Russia's armed forces, facing an avalanche of criticism for failing to defend the southern frontier of the Federation against yesterday's Chechen incursion, were given a near-impossible task, say military experts.
The rebels reached Kizlyar, deep in what should be secure Russian territory. There were suggestions the Russians let them in deliberately to justify a renewed offensive against the Chechens. But a former British Army officer who was in the area last month said the Russians were so badly organised and equipped they did not stand a chance of stopping the Chechens slipping across the vast and frozen expanses of the plains south of Grozny and north into Dagestan.
Colonel Charles Blandy said: "Given the quality of personnel the Russians have there I don't think they had a chance. They have an appalling standard of training."
After 13 months, during which the Russians flattened the Chechen capital, Grozny, 200 to 400 Chechen rebels have managed to trick or fight their way between 50 and 100 miles from their hide-outs across the border into neighbouring Dagestan and north to Kizlyar, taking up to 3,000 people hostage. The raiding party is said to be part of a group called Lone Wolf, founded last year by Salman Raduyev, son-in-law of the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who is in hiding in the Caucasus.
President Boris Yeltsin yesterday vented his anger on the Russian Border Guards, who are responsible for defending international borders and who are also deployed on the borders of the unstable republics within the Russian Federation.
Russian security sources were at a loss to explain how a significant force of Chechen rebels moved so far, past what Mr Yeltsin said were "thousands" of Russian Army troops and Border Guards, who should have had modern surveillance technology, and to reach the River Terek, which was reported to be under Chechen fire.
During the fighting in Grozny a year ago the Russians obliterated resistance in the city and pushed south towards the icy barrier of the Caucasus mountains. But the rebels held out in what has long been recognised as some of the most perfect country for guerrilla warfare.
Before the recent fighting Chechnya's population was about 1 million. An estimated 90 per cent of the surviving males of military age bear arms, giving the Chechens up to 150,000 men. Women and children are reported to be sheltering in the mountains but the men still control the villages south of Grozny and the road to Gudermes. The Chechen war effort is still being directed by Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of staff,who masterminded the defence of Grozny.
Last week a new hardline Russian commander, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, was appointed. Yesterday he told Russian radio: "I don't negotiate with bandit chiefs of staff", a reference to Mr Maskhadov. His predecessor, Lieutenant-General Anatoly Romanov, who had reached an understanding with Mr Maskhadov, was injured in a bomb attack in October; he is still in hospital in Moscow.Reuse content