But the Russians won, after all!
(lessons from the Chechen wars)
Daniel Ford (long essay, fall 2007)
When I wrote about Chechenya earlier in the term, I was persuaded by the jest that, when it came to occupying Grozny, ‘Moscow was stepping on the same old rake, only to be hit in the forehead again’. Though federal forces finally took the city in February 2000, I attributed the Russians’ victory to the four-months’ bombardment that reduced Grozny to rubble, killed perhaps 5,000 civilians, and sent 230,000 into exile. It seems, however, that they did much more than increase their firepower. They really did learn from their earlier misadventures in Chechnya, though most of their remedies were not such as would be readily employed by a western army.
Fleshing out the regiments. Though it had inherited more than a million soldiers from the Red Army, the Ministry of Defence could deploy only about 30,000 soldiers for its first Chechen campaign (supplemented by troops from the Interior Ministry and other quasi-military agencies). ‘Russia needed to mobilize all of its strategic reserves to sustain the fighting in Chechnya.’ This was a consequence of its decision to hollow out regiments as their soldiers and officers quit the service, because it was cheaper to maintain it on paper than to disband it. (There was probably also a desire to maintain the structure of the vaunted Red Army.) Mobilizing for Chechnya in 1994, each half-strength regiment had to bring in fresh conscripts or men from sister units; as soon as it reached 1,500 men, it was sent on its way without ever having trained as a unit.
Between the wars, an effort was made to reduce the number of paper units and to maintain the best as ‘permanently ready forces’, fully equipped and kept at 80 percent of their nominal wartime strength. As a result, the Army was able to send 60,000 troops to Chechnya in the fall of 1999. Though still untrained in urban combat, many had learned how to fight in the mountains at a division-level school in Siberia.
Developing a professional force. The soldiers who stormed Grozny in 1994 were mostly green conscripts with only two or three months’ service; some had never fired a weapon. Between the wars, the ministries of Defence and Interior both stepped up efforts to develop a more highly paid corps of ‘contract soldiers’. Though volunteers, they weren’t professional soldiers by western standards: ‘the scum of the earth’, one veteran said of them. ‘They stole everything they could lay their hands on, even in battle’. Michael Orr agreed with this assessment: ‘The typical Russian kontraktnik is closer to the popular image of a mercenary, in his Rambo-like appearance, lack of discipline and tendency to maraud and plunder at every opportunity’. From 7 percent of troop strength at the beginning of the second campaign, the kontraktniki supposedly accounted for 40 percent by April 2000.
Altogether, the shift to a professional military was still a work in progress at the time of the second Chechen war. Russian conscription remained ‘one of Europe’s worst human-rights scandals’, with more conscripts dying each year from murder, suicide, and accident than the US Army loses in Iraq. As for the kontraktniki, fewer than 20 percent reenlisted, due to low wages and lack of recreational facilities. Perhaps the army’s most serious personnel flaw was the lack of a professional corps of non-commissioned officers, obliging lieutenants to perform duties that in any other army would fall to a sergeant.
Cooperation between forces. Russia had more than a dozen armed forces at the time of the first Chechen war. The composite force was fraught with ‘rivalries between the different branches of the armed services, … mutual distrust and failure to coordinate operations’. Overall command shifted back and forth between the Defence and Interior ministries, until a ‘Temporary Joint Forces’ command was improvised in January 1995; even then, some units continued to take orders from their own Moscow headquarters. During the climactic battle for Grozny, each of the three major ministries—Army, Interior, and Security—had a headquarters in Mozdok on Chechnya’s northwest frontier. In combat, the fractured command lines led to multiple instances of fratricide, which may have accounted for 60 percent of Russian military deaths in the first Chechen war. ‘In one particularly egregious case, [a] Ministry of Interior regiment fought a 6-hour battle with an army regiment’
Between the wars, the Army took the lead in forming Joint Force Groupings, four of which were employed in the second Chechen campaign, each with an Army general in command. To improve cooperation, an effort was made to choose commanders who knew and liked one another: ‘Lacking an effective joint doctrine the Russians have had to rely on such links to make their command system work’. Different forces were given discrete objectives where possible: a naval infantry battalion might encircle a village, while Interior troops entered and cleared it. At the same time, the Army showed a new readiness to take on duties that in the earlier war it would have left to the Interior troops, such as guarding facilities, securing lines of communication, and checking civilian identities.