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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slow War Progress Hits Troops' Morale

GROZNY, Chechnya -- By a tumbledown wooden shack flanked by elm trees, a scraggy 20-year-old Russian conscript clutches a cigarette between his fingers and stares at the snow around his feet.

A deafening burst of artillery cracks nearby, knocking clumps of snow from the trees and sending them to the ground with a low thud. The soldier, Dima Labazov, doesn't even look up.

"We are tired of this war already," Labazov said, his voice low and expressionless. He said his platoon was promised it would be out of Chechnya by Jan. 26, but all mention of a plane trip home has stopped. "It seems they have written off our regiment.''

The frontline is right here, cutting through a neighborhood thick with trees and badly damaged brick buildings in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Rebel fighters are positioned just a few hundred meters away. The men in Labazov's unit have held the stretch of ground since Sept. 18, at times creeping forward toward the center of the city, then ordered to retreat again - in a series of movements the soldiers cannot explain or understand.

Labazov's unit had 115 men when it was deployed in the Grozny neighborhood of Chernorechye on Sept. 18, but only 58 were left by mid-January. Some were wounded, but most were killed, soldiers said.

Alexander Kvashnev, an Emergency Situations Ministry officer who travels to the war zone nearly daily to deliver aid to Chechen civilians or pick up refugees, said another 115-strong company was stationed in Chernorechye on Dec. 11. When it was redeployed on Jan. 2, only 17 men were left.

"Sometimes you talk with somebody, then come back in a day and ask about the guy - but he's already been killed," Kvashnev said.

Among some Russian soldiers morale is souring as the campaign drags on.

"They set us up every step of the way. Or sell us off," said a soldier who gave his name as Mikhail Kazantsev.

A professional serviceman who has seen much death and violence, he was trading jokes with his comrades during a brief break on a march.

But Kazantsev's eyes darkened when he recalled a recent battle in the Argun Gorge, where his 60-member company ran into an ambush by Chechen fighters. Sixteen soldiers were killed and 27 injured.

"We lost a lot of good comrades," he said.

Army trucks loaded with disfigured bodies of Russian troops roll out of Chechnya into Ingushetia every day. At least a dozen bodies arrive daily - a number several times above the official casualty figures, said soldiers stationed at border checkpoints.

"Some days they carry out 200 bodies, all cut up," said Denis Kulikov, 20, a soldier staffing a border checkpoint. "You look into a truck, there are heads, arms, piled up in a heap. You can't even tell whose arm or whose leg it is."

In the Grozny district of Chernorechye, an air of doom hangs over the frontline positions.

Soldiers shuffle through the snow, their faces displaying no fear, just resignation. Many said they do not believe the Russian command has any plans to bring them back alive.

"They will waste a whole regiment to take Grozny," said a soldier who only gave his first name, Pyotr. "Do they really feel sorry for people?"