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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Chechen Rebels Set To Win




Three years ago the war in Chechnya ended in total humiliation for the Russian armed forces. Almost two years of continuous air and gun bombardments did not break the Chechen rebellion. On the contrary, in August 1996 the Chechens launched a daring and well-organized assault to recapture Chechnya's capital, Grozny, which was occupied by thousands of heavily armed Russian troops.


Armed mostly with light infantry weapons, the Chechen fighters split the Russian garrison into pockets of resistance and then beat back Russian armored counterattacks, inflicting heavy losses. Russian generals had no viable military option left, except to accept defeat and evacuate their troops from Chechnya.


The defeat in Grozny marked the formal end of fighting, but in essence the war was lost much earlier. From the beginning the Russian military had the superior firepower and were pounding any sector of Chechnya believed to house rebels. These bombardments, of course, inflicted a toll on civilians and combatants, but did not break the Chechen fighter's morale or bring victory. Moscow lacked well-trained infantry units capable of moving in swiftly and cohesively to flush out the lightly armed, mobile rebels after the air and artillery attacks.


Russian forces did not even learn to be coherent the hard way - through battle experience. Russian officers and men were constantly rotated in and out of Chechnya. A high-ranking Russian general told me in 1995 that the Defense Ministry wanted to move as much military personnel through Chechnya as possible "for them to gain some battle experience, since we have no money for regular military exercises." At the end of the Chechen war, most Russian forces in the combat zone were still an undisciplined armed rabble of makeshift units, whereas the rebels had matured to become crack storm troops, men who had been fighting in the same formations and under the same commanders for 20 months against a better-armed enemy.


Today in Dagestan they meet again: The well-trained, highly mobile fighters trained in Chechnya, and a Russian-led armed rabble. Even the leaders are the same: The notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev heads the guerrillas while Russian military activities are coordinated by the chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, who was the overall commander of Russian troops in the North Caucasus during the Chechen war. Kvashnin personally planned the ill-fated New Year's attack on Grozny on Dec. 31, 1994; his complete incompetence as military leader and senseless bravado cost the Russian army thousands of men.


The front line against the rebels in Dagestan is held today by makeshift formations of local Dagestani police and other Interior Ministry forces. Dagestani reservists and volunteers are being hurriedly called up and sent to the war zone.


Today, as was almost commonplace during the Chechen war, competent signal officers, who should coordinate air and heavy gun bombardments, are absent at the front. The Russian-led forces command total firepower superiority, but cannot use this advantage efficiently.


According to Interior Ministry sources, Dagestani police units were mistakenly attacked recently by Russian bombers and suffered casualties.


Air force chief Anatoly Kornukov announced later that an investigation had proven that his planes had not hit the Dagestani police. It was a "rebel mortar attack," he said, and the Interior Ministry staff in Moscow had accepted this explanation.


Kornukov may be right, but the fact that it took several days to convince the Interior Ministry that the air force did not bomb their men illustrates the total absence of coordination between branches of the armed forces. Also, if Dagestani police cannot tell an aerial attack from a mortar bombardment, they are totally unready for modern combat and should not be at the front.


In any event, the Interior Ministry had its revenge soon: The frontline patrols allowed the rebels to infiltrate the perimeter of the Russian air base near Botlikh in the Dagestan mountains and execute a successful mortar attack. Two Russian helicopter gunships were destroyed and a distinguished air commander - Colonel Yury Naumov - was killed together with other Russian pilots.


During the Chechen war there was a lot of mistrust, even hatred, between Interior and Defense Ministry forces. This incoherence was one of the sources of many defeats. If today Basayev seriously presses forward in Dagestan, the Russian military may be in for another major disaster.