Phase Three - November 1999 - February 2000
On 26 November 1999 Deputy Army Chief of Staff Valery Manilov said that phase two of the Chechnya campaign was just about complete, and a final third phase was about to begin. According to Manilov, the aim of the third phase was to destroy bandit groups in the mountains, while at the same time restoring order and establishing conditions for the return of refugees to their homes. A few days later Russia's Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Russian forces might need up to three more months to complete their military campaign in Chechnya. Predictions on how long the campaign would last have varied. Some generals said the offensive could be over by New Year's Day, while other officials said the campaign could continue for up to three-years.
Historically, operational artists and tacticians have viewed urban combat as attrition style warfare, which is characterized by the application of firepower to achieve the cumulative destruction of the enemy's materiel assets. The extreme granularity of urban terrain limits conventional mobility and tends to "absorb" relatively large numbers of personnel. Unit frontages are dramatically diminished, with advances or withdrawals measured in terms of single buildings or blocks. Troops expend extraordinary quantities of ammunition in efforts to destroy by firepower enemy forces protected by the cover of structures and rubble. Attackers systematically bludgeon their way from building to building, while their opponents doggedly defended every cellar and room. Fierce and continuous close combat results in great material destruction, property damage, and high casualties among combatants and noncombatants alike.
Russian commanders said they had no plan to invade Grozny. Instead, the plan appeared to be to demolish Grozny, then proclaim Chechnya's second city Gudermes, the capital. The former mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, was released from prison and named head of the parallel administration. Gantamirov, who had been serving a six-year term for embezzlement, was said to be returning to Russian-controlled Chechen territory.
By 01 December 1999 Chechen militants began carrying out a series of counter attacks against federal troops in several villages as well as in the outskirts of Gudermes, the first major city occupied by Russian troops. Rebel fighters in Argun, a small town five kilometers east of Grozny, put up some of the strongest resistance to federal troops since the start of Moscow's military offensive. Chechen fighters in Argun and Urus-Martan offered fierce resistance, employing guerrilla tactics Russia had been anxious to avoid. Chechnya's president Aslan Maskhadov said that fighters were retreating from some towns and villages, but would try to lure Russian troops into the mountains.
On 04 December 1999 the commander of Russian forces in the North Caucasus, General Viktor Kazantsev, claimed that Grozny was fully blockaded by Russian troops. And on 05 December Russian planes, which had been dropping bombs on Grozny, switched to leaflets with an ominous warning: "Persons who stay in the city will be considered terrorists and bandits and will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no further negotiations." The Russians set a deadline, urging residents of Grozny to leave by 11 December. Russia put the number of people remaining in Grozny at 15,000, while a group of Chechen exiles who in Geneva confirmed other reports estimating the civilian population at 50-thousand.
Russia brushed aside the outpouring of international outrage at its five-day "leave or die" ultimatum to Chechens in Grozny, but the military commander in charge of Chechnya operations, Viktor Kazantzev, backed away from the ultimatum, saying the leaflets were intended only as a warning. Russian commanders prepared a corridor to allow safe passage for those wishing to escape Grozny, but reports from the war zone suggested few people were using it when it opened on 11 December. Emergency Situations Minister Sergey Shoigu promised Russian forces would stop their military barrage to allow civilians to flee. Russian military officials accused Chechen fighters of blocking the exit of tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside the capital. Civilians trapped in the city have said they are afraid to move not because their own people are stopping them, but because of massive airstrikes and reports of Russian soldiers firing at refugees as they flee. Many civilians still in Grozny are also old and sick, making any travel difficult.
The Russian forces outside of the Grozny apparently planned to attack the city with a heavy air and artillery bombardment, intending to level the city to the extent where it is impossible for the rebels to defend it. By 13 December Russian troops regained control of Chechnya's main airport in a Grozny suburb. The airport was a main Russian military base during the last war. It was one of the first targets hit by warplanes at the start of the current conflict, and had since been out of action.
By 09 December Russian forces had taken control of the Chechen city, Urus-Martan, 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, but were still bombarding rebel fighters in the town with bombs and mortars, although Chechen commanders said their fighters had already pulled out. The Russian military's next task was the seizure of the town of Shali, 20 kilometers southeast of the capital, one of the last remaining separatist-held towns apart from Grozny. Russian troops started by capturing two bridges that link Shali to the capital, and by 11 December Russian troops had encircled Shali and were slowly forcing militants out. On 13 December Russian General Gennady Troshev ordered the town of Shali to surrender or face destruction. Russian officials believed most Chechen fighters had left Shali, but that snipers and small groups of gunmen might still be in the town.
By mid-December the Russian military was concentrating attacks in southern parts of Chechnya and preparing to stage attacks from Chechnya's eastern neighbor, Dagestan. Russian aviation carried out attacks on targets in the Argun valley gorge and in the foothills of Chechnya's southern mountainous region.
As of 14 December fighting was concentrated in the eastern outskirts of Grozny, with reconnaissance teams entering the capital to identify rebel strongholds. Russian ground forces met stiff resistance from rebel fighters as they advanced into the outskirts of Grozny, beginning a slow, neighborhood-by-neighborhood ground invasion with fighting focused on a strategic hill overlooking the city. A Chechen commander as saying rebel forces repulsed six Russian attacks during clashes in the northern and southeastern sectors of the city. On 14 December Chechen fighters apparently carried out a successful ambush against Russian forces, with at least 100 troops killed and several tanks destroyed in fighting in the Minutka Square district of Grozny. A force of as many as 2,000 rebel fighters ambushed an armored column, hitting the Russian tanks with rocket propelled grenades.
Russian ground troops advanced slowly toward the center from three directions. The strategy appears to be to draw fire from rebels, then pull back and pound the Chechen positions with artillery and rocket fire. A senior general said federal forces hoped to take the city by New Year's Day, but a January blizzard effectively halted the Russian advance into Grozny.
Public support for the war, which was previously overwhelming, appeared to fade as casualties mounted. The government came in for increasing criticism in the tightly controlled Russian media; both for understating casualty figures and for using the same failed military tactics that resulted in defeat for federal troops in the last Chechen war.
Intense fighting continued into February 2000, though Russian forces were hampered by heavy snow and fierce rebel resistance as they pushed ahead with their all-out assault. Chechen fighters used the weather conditions to step up attacks on federal troops. Well-organized bands of no more than 15 rebel fighters moved freely about the city, often sneaking behind Russian lines and attacking unsuspecting soldiers from the rear. As of 03 February, over 50% of Grozny was firmly held by the federal forces.
In the early days of February 2000 thousands of Chechen fighters pulled out of Grozny in what they called a tactical retreat, and most made their way up into the southern mountains. Chechen leaders said the war would continue as a guerrilla operation involving hit-and-run attacks against Russian positions. The retreat from Grozny was costly for the Chechens. Scores of fighters were killed or badly wounded when they crossed a minefield on the western outskirts of the city. Several prominent Chechen commanders were killed and the most notorious warlord, Shamil Basayev, reportedly lost a leg.
In early February 2000 the deputy chief of staff, General Valery Manilov, said the number of troops deployed in Chechnya would be reduced, now that Grozny was in government hands. A Russian spokesman said 93-thousand troops were in Chechnya, but unofficial sources estimate the figure is far higher. Military officials said plans call for a permanent force of 15-thousand troops to be stationed in the republic once the fighting is over.
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