Army Fated to Lose Unwinnable War

The last nine days of fighting in Grozny have been an uninterrupted humiliation for the Russian army, prompting a stream of public criticism and unprecedented soul-searching among top Russian officials about who is to blame.


Despite a huge garrison of heavily armed troops backed by airpower and artillery, the army allowed a band of a few thousand rebels to infiltrate and take back control of a city which was conquered after two months of bitter fighting at the start of the war.


Even worse, for more than a week the army has been fought to a standstill and is barely holding its ground in bitter street fighting.


"This is a great shame of our government," wrote this week's Argumenty i Fakty newspaper. "Our losses are enormous."


"Taking Grozny, the separatists have forced us to accept their terms for regulating the conflict," said the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily. "We haven't forced them to peace, but they us, dealing us a humiliating military defeat."


Why has such the huge Russian military machine allowed itself to be pushed around?


In their initial responses, Russia's generals offered only lame excuses for the failure, arguing they were hampered by the lack of a legal state of emergency in the republic and by the Chechen rebels' brilliant propaganda campaign.


Using the evidence of his trips to Chechnya, national security chief Alexander Lebed has blamed the disaster on the lack of funding for the military and also accused a corrupt group within the Russian command of plotting to prevent victory in the war.


But most analysts disagree with the conventional notion that Russia's army is losing simply because it is underfunded and underequipped. In fact, they say, even a well-equipped Russian army would lose the war, simply because the conflict is unwinnable by nature.


Alexander Golz, a commentator for the army's newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, said history has shown that large, modern armies fighting guerrilla partisans almost never succeed.


"This is the way all such wars have developed -- with the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan," he said. "When a large army enters a territory with no clear political objective, they will always lose to better-motivated guerrillas who have a clear objective -- to drive out the enemy."


He added that the nature of such wars places the "invading" power at a military disadvantage for several reasons. For one thing, people who are civilians by day can turn into enemies at night, making the enemy amorphous and hard to pin down.


Also, the enemy's -- in this case the Chechens' -- willingness to fight to the last man leaves Russia with only one route to military victory: the death of every last Chechen.


"There simply is no way to win this war, other than effecting the annihilation of the entire male population of Chechnya," said Andrei Piontkowsky of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies.


Though Russia has superior weapons and firepower, analysts said its numerical superiority works to its disadvantage.


"The one area where Russia has performed well military is with air power," said Piontkowsky. "But even there, they've caused more problems than they've solved because they're killing too many civilians. You kill 100 innocent people by bombing a village, and 10 or 15 young men and boys will take up weapons to fight you out of hate. That makes more, and not fewer, enemies than you had before."


But analysts agreed that the lack of a compelling reason to fight in Chechnya has been the key reason Russia has failed to win the war.


"The lack of a sense that you are defending something, that you're performing an honest soldier's duty and on the right side, has been crushing to Russian morale," said Alexander Konovalov of the USA/Canada Institute. "It has led to a situation where soldiers are far more interested in preserving their own lives at any cost than they are in defeating the enemy."


Konovalov added that soldiers' suspicions that they are fighting to protect the corrupt earnings of Moscow officials and bankers has led to self-annihilating behavior among the ranks.


"When a soldier thinks he's fighting to make money for someone else, he starts to rationalize and think that he should be making money too," he said. "So he sells what he has to sell, which are weapons. And soon your arsenal isn't much stronger than the enemy's."