Headless army in a war going nowhere for missing leaders

Russia's Chechnya campaign gives the inescapable impression that no one is in control
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The Independent Online
"Have a nice journey'' - Schastlivogo Puti - announced the red sign on the flat, open road into Grozny from the west.

For most of last week the road was a vast stretch of ice; none the less, anyone travelling on it drove with the windows open and did not wear a safety belt. This was so that they could hear the approach of an aircraft and could leap out if it decided to use the car for target practice.

Occasionally, Russian helicopters could be heard thrashing overhead - mostly transports escorted by the bristling helicopter gunships Nato calls "Hinds" and the Russians, more aptly, call "Crocodiles".

However, the strangest thing about the western road into Grozny was not the noise of Russian military hardware or the conspicuously incongruous road signs. The single most bizzare thing was the emptiness.

Grozny is supposed to be under siege, but the ring around it is fragmented. To either side, the fields stretch away, empty. Chechen sources said elements of nine Russian army and Interior Ministry divisions are involved in the Grozny operation. But on t h is road you never see the Russian army.

The inescapable feeling is that there is no one in control on the Russian side. And with no one in charge, neither a peaceful end nor a speedy victory is possible.

Could this be the Russian army, heir of the Soviet army that terrified Europe and the US for nearly half a century? Its performance in Chechnya appears to be based on throwing people and technology at the problem and hoping for the best.

This is the biggest deployment of heavy conventional weapons since the Gulf war. The Russians have been using laser-guided bombs, heavy bombs with delayed-action fuses to plough deep into the Presidential Palace and shake its structure. The panoply of hi-tech war is there, but with little planning and no co-ordination.

Last week I met 17 Russian prisoners in a basement in the centre of Grozny, many of them just 18 years old. They were guarded by Chechens who were not only from a rural hunting community, but had served in the Soviet army when it was a more competent organisation. The Chechens almost pitied the conscripts. It seems the Chechens treat them leniently and reserve their traditional, less merciful attitude to Russian prisoners for the so-called elite troops - paratroops, marines and spetsnaz.

Two Russian officers were lucky to survive after their BMP infantry fighting vehicle and an accompanying truck were incinerated by anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades in the village of Samashki, 12 miles west of Grozny, on Wednesday. Captain Sergei Valentinov, 28, and Senior Lieutenant Vladimir Ivakhno, 24, were both wounded by shell fragments, but yesterday were normalno - comfortable - in the hospital at Achkhoy Martan in territory held by Chechen fighters. Seven of their men had been killed.

Rumours of atrocities are rife, but when I saw them on Thursday the Russian officers were being well cared-for, guarded by Chechen fighters. Lieutenant Ivakhno was on a drip and wounded in the groin. He had lost a lot of blood. Captain Valentinov had been wounded in the side and his lung had been penetrated. "My only concern is to get people well again," said Khayauri Esker, the senior doctor. Umulatov Salamu, the chief of administration of the town, asked whom he should notify on the Russian side - General Babichev, the commander of the 76th Airborne Division, who had refused to let tanks drive over local civilians, perhaps? The officers said they "did not know". With forces from three Russian ministries and nine divisions intermingled, they could have been telling the truth.

When the Russians tried to repair their tarnished image by extending a facility to the press, the truck broke down and the soldiers were only too ready to say what was worrying them. Officers could not communicate with the forces under their command, andone of the generals in charge of the operation was seen on Russian television consulting with his staff using what appeared to be old tourist maps of Grozny. The confusion has also hampered the first steps towards a ceasefire, including exchanges of prisoners.

After I had seen the Russian officers in the hospital, the Chechens took me to a place near the village of Bomut, to the south-west, where Russian rockets had killed two women. I examined the rocket fragments with Umar Raisov, who had been a company sergeant-major in Afghanistan from 1981 to 1983. His commanding officer had been Pavel Grachev, now a general and the Russian Defence Minister blamed for the Chechnya fiasco."What was he like - as a regimental officer, I mean?" I said. "At first

I formed a fa- vourable impression. But when he saw action, there were many mistakes. He wanted to do everything here like he did in Af- ghanistan. It won't work here."