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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Winning With Firepower




PRIMYKANIYE, Russia -- Last week, it was the Islamic rebels who held this rustic settlement, only 4 kilometers from the outskirts of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Their fortified trenches, the deepest Russian soldiers have seen here, edged the fields and stretched along the railroad tracks leading from the city.


But as Russian troops rushed to encircle Grozny, the outnumbered rebels were routed in a furious 10-hour firefight. Russian gunships and artillery pounded the trenches, illumined by countless flares and backed by armored combat vehicles and tanks, until the surviving Chechens fled to Grozny through a covering fog.


Russian commanders boast about their use of maneuver and deception. But the most enduring impression from a three-day visit to Chechnya was of massive firepower.


It was as if U.S. General Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force as the key to victory, used so efficiently in the American-led war against Iraq in 1991, had been transferred to the Caucasus and applied Russian-style.


There are an estimated 100,000 heavily equipped Russian troops in Chechnya, more than twice the number that Moscow used in the 1994-96 war. In contrast, the Islamic rebels have an estimated 6,000 fighters in Grozny and perhaps an equal number of militants in southern Chechnya, according to Russian estimates.


The huge scale of the Russian operation is apparent on the Terek Ridge, the high ground just north of Grozny, which has become a stronghold for Russian armor and artillery. And it is evident in the fields to the south, which are pockmarked with craters.


Residents in the town of Mozdok, just northwest of Chechnya, do not have to look out their windows to see if the skies are clear. They can tell from the roar of Russian warplanes, as they take off on their bombing missions.


In the hands of Russia's generals, military force is a blunt and often indiscriminate weapon, but it is clear they are wielding a sledgehammer. While Western critics complain that the artillery and airstrikes have unnecessarily harmed civilians, they have been an important part of the Russian military's strategy to limit its casualties and maintain support at home.


Any war, of course, involves uncertainties. Foreign correspondents are rarely allowed to places like Primykaniye, and it has to be presumed that the Russians do not fly in journalists to document their mistakes or setbacks. Some Russian soldiers in Chechnya have reported heavy losses.


Still, it is clear that the Russian military decided from the outset that this would be a very different type of war from the first, ill-fated campaign in Chechnya. In that conflict, Russian troops raced into the center of Grozny at the outset and took tremendous losses.


This time, Russian commanders hope to bombard the rebels into surrendering and may advance into Grozny if they do not - but only after laying siege to the city and laying down a withering curtain of fire.


"If we are commanded to seize it, we will," Lieutenant General Vladimir Bulgakov said.


"If we are told to wait until the surrender, we can wait as long as is necessary. There is no way for the militants to leave," he said.


Primykaniye is a rural settlement, and its capture was part of the Russian campaign to encircle Grozny. Bearing the scars of the recent fight, Primykaniye's fields are tattooed with the tread marks of Russian armor.


The railroad track that runs through here was peeled back as if the rails were rubber so that Russian armor could freely pass. One corner of the local brick mosque has been blown away.


The battle for Primykaniye began last week after rebels from the militants' 57th regiment fled Argun, a town east of Grozny and the scene of a ferocious Russian assault.


The rebels took up positions in an elaborate maze of fortified trenches and tunnels, which included a 4-meter-deep bomb shelter.


Armed with machine guns, mortars and anti-tank grenades, their goal was to bloody the Russian troops and prevent them from encircling the Chechen capital. It is not known how many of them there were; the Russians say there were between 100 and 150 fighters.


But the Russians had several advantages. With two companies of motorized infantry, they had 200 men, giving them a numerical edge. The Russians were equipped with tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters.


The Russians also took advantage of the terrain. There were no basements and alleys for the rebels to hide in, as in Grozny, and there was plenty of room for the Russian army to maneuver and bring the full weight of its combined arms to bear.


After Russian scouts detected the rebel trenches, Major Andrei Morozov, 32, a battalion commander, divided his force in two. One company moved forward as if it were going to attack straight into the enemy lines, hoping to draw enemy fire.


When the rebels started shooting, the Russians observed their positions and unleashed helicopter gunships and artillery against them. The field near the trenches is still festooned with the red and white parachutes of flares, which the Russian solders fired into the night sky to light up the battlefield.


Then the second company flanked the Chechens from the left. By midnight, the Russians had seized the first line of trenches. Fearful of being cut off, the rebel force took advantage of a thick fog to flee to Grozny and live to fight another day.


The Russians claimed they killed 50 rebels with no losses of their own, but it was impossible to verify this. No rebels were captured, and the Russians said they had already buried the dead.


Bulgakov credited the victory to "deception and maneuver."