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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: War Turns Grim for Russia




The past week was a bad one for Russian forces in Chechnya. Increasingly, and on one front after another, Russian troops in Chechnya have gone on the defensive. Where Russian attacks continue, they have limited progress. The army seems to be losing the strategic initiative, while the opposition is gaining: Chechen rebel forces have mounted several spectacular counterattacks that have obviously caught Russian generals off guard.


It is increasingly obvious that the Kremlin and Defense Ministry have grossly miscalculated the campaign.


From the beginning Russian troops have advanced very slowly, bombarding their way forward with heavy artillery and air strikes. Russian generals bragged that the strategy of "pushing out the bandits" would avoid heavy losses and that the Chechen rebels would slowly be quashed into pulp by shells and bombs.


The end result of this "new" strategy has been disastrous. Rebel fighters slowly fell back, avoiding pitched battles and heavy casualties. The Russian army spent the fall months in Chechnya (when the weather is relatively good) grabbing territory, instead of engaging the rebel forces - a strategy that can never bring victory, especially in a guerrilla war. In December, as the weather became worse, the military - morally and physically exhausted by then - reached the Chechen capital, Grozny, to encounter a determined, well dug in rebel force.


The military pounded Grozny with very heavy bombs, including rocket-delivered aerosol weapons that are banned by international law for use against populated areas. But the rebel forces were not maimed seriously: They dug in and spread out and Russian firepower was mostly spent in vain. After the bombardments, Russian infantry tried to go into Grozny and were beaten back.


While the attack on Grozny was stalling, other Russian offensives also became bogged down. Even after several weeks of fighting, Russian troops could not manage to breach Chechen defenses near the village of Duba-Urt, south of Grozny, in order to enter the Argun gorge. A contingent of Russian paratroopers and border guards that landed in the Argun gorge near the Georgian border last month is still surrounded by rebels. Russian troops also failed to breach Chechen defenses at Sergen-Urt, southeast of Grozny, to enter the Vedeno gorge and help a combined task force of paratroopers and marines advancing from Dagestan to take Vedeno.


In the first days of January, the Russian offensive had run out of steam and, apparently, manpower. It is claimed that Russian forces in Chechnya include 100,000 Defense Ministry and 40,000 Interior Ministry troops. But the performance of the Russian task force does not look like that of a 140,000-strong army. Grozny has been officially "blocked" by Russian troops for more than six weeks, but the blockade does not impede the rebel force seriously. Independent eyewitnesses report that the Russians only control a few roadblocks and that rebels can easily come and go from Grozny.


When the Chechens began a series of counterattacks last week, it took the Russians days to assemble forces to beat the rebels back. It seems the Russians do not have enough battle-ready reserves left in Chechnya to continue the offensive and at the same time beat back enemy counterattacks.


The exact number of Russian servicemen in Chechnya is, of course, a military secret, but the 140,000 estimate seems grossly inflated. It is an old tradition in Russia to put more men on the payroll than are actually in service. This way Russian generals can commandeer the pay, food and other allowances meant for the nonexistent soldiers.


Today in Chechnya servicemen in action are getting much more money than in peacetime - up to 1,000 rubles ($35) a day. Stealing money and military supplies by filling the ranks (and payrolls) with the "dead souls" of Russian soldiers is most likely the most profitable business today in the North Caucasus. Such schemes may also explain the fantastically low official casualty figures.


Of course, when it comes to fighting, dead souls are no help. While Russian generals try to take more territory, the dispersed Russian forces will face increasingly punishing rebel counterattacks in the future. Acting President Vladimir Putin's Chechen adventure seems to be in serious trouble. But this does not mean the attitude of the Russian people will change. While the Russian media continues to portray the campaign as victorious, public support for the war will also continue.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.