A blundering Russian army ignores history

CHECHNYA QUAGMIRE: Christopher Bellamy analyses the military errors; To ny Barber in Moscow counts the economic cost
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The Independent Online
The Russian assault on Grozny has revealed basic military errors of which the tactical incompetence shown on Sunday night is but the latest. Russian tanks stumbled into a series of ambushes by Chechen hit squads who used much the same tactics as t he Finns used against Russian armour in 1939-40.

"Separate the infantry from the tanks" is the standard rule: groups of Chechens, typically thirty-strong, roamed the streets with hand-held anti-tank weapons, cornering individual tanks and armoured personnel carriers, apparently lost in the fog, and destroying them. A more basic error by junior Russian commanders would be hard to imagine.

In the past two weeks the Russian armed forces have not only ignored their own 1993 military doctrine, but also the lessons of their own military history at every level, from the faulty deployment of tanks and other armoured vehicles in the suburbs of Grozny on Sunday, through to errors of command and control right up to the absence of an effective high-level commander. They have ignored well-documented lessons from the original conquest of the Caucasus 150 years ago, through to Afghanistan and the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish Winter War when Soviet tank divisions, strung out along roads, were incinerated with petrol bombs. Intelligence experts find such apparently wilful disregard of well-known principles of warfare staggering in a country which has investedso much intellectual capital in its study over the past century.

Senior US politicians last week expressed concern that the operation to capture Grozny and unseat the regime of General Dzhokhar Dudayev was "out of control". By any standards, it is a mess. The command arrangements are a shambles, with control being exercised tenuously from Moscow without a visible commander in the area - because no Russian general worth his salt would touch the operations, itself a measure of the breakdown of discipline since about 1990.

Basic principles of organisation and the lessons of history may have become casualties of a power struggle within the military and, more widely, between different organs of government. Command was apparently offered to General Ivan Vorobev, a deputy defence minister and a much published military writer and intellectual - most recently, the author of Russia's new manual on peace-keeping. Gen Vorobev's approach to "peace-keeping" came as a shock even to Americans involved in a recent exercise in the Urals, as it involved a good deal of aggression. But he nevertheless turned Chechnya down, probably believing, correctly, that it would be a disaster. It was illegal - using the armed forces against people inside Russia - and the command and control arrangements presaged disaster. He probably disagreed with Moscow's assessment of the situation - a short, sharp victorious war, no doubt.

Other senior officers considered for command included Colonel-General Valeriy Mironov, Deputy Defence Minister for Personnel, who has four years' experience of Afghanistan, but he, too, appears to have been unwilling. The commander of the principal army formation involved, the 19th Motor-Rifle Division, Major General Ivan Babichev, refused to drive his tanks over civilians for the same reasons. Last week it was unclear whether he had been replaced.

Russia's formidable General Staff, steeped in the lessons now being ignored, appears to have been sidelined. Meanwhile, a hotchpotch of locally based troops from the Russian armed forces, reinforced by a Marine brigade from the Far East, plus Interior Ministry troops, border and counter-intelligence troops - the former KGB - and Cossack units loyal to the Minister of the Interior, Nikolai Yegorov, who comes from Krasnodar, in the Kuban, blunder forward. Insofar as there is any senior commander on the spot, it is Colonel-General Mityukhin, Commander of the North Caucasus Military District, but he appears to be by-passed by orders emanating from Moscow.

All this ignores Russia's military doctrine which says that prevention and termination of internal conflict within the Russian Federation is the responsibility of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There are about 100,000 of its troops throughout Russia, independent of the armed forces - which include the army and the air forces and whose job is to repel foreign attack. It is the Interior Ministry troops who will "localise and isolate" areas of conflict, the doctrine says. Independent formations from thearmed forces will be attached to them as necessary. That makes sense from a military point of view as the Interior Ministry forces have a higher proportion of old-fashioned infantry than the more hi-tech army, and they are allowed to fire at Russian Federation civilians whereas, as Gen Babichev pointed out, the army cannot.

Because such operations are the official preserve of the Interior Ministry forces, the Soviet and Russian armed forces never developed a doctrine for them, or the necessary training.