What happened to the glorious Red Army?

The Russian troops in Grozny are a shadow of the force that took Berlin 50 years ago today, says Christopher Bellamy
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I shook hands with this Russian tank man. He was a young lad, and wore this hat loaded with phones and gadgets, the sort of thing you would expect on a man from Mars."

Lance Bombardier Manley's reaction on encountering one of the Red Army's lite armoured spearheads on 3 May 1945 was typical. After four years of war, the Red Army was a highly professional force, and looked it. The tanks driven by the leading Soviet troops looked futuristic; just about every infantryman was carrying a tommy-gun, and women military police officers directed the inexhaustible flow of traffic with balletic movements.

German officers had become increasingly shabby towards the end of the war, adopting a nondescript battledress, but Soviet officers acquired gold shoulderboards similar to those of the Tsar's army, and cloaks which they wore with a swagger. Their street-fighting tactics were slick.

This was the image of the Soviet army that became fixed in the Western mind, the formidable Soviet "threat" that led Nato to spend billions of pounds on defence over the following 45 years. The Red Army at the end of the Second World War was a brutal but professional force, qualities exemplified by its most senior commanders. These were the men who, as Churchill admitted, had "torn the guts out of the German army" with a combination of valour and "generalship" - a reference to the staggering scope and sweep of the Red Army's successive blows against the Germans' eastern defences.

The nature of the Red Army was summed up in the character of the men who led it to victory. Marshal Rokossovski was probably the best tactical commander in the army, and certainly the most flamboyant, in his leather coat, his grin exposing a set of steel teeth fitted after Stalin's secret police had kicked out his own when he was in disfavour.

Fear played a major role in motivating such men and in maintaining the legendary discipline of the Red Army. During the Second World War hundreds of generals were shot for failing to deliver the expected results. The threat of death drove them to be ruthless with their own men. But according to most of the Western officers who met them after the victory in Berlin, they were not bullies, but highly professional military men.

"Highly professional" is not a term one would use of the Red Army's successors. Fifty years on, in January this year, I saw the Russian army at work in Grozny. Its performance, organisation and demeanour conveyed a telling story about what had happened to the former Soviet Union and its military might.

Three different armies were at work in Grozny: the army proper, the interior ministry and the security ministry. They often seemed not to communicate, and on at least two occasions they shot at each other deliberately. The 18-year-old army conscripts were pathetic; the slightly older interior ministry troops looked spaced out a lot of the time,drunk or drugged, and apparently out of control.

Whatever the flaws of these junior soldiers, one would have expected the high command to compensate. Not at all. The most surprising thing about the lumbering Russian effort in Grozny was the apparent absence of proper staff work, even maps.

Before the Battle of Berlin, the Russians constructed a giant model of the city, complete in every detail, compiled from air photographs, which was used to brief commanders before the attack and to work out tactics for street fighting. The artillery maps showed every target, clearly identified. Fifty years later, Russian television showed Lieutenant General Leonid Rokhlin and his staff trying to direct the Battle for Grozny. They were using what looked like tourist maps. My map of the area was confiscated at a roadblock. "It is strictly forbidden," they said. Then I realised why. They did not have their own.

But were those two armies really so different? When the Red Army broke into Germany, the Soviet propaganda machine capitalised on the hatred their soldiers felt for the Germans who had inflicted destruction on their country equivalent to a medium-sized nuclear war. Rape and pillage were widely condoned, and the terror that the oncoming Russians inspired undoubtedly stiffened German resistance. By March 1945, discipline in the Red Army had broken down so much that an order was issued directing commanders to restrain their men because ill-discipline threatened their victory. The title of the order signed by Marshals Koniev and Sokolovski was something of an understatement: "The conduct of our front-line troops and support units leaves much to be desired." Red Army discipline was ferocious: the most junior officers could shoot soldiers out of hand, and often did.

The Red Army in 1945 and the Russian troops in Chechnya were both forces of enormously variable quality. The leading Red Army formations in 1945 were, in the main, well-disciplined soldiers and, according to German survivors, when the battle was over all they wanted to do was sleep. It was the troops who came behind them whose behaviour was brutish. Similarly, the best of the Russian troops in Grozny - a Siberian Spetsnaz ("Special Forces") unit - were polite, even friendly, once they had established that you were not a threat to them. It is unlikely that they were responsible for last month's mayhem in Samashki. By April, Samashki was one of the last centres of Chechen rebel resistance, where some 250 civilians are reported to have been incinerated in their houses, "like shish kebab". The interior ministry now controls Grozny and the outlying villages. Further atrocities are possible.

In terms of military and political command, the capture of Berlin in 1945 was relatively simple. It was a straightforward military operation, conforming to the classic rules of war, to be carried out in the minimum time - particularly important, because the Red Army had to seize the capital before the British and Americans reached it. Grozny was a new phenomenon for which there was no doctrine, no known rules. It was an "internal" conflict, within Russia, and therefore nominally the responsibility of the interior ministry. But the capture of a city that was once home to 400,000 people was too big a job for them, even though they had large formations of mechanised troops. The army had to be called in to help. The army did not want to do it, andofficers such as Major General Ivan Babichev said the assault was unconstitutional. That reluctance may explain the extraordinarily poor performance of army units in the early stages of the battle for Grozny.

After the initial disasters, and outcries about casualty figures, the Russian attack on Grozny slowed, advancing slowly behind a curtain of fire throughout January. In Berlin, the infantry advanced quickly and aggressively, co-operating closely with tanks and artillery. Although the procedures were slick, the casualties were still heavy. In Grozny, there appears to have been a massive bombardment, which nothing could survive, behind which the infantry crept unwillingly southward.

In the battle for Berlin, casualties were of no consequence. In the final dash from the river Oder to the centre of the Nazi capital, 100,000 lives were lost. On 16 April, Marshall Zhukov hurled two armies of tanks forward, and within hours there was a huge traffic jam caught in murderous German artillery fire. By the time the Seelow heights were taken, three days later, 30,000 Red Army soldiers were dead.

The story of the dash for Berlin, which began on 6 April 1945, reveals one surprising similarity with the battle for Grozny, which is that units, far from co-operating, found themselves competing against each other. Before the battle for Berlin, Stalin briefed his commanders separately; not, as was more usual, all together. On the maps, the line between Zhukov's 1st Belorussian front (Army Group) and Koniev's 1st Ukrainian stopped about 40 miles east of the city. From there, they would race. Initially, Koniev did better than Zhukov. But right at the last minute, as if he were playing with his senior commanders, Stalin let Zhukov have his prize. On 23 April, Koniev's Front, which had swung up from the south, had its boundary fixed 150 metres west of the Reichstag and the honour of storming the parliament building went to Zhukov. Soviet troops reached the Reichstag on 30 April.

In Grozny it was clear that there was rivalry between different groups, particularly the interior ministry and the army. The hardest fighting fell to the army, under Lt-Gen Rokhlin and Maj Gen Ivan Babichev, but from 25 January the interior ministry general Aleksandr Kulikov took command of the operation. It is not clear whether rivalry emanated from the troops on the ground, whether it was deliberately fostered by the interior ministry and army generals at the main headquarters at Mozdok, or whether it was encouraged at the highest level, as a means of "divide and rule", by Moscow. If the latter, Stalin would have approved.

There is another common thread to these two terrible battles. When things went badly in Grozny, the Russians resorted, as they always have, to overwhelming fire-power. Both Berlin and Grozny shuddered under the terrifying rumble of multiple rocket launchers firing and the whoosh of the rockets. In 1945 they were called katyusha - "little Kate". In 1995 they were called grad ("hail"), uragan ("hurricane") and, the biggest, smert - "death". Civilian survivors of the battle of Grozny showed the symptoms of shock, staring into space, laughing crazily, obsessively cleaning their few remaining possessions while the interior ministry troops swilled beer. It was uncannily reminiscent of one of the more terrifying statistics from Berlin: "Of 130 survivors taken prisoner in the cellars of the air ministry, 17 had gone mad."

The troops, the tactical philosophies, and the effect on the shell- shocked populations were not so different at Berlin and Grozny. But by May 1945, the Red Army was ruled by the two iron rods of military discipline and tight political control, and directed by experienced and talented commanders and staff officers, veterans of the greatest land war in history. The forces which attacked Grozny and are now reimposing Russian control have lost all that. The learning curve begins again.