Russia: December 27, 1999



Russian troops are battling for a group of villages in the hills of southeast Chechnya. The area controls a key route (not a road really, just passes through the hills) from Georgia. The area has long been controlled by the Basayev family. Shamil Basayev was the leader of the Dagestan invasions that started the current Chechen war. His brother, Shirvani, is said to be leading the forces opposing the Russians in defense of Kharachoi and nearby villages. In Grozny, the Russian advance slowed down as the Chechens resisted strenuously. But the Russians have increased their use of artillery and bombing, which even the Chechens are not immune to.

December 27; Russia spent 36 billion rubles (about $1.4 billion) on equipment purchases this year, and plans to increase this to 46 billion rubles next year. This will include 15 billion rubles for research, 27 billion rubles for procurement, and 4 billion rubles for maintenance. --Stephen V Cole

December 27; US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott arrived in Moscow on 21 Dec for key talks on revising the 1972 ABM Treaty to allow the US to build the National Missile Defense System. The Russians greeted Talbot with cool reserve, and released various statements indicating that they were really not interested in changing the treaty, would regard breaking the treaty as very damaging to relations, and feared the US defensive system was inherently destabilizing. There was some good news, however. The recent Russian parliamentary elections gave the pro-government faction unexpected strength, and Prime Minister Putin has hinted that the outgoing Duma might ratify the START II Treaty (signed in 1993) before it leaves office on 18 Jan if it can get the right kind of deal.--Stephen V Cole

December 26; The Russian Way of War: Russia is getting hammered in the global media for the way they are fighting their war in Chechnya. The Russian army has long had a reputation for brutal fighting, characterized by a lot of firepower and a lot of casualties. During World War II. This style was considered heroic, for the Russians were at war with Nazi Germany. But in Afghanistan and Chechnya there was no particularly loathsome foe to make the Russians look better. The Russians appeared as they are when at war, brutal and direct. The Russians have not got much choice, they never did. Frequently caught, usually in terms of training and doctrine, at the start of a war, the Russians have always had to make a come back the hard way. That meant using a lot of firepower, which can be produced in factories (artillery, aircraft and ammunition) and straight ahead attacks with ill trained troops. It worked in World War II, it didn't work in Afghanistan. And in the 1990s the Russians have revised their playbook, something that most of the world has not caught on to yet.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian armed forces have cut their manpower and defense spending some 80 percent. The shape of their armed forces has changed considerably. Gone are the dozens of tanks divisions, thousands of warplanes and hundreds of combat ships. Anything weapons more than 15-20 years old was thrown out, or simply abandoned. The Russian army is now smaller than the Americas (348,000 troops versus 469,000.) Nearly half the Russian armed forces are basically heavily armed police (the Ministry of the Interior troops and Border Guards.) The U.S. equivalent is the Border Patrol and Coast Guard, which are more lightly armed than their Russian equivalents. .The Russians still use conscription, but only about a third of the troops are drafted. Women comprise over ten percent of the troops. The Russians want to eventually have an all volunteer force, but they can't afford the higher cost of an all professional force just yet.

So why all the brutality in Chechnya? Part of it is perception. All wars are brutal, especially when the other side is not wearing uniforms and there are a lot of civilians about. The Chechens are, like the Afghans and Somalis, a warrior society. Most of the adult males own a gun and know how to use it. Loyalties are first to family and clan, and last to a bunch of foreigners who say they have run the place for the last century or so. The Chechens are better fighters, if not always better soldiers, than the Russians. Especially since the 1993-96 war in Chechnya. Russian soldiers have a well founded fear of mixing it up with armed Chechens. Moreover, democracy has taken hold in Russia with some expected side effects. For example, the government cannot keep a war going if it does not have popular opinion behind it. That means the Russian people must see a reason for fighting, and, as American politicians have learned in every war we've been in, as the U.S. body count increases, popular enthusiasm for the war declines. 

So the Russians have adapted. They keep their casualties down by using a lot of shells and bombs. But they use a lot more technology now, to find their targets and keep track of what has to be hit again. But the Chechens prefer to fight (as they have for centuries) from fortified villages. In the past, this worked rather well. Chechen villages tend to be sturdy affairs, with a lot of stonework. Civilians were pretty secure in their basements. But at the end of the 20th century, Russia has a lot of left over Cold War rockets, bombs and shells. And now the Russians have an incentive to use this stuff, and increased ability to use it more effectively. To the Russians, this is fighting "in the American style." Pound the enemy positions to rubble, then send in your infantry to take any survivors prisoner. 

Works great for Russian politicians and infantry, but not so good for Chechen civilians, who are now buried in all that rubble. The Chechen fighters can, and often do, slip away before the Russian infantry shows up. Both sides tend to ignore the suffering of the civilians. It's not that either side is particularly callous, it's just that the Russians can't tell which Chechen is an unarmed civilians until they are up close and getting shot at. The Chechens who are resisting are doing so because they consider fighting the Russians more important than anything else. That's why only a small number of Chechens are fighting the Russians. Most Chechens are, like dozens of similar ethnic minorities in Russia, willing to just put up with the Russians. But in a warrior culture, a relatively small number of determined fighters can force the issue.

The Russians have taken to fighting "in the American style." They are using smart bombs and tightly controlling the media. As far as the Russians are concerned, it's working. And, unlike Vietnam, the Russians are not about to just give up, leave and go home. For home is right next store. After several years of Chechens raiding into Russia, including widespread kidnapping and extortion, the Russians can indulge in another old Russian custom; ignoring foreign criticism. 

December 26; Several thousand Russian troops have entered Grozny. There are only about two thousand Chechen defenders left in the city, but they are resisting as snipers and small, mobile,  groups. The Russians are using their infantry and armor troops to spot Chechen defenders and then call in artillery fire and airpower. The Chechens can often get out of the way before the shells and bombs arrive, but not always. The Russian tactics are slow, but the Chechens have no way to counter them.




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