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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Holiday From Blame

"All right. Pay attention there. Now here we have a map of the chain of command of the Russian forces in Grozny. Right. Now at the top here we have the president. Except, well ... we don't actually have the president, you understand. He's wandering about, looking for somewhere to have a holiday. In the same box, right here, however, we have his chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, who communicates the president's decisions in his absence to the government. Except, well, you'd better scrub round him too. He's on a real holiday somewhere in Denmark.

"All right so far? Can you hear at the back? Right. Now this brings us down to the second level of the chain of command. This is comprised of four different entities. First, we have the Security Council, which is chaired by the president who, ahem, isn't here to chair it, but whose chief chappy, General Lebed, has recently been instructed to find a solution to the Chechnya problem.

"Next door to it -- here -- we have the government of Mr. Chernomyrdin, which isn't being advised of any decisions the president has made, because the president is too sick to make any in the first place. Despite that, it's responsible for the political direction of the conflict; and it also funds the Chechen loyalist government.

"Still awake at the back? Right. This now leaves -- here and here -- the two separate ministries whose troops are actually doing what we'll call for the moment the real fighting on the spot: the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry. (The soldiers in Grozny are a joint task force.) Under normal circumstances both ministries come under the direct command of the president. But these aren't normal circumstances, as we've already seen, and both now seem to be acting -- in the absence of direction -- on their own.

"The situation is further complicated by the fact that General Lebed -- over here; at the Security Council, remember? -- is hand in glove, over here, with the defense minister, his own preferred appointee General Rodionov. But he's definitely persona non grata -- over here -- with Interior Minister General Kulikov. So, in the absence of any clear instructions from the upper level of command, well, let's just say that putting the other chap in the mire while coming up smelling like roses yourself is on virtually everyone's mind, including, I perhaps ought to add while I'm at it, Mr. Chernomyrdin's.

"Right. Got that? Good. Now let's go down the chain -- here -- to the next level of command: this time of the joint task force on the ground. The man in charge here -- with four different bosses to answer to -- is General Tikhomirov, who was until recently away on holiday. It was his deputy who recently announced the decision to bomb the hell out of Grozny. No one knows which of the four bosses (or General Tikhomirov) he was actually listening to at the time -- if any of them -- or if he was just after a soft target and a little military glory for himself.

"Now we'll leave aside for the moment the Chechen loyalist government -- no one really believes it has any power, and the chances are that the policemen who work for it are mostly secretly working for the other side. So now let's go down the chain again, this time to the army under General Tikhomirov's command. And the main characteristic of this army is ... what? Yes...? Yes...? Absolutely right, Higgins. It's made up of both Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry troops, who as it happens despise each other and answer to different bosses.

"But quite apart from this, I'm afraid to say, many of the units from both ministries seem to have gone completely rogue. They're fed food, drink and cigarettes by the enemy, they sell off their weapons whenever they can, and the only thing they think about is staying alive. So they put down barrages on empty hillsides and ignore the enemy base-camp right next to them; they turn a blind eye to separatist forces moving through their lines; and they warn local leaders when a village is about to be hit. As far as they're concerned, erasing Grozny with long distance weapons was probably the most popular decision that Tikhomirov's deputy could have made. For civilians, and they're obviously the main target, don't usually fight back.

"So there we have it. No orders from the top; conflicting orders from the middle; orders issued by the army command flouted and disobeyed on the ground. There's only one thing for it under the circumstances. Parliament's got the right idea; so has Chubais; and so has Yeltsin. What is it? Yes...? Yes...? Well done, Higgins. Again. Yes, stay away on vacation just as long as you possibly can."