move across mostly flat areas. And still they have not captured Grozny.
"(The rebels) are extremely well prepared," a Russian officer in Grozny told the NTV network. "In our advance we have already had to cross three lines of defense. As we get closer to the center the defenses get stronger and stronger."
The last Chechen war ended in 1996 with a humiliating pullout of Russian troops. Some of the same things that cost the Russians then have been repeated.
Untrained troops are being put on the front line, despite a Kremlin edict that only soldiers with six months of training should be allowed into battle. Chechen fighters and civilians say they can bribe their way past checkpoints with a few rubles or bottles of vodka. Russian weapons are finding their way into Chechen hands.
Battlefield leadership is spotty. Russian officers are rotated in and out of combat zones at relatively short intervals that baffle Western military experts. Part of the goal is to give the officers battlefield experience, presumably to better train them for a potential invasion by a foreign power. But the net effect is that the rotations leave front-line troops rudderless. Soldiers complain of low morale, partly because they do not trust commanders new to the job. There have been reports of insurrections.
Such situations only add to the Chechens' advantages. The rebels are far more familiar with Chechnya's terrain than the Russians could ever hope to be. Grozny is a maze of narrow streets and bombed-out buildings, perfect for the hit-and-run tactics the Chechens rely on to neutralize the Russians' tactical advantages.
About 1,500 to 2,500 rebel fighters remain in Grozny. That number appears to fluctuate daily, despite Russian military claims that the capital is sealed off. At least that many fighters remain holed up in Chechnya's southern mountains, where the rebels have their bases.
Then there are untold numbers of partisan fighters living in areas already controlled by Russian troops. They are willing, and have already proven able, to launch raids on Russian installations behind the front lines.
The Russians, meanwhile, count about 100,000 troops in the Chechen theater.
"Don't get caught up too much in the numbers," said a Western military observer. "There are many who believe that, because of their experience from the war in 1994-96, the Chechens are the best small army in the world."
Some Russian officers and politicians believe they have an answer. They recommend leveling Grozny and any other part of Chechnya where rebels are holding out.
Kursk's governor, Alexander Rutskoi, who was among the governors who nominated Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to succeed Boris Yeltsin, said Russia could end the conflict in a week with "scorched-earth tactics."
"The longer we delay that moment, the more blood will be shed," Rutskoi said. "In a week Grozny and the whole of Chechnya should be turned into a Gobi desert."
The problems with that strategy are numerous. First, at least 20,000 and asmany as 40,000 civilians remain in Grozny. For many reasons--humanitarian, for example, or the fear of international censure--Putin would not want to obliterate that many non-combatants in a scorched-earth operation.
Moreover, that kind operation could still fail. Grozny is filled with basements and bomb shelters left over from Soviet days that protect the rebels from airstrikes. The mountains, too, offer countless hiding places.
Critics of the war suggest that Putin already has blundered by making, or allowing his generals to make, Grozny a goal of the campaign. Russian troops could have ended their assault months ago and set up a security ring around much of Chechnya, as some military commanders proposed. Moscow then could have declared victory and sent many of its troops home with relatively few losses.
Now declaring victory, without an outright surrender by the Chechens, would be more problematic. And many of the Chechen fighters, despite the pounding they are taking, are giving little sign that they will surrender soon, even when Grozny falls.