Why the Russian Military Failed in Chechnya
Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.
President Yeltsin, speaking to Russian soldiers in Grozny 28 May 1996.1
"By issuing the edict on troop withdrawal [for the remaining two Russian brigades], Yeltsin signed an act of surrender."
Russian newspaper article, 27 November 1996.2
What Prompted the Decision?
How not to fight a war; violation of U.S. principles.
The war has shown just how deeply divided the Russian armed forces are. It is not only the lack of cooperation between the troops of the ministry of defence, the ministry of internal affairs and the federal security bureau, which could have been predicted. It is the back-biting between units and senior commanders within the army itself which is so alarming. The Russian command is no "command of brothers" but a squabbling group of careerists. There appears to be no concept of professional solidarity within its ranks.40
The ordinary [Russian] soldier's and officer's contempt and loathing for that "brothel in the Kremlin" was extreme, open and, as far as I can tell, virtually universal. If the dominant cliche to be heard on the Chechen side is that "One Chechen is worth a hundred Russians", one frequently heard on the Russian side is: "A fish rots from the head". The "head" in this case means not just Yeltsin and his entourage, but also Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and to an extent the entire military hierarchy, riddled as it is with outrageous corruption and outright theft.44
In a very real sense, the fight against the Chechens was lost within the walls of the Kremlin.
In the conflict with the secessionist Republic of Chechnya, Russian forces continued to commit numerous, serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Russian forces used indiscriminate and excessive force without regard for the presence of noncombatants, prevented civilians from evacuating areas of imminent danger, blocked humanitarian assistance from reaching civilians in need, mistreated detainees who may or may not have had any links with separatist forces, and tolerated incidents involving groups of federal soldiers engaging in murder, rape, assault, extortion and theft.46
Their callous conduct quickly transformed the Russian forces from possible liberators from the Dudayev regime into eternal enemies.
3. Aleksandr Goltz, "Shtoby pravil'no ispol'zovat' voennuyu silu, eyu kak minimum nado raspologat'" [In order to make correct use of military force, you must at least have it at your disposal], Krasnaya zvezda, 7 Sep 96, p. 2. BACK
4. By the summer of 1994, Dudayev had lost much of his support among those living within Chechnya. According to a number of sources, Dudayev had placed the Chechen republic on the brink of political and economic catastrophe. Political and military leaders in Moscow failed to understand that open Russian interference gave the Chechen leader the pretext to suspend all semblances of democracy and to direct the fractious clans at a single enemy: Russia. BACK
5. This humiliating failure was probably the spark which ignited the large-scale Russian military involvement. According to a close advisor of Yeltsin, "The president was utterly humiliated, and that could only lead to disaster". For a journalistic look at the Chechen conflict, see: David Remnick, "Letter from Chechnya," The New Yorker, 24 July 1995, pp. 46-62. Specific comment attributed to presidential advisor, Emil Pain, p. 55. BACK
6. Loosely defined, the "power" ministers within the Russian security establishment are those leaders which have armed forces at their disposal: the Minister of Defense (MOD), the Minister of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Federal Border Service (FSG), the Secretary of the Security Council; the Chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB; formerly KGB), and the chief of the Presidential Security Force. There remains some doubt as to which ministers were responsible for convincing Yeltsin that the Chechen crisis could be best handled by force. Likely candidates include the MOD (Grachev), MVD (Yerin), FSB (Stepashin), Yeltsin's chief bodyguard and chief of the presidential security force (Korzhakov), and the Secretary of the Security Council (Lobov). BACK
7. According to one report, Grachev bypassed the General Staff, and delegated detailed planning for the operation to the commander of the North Caucasus Military District. See comments by the deputy commander for Ground Troops, Col-Gen E. Vorobyov in Remnick, p. 58. An article written shortly after the invasion began, places the blame for confusion on the fact that Grachev detailed two officers out of the General Staff Main Directorate of Operations (who were unaware of the local conditions), to draw up the invasion plan. See, Mariya Dementyeva, "Operation Following Mozdok-Arbat Recipes; the Lessons of the Last Phase of the Chechen Operation," Segodnya, 15 Feb 95, p. 9, as translated in JPRS-UMA-95-009, 15 Feb 95 (on-line). BACK
11. For an excellent synopsis of the Russian military performance in Chechnya, see: Charles Blandy and David Isby, "The Chechen Conflict," Jane's Intelligence Review, Special Report No.# 11, 1996. BACK
14. For an extremely detailed account of the many factors which finally prompted the Russian leadership to employ military force against the Chechens, see: Timothy L. Thomas, "The Caucasus Conflict and Russian Security: The Russian Armed Forces Confront Chechnya," Foreign Military Studies Office Blue Book, June 1995. BACK
15. This view is supported by both current and past Yeltsin advisors. For an excellent background to the Chechen conflict, see: Emil Pain and Arkady Popov, "RAND: Chechnya Case Study," at: http://www.rand.org/publications/CF/CF130/ . Also see "This is Yeltsin's Vietnam," Der Spiegel, 22 Jan 96 as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-016, 22 Jan 96 (on-line), where former Yeltsin advisor, Gregory Yavlinkskiy, claims that it was a desire to reassert his authority which prompted Yeltsin to use military force in Chechnya.BACK
16. The economic factors which compelled Russia to initiate combat actions against Chechnya are distressing and quite complex. As General Lebed remarked, "the Chechen war is a mafia squabble at state level. The roots are primarily economic, then political, and only after that military". See, Ravil Zaripov, "Interview with General Aleksandr Lebed," Komsomolskaya pravda 19 Mar 96 as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-057, 22 Mar 96, p. 23. When Dudayev began to restrict Russian access to this " free economic-criminal zone", Russian leaders decided he had to be removed. "It appears that mafia henchmen are entrenched at the very top of the Russian political pyramid. They used Dudayev's Chechnya as a sort of black hole down which countless trillions [rubles] disappeared through financial, weapons and oil scams." See: Sergei Roy, "Aw What a Lousy War," Moscow News, March 1996, p. 3.BACK
17. Like the US-led actions against Iraq, there have been a number of theories which posit oil-revenues as the root cause of the Chechen conflict. However, given the fact that Chechnya possesses less than 1% of Russian oil reserves and that transit lines for the Caspian oil reserves will likely be pumped over numerous routes, it seems doubtful that oil alone drove the Russians to attack. The RAND study notes that influential representatives from the Russian oil and gas industry were dead set against the use of force. See Azrael and Pain, p. 5. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. For examples arguing that oil was the root cause, see: "Mobilized and Summoned by Competition," Kommersant, 10 Sep 96, as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-183, 10 Sep 96 (on-line). Interestingly enough, the major oil pipelines and refinery stations in Chechnya came out of the war almost unscathed. BACK
18. For an extremely thorough background to the reasons behind the Russian attack into Chechnya (from a retired Russian officer's perspective), see: Igor' Bunich, Khronika Chechenskoi voini [Chronicle of the Chechen war], (Saint Petersburg, Russia: Oblik Press, 1995). BACK
19. General Grachev had assumed the role of Defense Minister after displaying loyalty to President Yeltsin during the botched coup attempt of August 1991, and later, confirmed his loyalty during the constitutional showdown with the Parliament in October 1993. Practically from the day of his appointment, there had been rumors and allegations that Grachev was linked to corruption within the Russian military. Just a month prior to the Russian attack, a prominent Russian journalist, who had been investigating high-level military corruption, was murdered. Whether Grachev was linked to his death is unclear, but there is little doubt that he was at least involved in covering up for those subordinates who "plundered the military department, pilfering away sections large and small". See, Yuliya Kalinina, "Minister oborony-diagnos" [Minister of Defense-Diagnose], Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 11 Oct 96, p. 2. For a thorough study on the problem of corruption within the Russian armed forces, see: Graham H. Turbiville, "Mafia in Uniform: The Criminalization of the Russian Armed Forces," Foreign Military Studies Office Blue Book, July 1995.BACK
20. The press accusations implying his direct involvement in corrupt practices, combined with the failed "black' operation to unseat Dudayev, Grachev "was in no position to stop the operation and risk his position". See: Felgengauer, p. 29. BACK
21. In denying Russian military involvement in the failed covert operation, Defense Minister Grachev had claimed that from a military perspective, he would never have sent tanks into Grozny, and that "if the Army had fought...one airborne regiment within two hours would have been able to handle the whole thing". See, Pavel Litovkin, "Ministerstvo oborony RF: versiyu ob uchastii rossiiskoi armii v chechenskom konflikte General Grachev nazyvayet bredom'," [Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation: General Grachev calls the version about Russian army participation in the Chechen conflict nonsense'] , Izvestiya, 29 Nov 94, p. 1.BACK
22. "Oh, what tangled webs we weave" is an apt epitaph for Russian involvement in the Caucasus since the collapse of the USSR. The Kremlin leadership has been playing a double-game with the peoples of this region, often to its own peril. For example, the Russians were upset with the intransigence of the Georgian leadership with regard to military-basing rights and oil pipeline routes. They were determined to show the Georgians why they should maintain warm relations with Russia. To prove their point, the Russians began to provide military assistance to the Abkhazians in their fight for independence from Georgia. In the process, however, they inadvertently helped to train Chechen forces, who were also helping the Abkhazians. One of these Chechen fighters, Shamil Basayev, learned his lessons well, and two years later, helped to rout the Russians out of this region. BACK
24. Grachev assumed the position as Defense Minister by his personal pledge of loyalty to Yeltsin during the August 1991 coup attempt. He was certainly not the senior Russian officer at the time of his appointment. This rapid promotion, combined with Grachev's airborne background, alienated him from much of the senior (ground forces) leadership. His reputation was never very high and continued to decrease during the course of fighting in Chechnya. There were some within the ranks who would like nothing better than for Grachev to fail. For a brief assessment, see: Alexander Zhilin, "Generals Divided Over June Election," Moscow News, 11-17 April 1996, p. 4. Also see: Benjamin S. Lambeth, "Russia's Wounded Military," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1995, pp. 86-98.BACK
28. Prime Minister V. Chernomyrdin was on the verge of reaching a settlement with the Chechen leadership in November 1995, "when some elements in Moscow sabotaged it". See: A. Kennaway, "The Russian Black Hole," Conflict Studies Research Center, Nov 1996. BACK
30. Using the military to rout out Dudayev and his clan was simply the wrong tool for the job. For a number of reasons, there will probably never be an accurate accountability of the amount of ordnance used by the Russians. The Stalingrad landscape of Grozny would indicate that it was a lot. Just one indicator of the intensity; during the most intense bombing of Sarajevo "there were 3,500 detonations a day, while in Grozny, the winter bombing [94-95] reached a rate of 4,000 detonations an hour". Remnick, p. 48.BACK
31. One of the more grisly episodes of this (intentional?) fratricide occurred during the fighting at Pervomayskaya in January 1996. For a thorough account which captures much of the flavor of fighting in this conflict and why the principle of "mass" must be built upon the precondition of well-trained units, see: Grigoriy Sanin, "Diagnosis: The Hunt for Lone Wolves' the Intelligence Services and Journalists Sum up the Results of the Russian Pearl Harbor'", Segodnya, 24 Jan 96, p. 3, as translated in FBIS-UMA-96-045-S, 6 March 1996, pp. 23-30. BACK
32. Consider the following quote from: Petr Berezko, "What did Lebed Learn From Top Secret Documents?," Novaya gazeta/ponedelnik, 7-13 Oct 96, p. 2 as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-198, 13 October 1996.
"No army can fight without a strong rear. Therefore, our 40,000-strong group of forces in Chechnya was defeated by embezzlers and impotent rulers in Moscow, not by Chechen rebels".
Aggravating the situation was the fact that the once vaunted strategic reserves of the former Soviet Army had long since been privatised, and there was little within the civilian sector which could be mobilized. BACK
33. Given their air superiority and well-documented targeting ability, why didn't the Russians remove President Dudayev before April 1996? From December 1995 until his death in April 1996, Dudayev was routinely giving interviews to members of the media. Much of the Russian failure is due to their inability to take out the Chechen C2 (command and control) early on and economize their fighting power. The answer might found in a secret agreement between Chechen and Russian officials, which stated that the Russians would not target Chechen leaders in exchange for Chechen assurances that they would confine their operations to Chechnya. See: S.I., "Was There a Secret Deal With FSB," Moskovskiy komsomolets, 20 June 95, p. 1, as translated in RUSPRESS, 20 June 95.BACK
36. "...as soon as darkness sets in, the federal forces find themselves almost everywhere effectively under siege' and under fire, so they for their part open fire in return at everything that moves'" See: Aleksey Arbatov, "Peace is Unlikely to Arrive Before the Election," Nezavisimaya gazeta, 4 Apr 96, pp. 1, 3, as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-068 (on-line). BACK
37. For an assessment of some of the problems effecting the spetsnatz and recon units, see: Oleg Blotskiy, "Chechnya:Voyna professionalov" [Chechnya: a war of professionals], Nezavisimaya gazeta, 22 Aug 96, p. 2.BACK
38. "In the words of a GRU officer who participated in combat actions in Chechnya, it was in this period [Dec 94-June 95] that military pilots refused to fly into areas where the Spetsnaz was engaging the rebels". See: Blotskiy. BACK
39. Consider the following quote from a Russian eyewitness: "A wounded internal troops soldier is brought to the Ministry of Defense hospital and told: Take him to the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) hospital". Frolov. BACK
41. The abundance of Kremlin conspiracy theories makes distilling the truth rather murky. In an attempt to explain their poor performance, Russian generals were anxious to find some excuse. From the available evidence, it appears that there was a leak out of the Kremlin and that the Chechen leadership did have a heads-up on a number of Russian initiatives. Consider the following quote from: Masha Gessen, "Letter from Moscow," New Statesman and Society, 19 Jan 96, pp. 39-51.
In a recent television interview, Arkady Volsky, the joint leader of the negotiating team on the federal [Russian] side, said that, on at least two occasions when he sent secret messages on the negotiations to the Russian prime minister, Dudayev mysteriously had knowledge of their contents soon afterward.
For an even more disturbing report of a security breach, see: Kostantin Petrov, "August in Grozny: Before and After; Did Russian Special Services Know of Attack That Was Being Prepared?," Krasnaya zvezda, 28 Aug 96, pp. 1,3; as translated in FBIS-SOV-96-168 (on-line). The answer to the question, according to the author of this article, is that, yes, the special services did know of the impending attack, but took no action to warn the military units stationed in the city. BACK
48. Prior to signing the cease-fire with the Chechens, the Secretary of the Security Council, A. Lebed, commented that "threadbare partisan forces in WW II were better clothed than the lice infested Russian soldiers in Chechnya. He called them cannon-fodder". See: "Russia's Humiliation in Chechnya," New York Times, 15 Aug 96, p. 26. For a more detailed analysis on the impoverished condition of Russian security forces in Chechnya, see: Aleksandr Kondrashov, "Novaya taktika v staroy voyne" [A new tactic in the old war], Novaya gazeta/ponedelnik, 5-11 Aug 96, p. 6. BACK
49. Again, see report by Dr. Turbiville for catalog of corruption charges.
Photo credits: Permission granted from Russian Today News Source at http://www.russiantoday.com. BACK
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