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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Russia Mourns Failed Rebel




Lev Rokhlin was the only Russian combat general who genuinely distinguished himself during the war in Chechnya. In early January 1995, Rokhlin led an 8,000-strong task force into Grozny. There he discovered that two vanguard Russian brigades had been defeated by the Chechen fighters and their commanders killed in action. All other Russian divisions had, in effect, withdrawn to the outskirts after the unsuccessful attack.


Scattered remnants of the vanguard were being cut down by the Chechens. The Russian army was virtually falling apart. Its commanding general, Anatoly Kvashnin, lost control of his men. Not only the Chechens, but also many frustrated Russian officers, believed that the war was over. Of course, the Russians had full command of the skies and overwhelming firepower superiority. But this did not mean much if commanders and men were not willing or able to fight fierce hand-to-hand battles to the bloody end. In similar circumstances in August 1996, the Russian forces collapsed in Grozny, and the war was truly over.


In 1995, Rokhlin's men continued to fight, and eventually, the entire Russian army rallied and began a slow, bloody offensive, reducing central Grozny to a pile of rubble. There Rokhlin was at his best -- stubborn, ruthless, full of energy, forcing subordinates to do their jobs "above and beyond the call of duty," ready to risk his life under fire at the front to rally his men and all the while enjoying the action.


When I met Rokhlin in mid-January in Grozny, he had such a bad sore throat from overexposure that he could not speak, but only whisper. The military doctors on the spot said they could not tell for sure that this was not cancer. At the same time, Rokhlin's wife became seriously ill and was hospitalized. Moscow offered Rokhlin a relief of command in Grozny on grounds of health and family. But he volunteered to stay on until victory in mid-February, when the battle was over and Grozny was captured -- only to be surrendered again to the Chechens in August 1996.


It seems that in today's Russia, no one needs combat generals who are actually capable of taking charge and forcing things to happen. Since the '70s, the Russian army has been shamed in every major engagement. Successive Soviet and Russian governments have failed to make good on their promises of reforms to benefit the people. Constant failure on all fronts has become the main operational mode of the Russian ruling elite.


General Rokhlin's combat successes were not welcome. He made other generals look stupid and incompetent. Rokhlin was hastily replaced in February 1995 and never returned to the front. Instead, Kvashnin was promoted to become the overall military commander in the North Caucasus.


Several months after the final Russian military debacle in Chechnya, Kvashnin was further promoted and is today the chief of general staff -- the No. 2 man in Russia's military hierarchy.


In 1995, the then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev urged Rokhlin to leave active service and become a State Duma deputy and chairman of the lower house of parliament's defense committee as a member of the pro-government Our Home Is Russia faction.


But Rokhlin was ill at ease in the Duma because there was too much talk and too little real action. Rokhlin tried to get seriously involved in planning military reform; he tried to get close to Alexander Lebed, Russia's former security tsar, but was constantly pushed away by everyone.


Rokhlin got cornered, but being a combatant, he did not accept defeat and instead became a rebel. One year ago, Rokhlin publicly announced that President Boris Yeltsin was "destroying" the armed forces and then set up the Movement in Support of the Army to press for Yeltsin's resignation.


But Rokhlin's anti-Yeltsin crusade turned out to be futile. Rokhlin wanted to be in charge, but the Communists and nationalists had their own leaders, who snubbed him and eventually voted to replace him as defense committee chairman. Entangled in the political maze, Rokhlin was seen by many as just another one of those Duma opposition buffoons.


Of course, after Rokhlin's death last week, everything seems different. Thousands of mourners turned up at Rokhlin's funeral. The political conspiracy theories that surround his death are laughable, but that is not important. Today, Rokhlin has become an icon, a martyr of the anti-Yeltsin, anti-liberal, anti-Western cause. Rokhlin has ultimately failed, so Russians will adore him.


Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.