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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Not Learning to Wage War




Last week, a column of special paramilitary OMON troops was massacred by rebels in southern Chechnya. Military officials, including Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, have blamed lack of coordination between local military commanders as the main source of the disaster. A thorough investigation has been promised by the authorities and the guilty, they say, will be punished.


Of course, this is not the first time a Russian unit has been "wiped out" in Chechnya. A month ago, another OMON column was massacred on the outskirts of the Chechen capital of Grozny. Other elite paratroop and army special force units have also been attacked and destroyed recently.


Each time, the overall pattern of the military disaster is the same: Rebels isolate or ambush a unit of less than 100 men; the battle continues for hours, but reinforcements are unable to break through to the surrounded men and reach the battlefield until sometimes days after the beginning of the engagement; the rebels continue their attacks with vigor until they achieve full victory and then successfully withdraw.


Each of the mishaps - with OMON troops and with the paratroopers from the 76th airborne division - also have in common that fog covered the battlefield. As a result, troops did not get close air support - since Russia does not have night- or fog-capable close air support attack planes or helicopters.


It seems the Chechen rebels have found a serious flaw in the impressive armor of Russia's military, a flaw that cannot be fixed anytime soon. The Russian force in Chechnya is large in size (over 90,000 men), but it does not have any good infantry.


The OMON paramilitaries are actually considered to be among the best, since these special units include only professional soldiers, not conscripts as in other Interior and Defense Ministry forces. But even the best of the military get smashed in close engagements with Chechen rebels.


Generals have not learned from previous military disasters in Chechnya because to "learn" would mean generals recognize that they have led into battle a force that cannot prevail in an anti-guerrilla campaign.


To "learn" something in Chechnya and to avoid further disasters would also mean that authorities would have to move fast to acquire new qualities their army does not have: make and procure dozens of effective night-attack-planes; buy high-tech infantry weaponry, communications and positioning equipment; create a corps of experienced professional sergeants to lead and train the soldiers; build well-equipped infantry training bases to prepare the soldiers and officers for battle; and last but not least, train a new set of genuinely professional generals and colonels capable of leading the troops into battle, not into massacres.


Such military reforms require time, money, political will and good governance, which Russia lacks. Instead, officials now say that military convoys in Chechnya should from now on move only with heavy armor. But using tanks en masse in mountain gorges (or in the streets of Grozny, where the first OMON column was ambushed) is not a very good military idea. In such terrain, tanks are often just sitting ducks - easy prey for experienced rebels armed with anti-tank grenade launchers.


The task force in Chechnya is temporary in nature. If a commanding officer is reprimanded and relieved of duty for some mishap, he is routinely sent to his home military base to continue service in his prewar position.


Many officers believe that such a "punishment" is a reward in disguise. In Chechnya, a reprimanded officer is replaced by a newcomer, and the military effort continues in more or less the same fashion as before.


Mishaps that plague the conscript army in Chechnya have made talk of professionalizing the armed forces more fashionable. Some officials even say that the backbone of a future professional army is being formed now in Chechnya.


Many soldiers fighting today in Chechnya are armed thugs, especially the dreaded OMON units that man numerous check points and harass civilians during zachistki, or "mopping up" operations in Chechen villages. The OMON unit that was ambushed last week was en route to perform such a zachistka. When the OMON encountered armed rebels instead of meek civilians, they got "mopped up" themselves. If such units are a snapshot of a future professional army, maybe conscripts are indeed better.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.