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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Elite Units Can't Match Foe




Just a few weeks ago, Russian generals declared victory in Chechnya. The last major Chechen town held by the rebels - Shatoi, in the mountains south of Grozny - was captured. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev announced that "organized rebel resistance has been broken."


In April 1995, the chief commander in the North Caucasus, General Anatoly Kvashnin, told me and other journalists in Grozny that organized resistance in Chechnya had been broken, that the rebels had been dispersed into groups of 10 to 20 men, and that the military would soon mop up these rebel leftovers.


In 1996, the rebels came back to Grozny, defeated the army and forced it out of Chechnya. Kvashnin also did well: He became chief of General Staff in 1997, the No. 2 in military hierarchy. In October 1999, Kvashnin, backed by a group of aggressive generals from the North Caucasus military district, insisted forces cross the Terek River - to wipe out all Chechen rebels.


In 2000, as in 1995, the Russians soon found that victory claimed is far from victory achieved. In Chechnya today, as in 1995-1996, the rebels do not control any large territory or major town, but they still fight on with efficiency and determination.


After declaring overall victory, Russian troops in Chechnya lost in one week nearly 200 men. A company of paratroopers (84 men) from the 76th Russian Airborne division based in Pskov was wiped out in the mountains of southern Chechnya. A column of elite Interior Ministry OMON paramilitary solders was mowed down inside "liberated" Grozny. An elite special unit of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian general staff (32 men) was massacred in the mountains of southern Chechnya.


All these disasters happened with elite units of the Army and Interior forces. Of course, the military forces in Chechnya are not yet broken, as in 1996. But the writing is on the wall: The best elite units are no match for the rebels when fighting on their own. Also, the overall command structure of federal forces in Chechnya is overcomplicated, and the morale of troops is so low that trapped units under attack do not get relief on time, if ever.


The OMON unit in Grozny was under attack by the rebels for four hours, but no help came. The military authorities report that the paratroopers of the 76th division fought surrounded by rebels for four days, but no help came. The Pskov paratroopers were not even parachuted far behind enemy lines. They were moved into position by their superiors in infantry formation. Fellow servicemen were only 100 meters away. Still, the 90,000-strong joint task force in Chechnya, with thousands of tanks, guns, helicopters and war planes, did not manage to do anything to save them in four days.


The fighting in Chechnya has become more dispersed in recent weeks as the troops moved deep into the mountains after capturing Grozny. Clear lines of confrontation have disappeared, but the fighting itself has not. It is also increasingly obvious that the troops are not ready for such guerrilla warfare.


The combat equipment of today's military forces in Chechnya is essentially the same as in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. Federal troops do not have night-capable attack planes or helicopters, modern communication or positioning equipment. On the company level, rebel and Russian units are armed with basically the same infantry weapons. But the rebels are usually more experienced and much better motivated, which often gives them the upper hand.


Afghan veterans that serve as officers in Chechnya complain that the morale of the troops is much worse today. In Afghanistan, relieving trapped comrades was considered essential. In Chechnya, military garrisons and columns attacked by guerrillas are often left without help for days.


Discipline in the armed forces has seriously declined following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And from the beginning of the recent Chechen campaign, soldiers avoided pitched battles and waited for bombers to clear the rebels out of position; this has depleted morale still more.


Today, soldiers are not ready to go against determined rebel opposition even to save comrades. A few armed rebels can hold back a federal brigade for days. When the Chechens eventually withdraw, the Russians capture one more ruined village and report that they have killed 1,000 rebels (in fact, mostly civilians are killed). Russian generals award each other medals, and the war continues unabated.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.