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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Victory Declared Too Early




Russian generals are once again claiming victory in Dagestan. But these victory claims sound hollow. The Russian military and the opposing Moslem rebels suffered hundreds of casualties. Several battered Dagestani villages have changed hands, but Russian forces have taken almost no prisoners and have not captured substantial quantities of enemy arms.


The newly claimed Russian "victory" in Dagestan was obviously not a rout of the Chechen-led rebels. The rebel forces withdrew from the Novolakh region in an organized manner after repulsing several Russian attempts to dislodge them. The Russian military was unable to organize an effective hot pursuit of the retreating enemy. In a rearguard action, the rebels inflicted heavy casualties on Russian paratroopers who tried to capture a hill in Novolakh hours before the rebels abandoned it by themselves. (Military sources say unofficially that hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in this attack.)


As during the recent Botlikh campaign - and in Chechnya before - the Russian forces were a badly organized mix of make-shift battalions comprised of solders and policemen from all over the country. The Russian North Caucasus military command has more than 120,000 servicemen on its payroll. But when the fighting started in Dagestan, paratroopers from Pskov, near the Estonian border, as well as North Sea Fleet marines stationed above the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian border, had to be rushed south to the Caucasus.


Marines and paratroopers are considered to be Russia's last remaining battle-ready units, but using them as a substitute for regular infantry is a very ineffective way to fight wars in the Caucasus. The Pskov and North Sea paratroopers jumped out of their planes in Dagestan with the light aluminum-plated airborne unit tanks that are their standard battle gear. But these vehicles, with their diminished ability to withstand an onslaught of heavy ordinance, proved to be sitting ducks for the rebels. A heavy 12.7 mm sniper rifle can destroy one of these vehicles from a distance of more than half a mile, while the small guns of the airborne armor vehicles are of little help in demolishing enemy field fortifications.


Of course, the Russian military in Dagestan has an array of heavy guns. But these guns are used by local army units whose soldiers have never trained with the airborne troops. There is also traditional enmity between airborne and army units in Russia. Paratrooper officers in Dagestan told journalists that "the army gunners are shooting when and where they want, instead of where needed." Russian officers have also said Russian bombers and heavy artillery guns have been hitting Russian troops thanks to a lack of coordination between army and paratrooper units.


The ad-hoc units comprising OMON special forces troops, police officers and volunteers that are roaming Dagestani battlefields haven't helped Russian military units significantly. Since such rag-tag groups cannot be commanded effectively, army brass tends to put them in places where they will do the least harm. Russian military commanders also don't trust the local volunteers. Afraid that these local Moslem forces may change sides at anytime, Russian generals have done their best to keep them away from the action.


The overall miserable performance of the Russian military in the latest fighting in Dagestan is a bad omen.


The Chechen-led rebels have retreated from the Novolakh region, but they are far from defeated and will strike again soon. Low clouds and fog will cover the mountains this fall and winter, grounding bombers and helicopter gunships and depriving the Russian army of its main source of firepower.


Meanwhile, the Moslem rebels have no reason to stop their armed struggle. The Chechen warlords who invaded Dagestan and started the latest round of fighting want Chechnya's independence. But these warlords understand that Chechnya's current borders are economically disadvantageous.


By "liberating" Dagestan - thus grabbing part of the oil-rich Caspian Sea and an international border with Azerbaijan - the Chechen warlords hope to ensure a lasting independence and undermine the authority of the elected Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov.


The Chechen-led rebels are better trained and more highly motivated than Russian forces in the Caucasus. But the rebels lack heavy armor and firepower needed for victory. A protracted war of attrition, with intermittent cycles of vicious bombing, may be beginning in the Caucasus.


Pavel Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based independent defense analyst.