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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Poised to Hit Hard

A year ago, the Russian army was battling in Grozny with Chechen separatists -- the fiercest and bloodiest encounter involving Russian troops since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In the first days of last January, several Russian regiments and brigades were beaten and two units -- the 131st Motor-Rifle Brigade and the 81st Motor-Rifle Regiment -- were virtually wiped out, their commanders and staff officers killed, half of the men also killed or captured by the Chechens and the rest scattered into small splinter groups -- fleeing the battlefield in central Grozny.

One year ago, the high military staffs in Mozdok and Moscow were baffled and lost. They were obviously on the verge of losing control. The attrition rate of servicemen lost in action or wounded was several hundred a day. If all remaining Russian units in Grozny had been routed by the Chechens and chased out, the morale of the entire army could have snapped, and Dzhokhar Dudayev could have won the war.

However, the Russian army overcame the shock of initial losses and defeats and won the battle of Grozny. The Russian army has never had a tradition of unquestioning discipline and strict organization. It is better characterized as tenacious in defense, stubborn and capable of improvising in the most difficult situations. It was these qualities of Russian soldiers and officers that saved the army after the plans for a parade-ground expedition, which were drawn up under the supervision of Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, fell apart.

After the battle of Grozny the Russian armed forces were able to win all major encounters and to meet more or less all the battlefield challenges the Chechen resistance could muster. Militarily, the Russians dominate Chechnya.

Then, last month the Chechens tried to seize and hold Gudermes, the second-largest city in Chechnya, through which the only highway and railroad from Russia to Azerbaijan pass. Furthermore, not far from Gudermes runs the sole pipeline that connects Russia to the Transcaucasus. Chechen resistance units have been resting in the mountains for half a year and were as efficient in urban warfare in Gudermes as in Grozny a year before. But they could not hold out against the Russians in Gudermes very long.

The Chechens have many anti-tank grenade launchers but no artillery. They have not once used Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, about which their field commanders have spoken so much to reporters. The Russian warplanes still rule the skies of Chechnya with impunity.

The federal troops today control the main strategic points on the plains of Chechnya and at the same time continue to maintain several important strongholds in the mountains near Vedeno and Shatoi. This puts them in a good position to hit the rebels hard when the right moment comes.

From the point of view of the Russian military hierarchy, only lack of political will is preventing the military from finally crushing the secessionist rebellion. However, the State Duma election results could change that.

At the end of December, one of the Communist leaders, Gennady Seleznyov -- deputy speaker in the former parliament and possible new speaker -- announced that the army in Chechnya should be strengthened, the new pro-Moscow Chechen leader, Doku Zavgayev. should be supported and Dudayev and Shamil Basayev should be liquidated. It is clear that such positions will be tacitly supported by nearly all the remaining Duma factions, except Yabloko and several independent deputies.

The hawks won a decisive victory in the Dec. 17 elections. The nationalist blocs of Boris Gromov and General Alexander Lebed, which unlike Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party, demanded a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, received less than 5 percent of the vote, as did Yegor Gaidar's party.

The presidential election campaign is starting in Russia, and leading contenders will be running patriotic, nationalistic Russia-first campaigns. The Dec. 17 results have shown that being soft on secession is not a very good vote-winner.

President Boris Yeltsin will also do his best to come to the elections with some obvious sign of victory in Chechnya -- such as the heads of Basayev and Dudayev.

So the military may be soon unleashed. Gen. Lev Rokhlin, who saved the Russian army from defeat in the battle for Grozny last January, recently announced to officers of his 8th Guards' Corps in Volgograd that they should be ready for a new expedition into the Caucasus.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security editor for Segodnya.