Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Experts Condemn Tactics

As the hostage crisis in the southern Russian town of Pervomaiskoye appeared to be in its closing stages Thursday, the tactics of federal troops, who used massive force to subdue Chechen rebels, have come in for sharp criticism from military experts.

"This operation reveals that the Russian military machine is defective, and they have learned nothing from their operations in Chechnya from December 1994 through February 1995," Michael Clark, director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College, London, said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"The pattern that emerges from these operations is almost classical in its predictability. A large, heavily armed force surrounds an object, whose defenders know that in the end they will lose, so the game they play is just to see how much damage they can inflict in the meantime," Clark said.

The crisis began Jan. 9 when a rebel group called "Lone Wolf," led by Salman Raduyev, seized more than 2,000 hostages in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar. After releasing most of the hostages, the rebels left in buses Jan. 10 for Chechnya, but federal forces stopped the caravan in Pervomaiskoye.

After attempts to negotiate with the rebels failed, Russian troops besieged the village Monday with helicopter gunships, artillery and infantry. On Wednesday the troops pulled back, and the barrage escalated with the use of Grad missiles and heavier artillery.

Federal Security Service spokesman General Alexander Mikhailov said the renewed assault came after the terrorists had executed the last of the hostages.

"The terrorists should never have been allowed to reach a populated area," said Alexander Zhilin, a military observer at Moskovskiye Novosti. "If federal troops wanted to resolve this crisis by force, they could have done so in the open field. Some hostages would doubtless have died in this case, but far fewer than have died now. The army should have surrounded the village, waited out the terrorists, conducted negotiations, and I am certain they would have prevailed."

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who Wednesday said Russia was justified in using military force to resolve the crisis, added that the United States "would have, to be sure, had we been asked to conduct such an operation ... chosen a surgical operation rather than the massive, frontal use of force," The Associated Press reported from Washington.

While shells rained down on the village Monday and Tuesday, federal forces insisted that only buildings containing the terrorists had been targeted, sparing the hostages.

The veracity of this claim was thrown into doubt by journalists' reports of indiscriminate shelling, however. Correspondents for Segodnya, on the ground outside Pervomaiskoye as the attack began, wrote Thursday that "shells from federal artillery exploded several times over the positions where we sat. So the talk of 'surgical strikes' journalists had already heard during the storming of Grozny or Samashki turned out in fact to be a fairy tale. The cannonade was conducted according to the principle 'let it rumble and blaze.'"

The operation in Pervomaiskoye was to have proceeded in two phases, Zhilin explained. The army was to destroy the rebels' defenses, after which Interior Ministry special forces, the Alpha unit and a special rapid-reaction unit, would free the hostages.

"But the Russian Army has proven once again that it is not battle-ready," Zhilin said. "Russia has no army at all now, just some military formations. Just as in Grozny last January they used air power, heavy artillery and infantry, but there was no leadership or coordination, so the troops had no success and the whole operation devolved into barbarism."

Both Zhilin and Clark laid the blame for the poor planning and execution of the storming of Pervomaiskoye on Yeltsin, who they said sought a quick resolution of the crisis to restore the credibility of the Russian Army, and to bolster his image as a decisive leader in the run-up to presidential elections in June.