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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Tactic Simply a War Crime




Last month the Russian military issued an ultimatum to the rebels in Grozny saying that if the city did not surrender, "all will be killed." The ultimatum was angrily condemned internationally. U.S. President Bill Clinton and European Union leaders announced that the policy - killing everyone in a city where thousands of helpless civilians were holed up in basements - was totally unacceptable.


In answering this crescendo of criticism, Russian authorities muttered something about being misunderstood by the outside world, that the ultimatum was not really an ultimatum, that it was not aimed at civilians and so on. But for all this apologetic posturing, the threat was never really officially renounced by military authorities in the Caucasus or by the Russian government - or by acting President Vladimir Putin.


Today they are apparently making good on the "kill all" threat to Grozny. The Russian army is reducing Grozny to a heap of rubble by endless air bombardments and shelling as they attempt to soften Chechen defenses.


Russian soldiers fighting in Grozny have told reporters that not only are "conventional" munitions being used, but they have also deployed a powerful incendiary weapon - the TOS-1 - which is a 30-barreled launcher for unguided missiles with aerosol warheads. Aerosol warheads release clouds of inflammable gas that are later ignited, causing massive explosions that can clear out buildings and basements with high temperatures and shock waves.


The Russian army units in Chechnya are badly trained and badly commanded. The morale of the solders is at an all-time low. Last week one Russian general, Mikhail Malofeyev, couldn't get his troops to advance. They refused to move forward. In fact, they retreated and left Malofeyev behind to his fate.


In Chechnya, Russian units often refuse to advance and instead wait for the air force and artillery to clear out the opposition. In the first months of the war, in the open plains of northern Chechnya, this tactic worked and Russian forces advanced slowly. In Grozny indiscriminate bombardments kill armed rebels from time to time, but cannot fully break their morale or provoke a retreat.


The Chechen infantry in Grozny is fighting hard and well. The rebels hide underground from Russian shells and their units are constantly on the move to avoid bombardments. The Chechen forces have no air force and no heavy artillery, but their defense in Grozny is staunch, their counterattacks resilient and their moral high. In private conversations, high-ranking Russian generals on active duty admit that, on the battle field, a Chechen company can match head for head a Russian brigade.


The Russian armed forces have lots of guns, bombs and ballistic missiles, but they do not have the well-trained infantry to match the rebels. Because of this weakness and because of pressure to capture Grozny and declare "victory" at any cost, Russian generals are virtually forced to resort to illegal means, to commit war crimes and to substitute well-trained and motivated infantry with increasingly more powerful bombs.


The indiscriminate bombardments of Grozny hit the civilian population much harder than the well-trained, mobile rebels. Such bombardments violate the Second Protocol of the Geneva Convention that protects civilians caught in internal armed conflicts. The use of TOS-1 in Grozny is a flagrant violation of the 1980 Geneva Convention restricting the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons. And, of course, TOS-1 endangers civilians hiding in Grozny's cellars.


Hideous war crimes are being committed in Chechnya. The military command is implicated and Putin - who has publicly said he was personally involved in planning Russian tactics in Chechnya - most likely is a war criminal too. But, the international community is all but silent. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has actually said that Putin is "one of the leading reformers."


Albright was, of course, one of the politicians directly involved in initiating NATO's aggression last year against Yugoslavia - a war in which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed by U.S. bombs. By reacting angrily to the Russian ultimatum, and by not reacting at all to mass killings in Grozny, the West is sending a powerful signal to Russia: Follow our example: It's politically expedient to kill civilians sometimes, but you should never threaten them in public. Then, once you've followed those guidelines, you can be a jolly good "leading reformer," a "liberal" or anything else you wish.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.