Major weapons systems were seized from the Russian military in 1992, and on the eve of the First Chechen War they included 23 air defense guns, 108 APC/tanks, 24 artillery pieces, 5 MiG-17/15, 2 Mi-8 helicopters, 24 multiple rocket launchers, 17 surface to air missile launchers, 94 L-29 trainer aircraft, 52 L-39 trainer aircraft, 6 An-22 transport aircraft, 5 Tu-134 transport aircraft.
Chechens are the largest ethnic community of the North Caucasus. They account for about 2 million people, approximately 900,000 of whom live in the territory of present-day Chechnya. Russia had successfully colonized Chechnya by the end of the seventeenth century, but animosities between the Russians and Chechens arose in the eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century, although Chechnya remained under Soviet control in the twentieth century. The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to provide an opportunity for Chechen nationalists, who declared independence in November 1991. Dzhokhar Musayevich Dudayev was the leader of the movement for Chechen independence and the first separatist president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The chief goal of the insurgents was the establishment of the independent Muslim state of Ichkeria (Chechnya).
The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to open a window of opportunity for Chechen nationalists, who declared independence on November 1, 1991. Dzhokhar Musayevich Dudayev, the leader of the movement for Chechen independence and the first separatist president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was a child of the Chechen deportation who spent his first thirteen years in Kazakhstan. In 1957, he and his family returned to Chechnya, where he finished night school and qualified as an electrician. To continue his education, Dudayev entered the Tambov Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots, which he finished in 1966. In 1968, Dudayev joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and continued to advance steadily in his military career. In 1987, he received the rank of major general and assumed command of the strategic Soviet air base at Tartu, Estonia. In May 1990, Dudayev retired from his military career and returned to Chechnya, devoting himself to politics and to establishing a sovereign Chechen state. Dudayev’s aggressive nationalist views earned him recognition among other proponents of Chechen independence, placing him at the head of the movement.
Although Dudayev and his supporters were unanimous in their strong anti-Russian sentiments and in their desire for an independent Chechnya, they were much less unified on the role of Islam in the future state. Even though Islam came to the region in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was not widespread in Chechnya until the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. During that period, Islam served as a unifying force among the mountain peoples in their resistance of Russian rule- most notably in 1834, when Imam Shamil was able to unite a part of the North Caucasus region, including Chechnya, in gazavat (a holy war of Muslims against infidels) against the Russian troops. Since that time, Islam has remained an important part of the Chechen culture, and not even Soviet rule could eradicate Muslim beliefs among the Chechens. However, of the many forms of Islam, only its modern Sunni version has been adopted in Chechnya. In addition, many pre-Muslim customs have retained their importance in the Chechen culture. As a result, even though Dudayev and his supporters declared that they sought to establish an independent Muslim state of Chechnya, there was little effort to make everyday life conform to Islamic standards. Furthermore, in his interview with Time magazine, Dudayev stated that, by starting a military campaign against Chechnya, Russia forced Chechens into Islam, even though they were not ready to accept Muslim values (Zarakhovich 1996).
Shortly after the declaration of independence, Dudayev issued a decree creating a new Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic. According to the decree, all military personnel and weaponry located in the territory of the republic were transferred to the direct command of President Dudayev. In May 1992, the Russian Federation agreed to transfer to Dudayev’s command 50 percent of all weaponry remaining in the territory of Chechnya (Kop’ev 1997). However, the Russian Ministry of Defense failed to evacuate the remaining weaponry and military equipment quickly; as a result, by the summer of 1994, the newly formed Chechen military had control of more than 80 percent of all weaponry and equipment located in Chechnya’s territory (Kop’ev, 1997). This included 42 tanks, three MiG-17s, and two MiG-15 jet fighters, more than 250 low-flying aircraft, 139 artillery systems, about 50,000 rifles, and more than 150,000 grenades.
President Dzhokhar Dudayev spent the years from 1991 to 1994 preparing for war, mobilizing men aged 15–55 and seizing Russian weapons depots. The Chechen National Guard counted 10,000 troops in December 1994, rising to 40,000 insurgents by early 1996.
In December 1994, Russian troops embarked on a painful and bloody effort to wrest the city of Grozny, in the breakaway region of Chechnya, from secessionist forces. Despite expectations of easy victory, the city lived up to its name, which in Russian means “terrible” or “menacing.” After taking numerous casualties and nearly destroying the city, the Russians eventually succeeded in capturing it. They then maintained control of Grozny for over a year, overcoming multiple Chechen attacks. But at the end of August 1996 an unexpected Chechen counteroffensive proved successful, and a subsequent negotiated settlement ended the Chechen conflict. Despite that agreement’s commitment to joint rule, Russian forces soon left Grozny and Chechnya.
But this conflict had deep roots and it was far from over. Russians have fought to control the northern Caucasus region for centuries, battling the ancestors of those who live there now. The prize, then as now, was forested mountainous terrain that gives its defenders many advantages. Victory, when attained, has always been fleeting and costly. Moreover, throughout the centuries, each return of Russian forces fanned the flames of local hatred for Moscow’s rule, spurring renewed rebellion. With this history in mind, it should come as no surprise that having left in August 1996, Russian soldiers returned to Grozny in December 1999 to once again battle Chechen rebels in the city’s streets.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE CHECHEN WARS
This latest bout of fighting in Chechnya and its cities, towns, and villages has important implications for understanding and forecasting the future of war-and for U. S. military thinking and planning. However decrepit, undermanned, and undertrained the Russian military may be, it is the successor to the Soviet Army, and in some ways still the same force. For many years, Soviet military preparation, like that of the United States, focused almost exclusively on war in central Europe against a highly skilled, technologically advanced adversary. In Chechnya, Russia found many of these skills and capabilities to be incommensurate with fighting a comparatively lowtechnology enemy, especially in an urban environment where it repeatedly failed to anticipate the extent and capacity of enemy resistance. This is an important lesson, and not just for the Russians. The enemies that U. S. forces will face in the future are far more likely to resemble the Chechen rebels than the Russian Army, and the battlefield will very likely look more like Grozny than central Europe.
It is quite plausible that the Russian dictat to bypass defended cities was not a result of careful consideration but rather the only course available to a force that had stopped preparing for urban combat years before. Had the Russians believed Grozny to be well defended, then, they would almost certainly not have entered the city in 1994. Indeed, Russian commanders instructed their subordinates not to expect a fight. Minister of Defense General Pavel Grachev probably expected minimal resistance-if not the experience of Prague in 1968, chastened dependents frightened into a stand-down by a show of force, then something only marginally more difficult. Instead, the Chechens were ready and willing to defend Grozny, and the Russians found themselves in a fight they did not want, expect, or prepare for. This was less a fault of strategic concepts, however, than an egregious failure to conduct necessary intelligence and reconnaissance in advance and to recognize the lessons of Chechen loyalists’ unsuccessful efforts to recapture the city in preceding months.
General Grachev personally briefed the plan for the capture of Grozny. It consisted of three stages: Stage I would begin on November 29, 1994 and be over by December 6 (eight days). Over the course of this week, forces would prepare and secure locations from which operations would later be conducted while forward aviation and attack helicopters attained air superiority and other units prepared for electronic warfare. Three days, December 7-9, were allocated for Stage II, during which Russian troops would approach Grozny from five directions and effect a double encirclement-of the city and of the republic as a whole-all the while protecting communications and carrying out reconnaissance. The next four days, December 10- 14, would comprise Stage III: the actual assault on Grozny. Forces would move from the north and south of the city to capture the Presidential Palace and other key government buildings, television and radio facilities, and other significant sites.
Grachev’s ambitious timetable began slipping early. Although the Russian air force had little trouble eliminating Chechnya’s 266 aircraft in late November, the mass of Russian troops did not begin to move until December 11. As they maneuvered through the North Caucasus, they met unexpected opposition from the local population. This slowed them down and forced revision of Grachev’s schedule, for the troops were not in place around Grozny until December 26. Even then, and in fact throughout the campaign, the city stayed relatively porous, especially in the south. The planned “seal” never materialized. General-Colonel Leontiy Shevtsov claimed that this was done on purpose, to enable the evacuation of refugees. Whether or not this was true, the open approaches also enabled Chechen resistance fighters to move in and out of the city and ensure their forces’ supply and reinforcement. Russia itself was a primary source of both rebel forces and supplies, which generally traveled to Chechnya by way of the Ingush Republic.
Grachev’s plan and timetable reflect expectations of limited resistance. Poor intelligence and faulty planning were to blame. Preparation was sloppy, with reconnaissance limited to passive reports of what could be easily observed. Maps were inadequate and of the wrong scale. Intelligence gathering did not begin in earnest until after military operations were under way. Furthermore, ground force commanders were loath to utilize their own resources for this mission, relying instead on air power. This, in turn, was hampered by poor weather conditions. But even in perfect weather, air assets are a suboptimal reconnaissance tool over an urban battlefield, where enemy preparations can take place out of sight, e. g., within buildings. Planning also largely disregarded the experience of loyalist Chechen forces (which included some Russian troops) that had attempted assaults on Grozny in August, October, and November of 1994. If that experience had been studied, the Russian command would have been aware of the dangers that faced tank columns in Grozny. Only a few weeks before, in November, loyalist Chechen tank formations were surrounded and destroyed by RPG-armed rebels in the city.
It was in part because of these failures of reconnaissance and planning that the Russian troops who entered Grozny thought their mission involved nothing more than a show of force. Three armored columns in herringbone formations were to move toward the city center from their camps in the outskirts in the north, east, and west. Then, with the assistance of special forces from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and FSB, they were to capture key buildings and seal off the central part of the city and the Katayama region. Forces moving from the north and northeast were responsible for taking control of the northern part of the city center and the Presidential Palace. The western force was to capture the railway station and then, moving north, seal off the palace from the south. To prevent enemy military operations in the south and to preclude enemy resupply, it was also to seal off the Zavod and Katayama regions. At the same time, forces from the east were to move along the rail line and capture the bridges over the Sunzha River. They would then link up with the northern and western forces and thus completely isolate the center of the city. This coordinated action was expected to effectively surround and isolate Chechen leader Djohar Dudaev’s forces, assumed to be concentrated in the city center.
Grozny: Plan of Attack, December 1994
All might have gone as planned if Russian expectations had proved correct. But instead of light resistance from a few small bands, the 6,000-man Russian force that attempted to penetrate the city on New Year’s Eve found itself fighting an enemy far better prepared for battle and much larger than expected (estimates vary widely, from a low of about 1,000 to a high of ten times that amount). Moreover, the Chechens enjoyed the advantages of defense in an urban environment, while the Russians were faced with the far more difficult offensive task. Within the first hours of battle, Russian units were trapped in the streets, their armored vehicles destroyed by enemy troops shooting from upper and lower stories of buildings that main tank guns could not effectively engage. As had happened fifty years before in Berlin, entire tank columns were effectively paralyzed by the immobilization of the lead and trail vehicles. Russian infantry troops unwittingly collaborated in their destruction by remaining within their APCs, mistakenly believing they were safer inside the armored vehicles than out. Russian soldiers fell by the hundreds.
IN GROZNY: CHECHEN STRATEGY AND TACTICS
The Russians’ lack of advance planning placed them in stark contrast to their adversary. According to Russian sources, Chechens had been preparing for the battle of Grozny for at least 3-4 months before Russian troops entered the city. During this time they developed war plans, divided up zones of responsibility, trained their militia, and set up effective communications. In fact, they were putting into practice all the things that Soviet analysts had identified as key lessons of World War II. Russian press descriptions of the rebel force as a set of loose groupings of bandits were inaccurate. The rebels were well-trained and drilled, many of them veterans of the Soviet military who had apparently retained more of their training than had many of their Russian counterparts. As fighting continued, the rebel force would prove itself an effective military organization, albeit one with a less hierarchical structure than typically found in state armies. Furthermore, the rebel soldiers knew their city well, and their relatively light weapons (automatic rifles, grenades, and portable anti-tank weapons) tremendously enhanced the mobility that was central to their tactics. Closely set buildings and a network of underground passages enabled them to change position unseen by the Russians. (There is some uncertainty as to whether or not the sewage tunnel system was used. Russian sources insist that it was; some Chechen sources argue otherwise.) In addition to small arms, the rebel arsenal included truck-mounted multibarrel Grad rocket launchers, a handful of T-72 and T-62 tanks, BTR-70s, some selfpropelled assault guns as well as anti-tank cannon, and some portable anti-aircraft missiles (difficult-to-credit reports suggest that these included U. S.-manufactured Stingers). Ammunition included shaped charges. While there were reports that Chechens improvised chlorine gas weapons from industrial chemicals, these are difficult to confirm. It is clear that the bulk of the weaponry at the rebels’ disposal had been left in Chechnya or sold by departing Russian troops in 1992. Some items had even been officially transferred to Chechen forces by the Russian army. Of those Chechen militia members who were not veterans of the Soviet/Russian armed forces, a good number may have trained abroad, for instance in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, or Turkey.
According to Russian sources, the Chechens were not concentrated entirely in the center of the city as the Russian forces had thought. Rather, they were distributed over three separate circles of defense. The inner circle was formed at a radius of 1-1.5 kilometers around the Presidential Palace. Its task was to use the buildings around the palace to mount a defense. The lower and upper floors of these buildings were modified to enable rifle and anti-tank weapon fire. Along the roads leading into the city center, positions were established to support direct artillery and tank fire. The center circle extended outward an additional kilometer in the northwest, and up to 5 kilometers to the southwest and southeast. These forces created strongpoints on bridges over the river, along relevant streets, and in the Minutka Square region. They were also prepared to blow up the chemical factory and oil industry infrastructure in the city. Finally, the outer circle followed the perimeter of the city and included populated points on its outskirts.
It should be noted that the above description of Chechen defenses reflects a Russian perspective, and many Chechen sources underplay the degree of advance preparation, the scope of defenses, and their own numbers. They argue, somewhat incongruously, both that the Russians were in even worse shape than they appeared and that the resistance was able to overcome great numerical and technological odds not so much through planning and tactics as through ideological righteousness and tenacity. Regardless of the exact degree of Chechen defensive planning, there is no doubt that the rebels were better prepared than the Russians expected.
Reportedly, the Chechen resistance had managed to obtain the Russian attack plans, granting them a significant advantage. They also had access to Russian communications, which in the early days of conflict were transmitted in the clear, in large part because the forces operating the equipment were not familiar with the necessary procedures for secure communications. While one should view with skepticism reports of Chechen use of cellular telephones, given the absence of a cellular network in the region at the time, the rebels did possess Russian radios as well as hand-held Motorola radios, and were thus well equipped to both communicate with each other and overhear Russian transmissions. Furthermore, they were able to transmit disinformation over Russian radio channels to draw Russian forces into harm’s way. Rebel gunmen also hampered Russian communications by targeting personnel carrying radios, thus successfully eliminating a large number of radio telephone operators. For their own communications, hand-held Motorola and Nokia radios were sufficient, and simply speaking in their native language was enough to keep communications secure given the dearth of Chechenspeaking Russians. The Chechens’ security was also enhanced by careful control of information, which was disseminated strictly on a need-to-know basis.
Russian and Chechen sources agree that nonstandard squads were the basis of the rebel force. Such a squad might include two men with RPG-7 or Mukha (RPG-18) shoulder-fired anti-tank grenade launchers, two with machine guns, and possibly a sniper. Alternatively, it could comprise one man with a machine gun, one with an RPG, and possibly a sniper, backed up by one or more riflemen, automatic riflemen, ammunition bearers, and/or medics/corpsmen. Approximately three such squads, with support, made up a larger 25- man cell. The support included one or more medics/corpsmen, three ammunition/supply personnel, three litter bearers, and two SVD-armed snipers. Three 25-man groups made up a 75-man unit. Each of the latter was also allocated one mortar crew.
This structure contributed significantly to the effectiveness of resistance ambushes. The rebels divided the city into quadrants (the city’s managers and planners had been involved in developing its defense). Within those quadrants, 75-man units deployed along parallel streets with the snipers in covering positions. One 25-man subgroup, which included the unit command, deployed in smaller, six- or seven-man formations in the lower stories of buildings along one side of a street (to avoid crossfire and to establish escape routes).
The other two 25-man teams deployed similarly in basements and lower stories at the point of entry to the ambush site. From there they could seal off the area and reinforce their compatriots, as needed. In some cases, they also mined the buildings at the point of entry. As Russian forces approached, the entry-point teams notified the rest of the unit by Motorola radio-one for each six- or seven-man formation. Then, the command gave the order to seal the street and the attack began.
Rather than “flanking” Russian forces in the traditional sense of the term, the guerrillas looked for weak points to attack. “Hugging” the Russian forces as they moved, the rebels were able to set up firing positions from 50 to 250 meters away and remain safe from artillery and rocket strikes. Positions in the basements kept the rebels safe from Russian tank guns, the turrets of which were unable to depress their tubes sufficiently. Inexperienced Russian gunners were confused by simultaneous attacks by multiple Chechen teams. Not only did they not know where to shoot, with so many targets, but many of them were unable to target and fire while the vehicle was moving. Moreover, the rebels had reinforced the basements and subbasements from which they fought, turning them into bunkers. Vaulted and sloped add-on roofs reduced the effects of Russian RPO-A Shmel flamethrower and other systems.
Thus, as the Russians entered an ambush, resistance snipers and machine gunners could eliminate supporting infantry while antitank forces took out the armored vehicles. Chechen familiarity with Russian equipment was a key advantage as they successfully targeted the fuel cells and engines of armored vehicles, effecting kills with a minimum of rounds (an average of 3-6 lethal hits to destroy each tank). Their odds may have been improved by modifications to the RPG-7 that increased its explosive capacity and thus its ability to penetrate tank armor. Knowing to avoid the reactive armor at the front of many of the Russian tanks (which a number of the T-72s and T-80s went into battle without), the rebels focused their fire on the top, rear, and sides. They also knew how to attack vulnerable APCs such as the BMP-1. In addition to RPG rounds, gasoline and jellied fuel were reportedly dropped onto the Russian vehicles and ignited. The Russians helped the matter along by remaining in tank columns, which, as already noted, could be trapped by immobilizing the first and last vehicles. Rebels in position within buildings along the street could then destroy the column methodically with their RPGs. The use of multiple teams helped overcome the problems presented by the RPG’s signature backblast and the time required between shots.
Chechen snipers, whether operating alone or as part of an ambush group, nightly terrified Russian soldiers, who dubbed them “ghosts.” They were no less deadly in daylight. A common sniper ploy was to shoot individual soldiers in the legs. When others tried to help the wounded soldiers, they too came under fire. But snipers were not alone in employing “dirty tricks” against the Russians. Resistance fighters booby-trapped the bodies of dead Russian soldiers and the entryways to buildings, the latter with strings of grenades and TNT. (It should be noted that some Chechen sources claim they made no use of booby-traps or mines within buildings because they feared the possibility of friendly casualties.) Chechen fighters sometimes disguised themselves as Red Cross workers, donning the identifying armbands. They also passed themselves off as civilians and offered to guide Russian forces through the city, instead leading them into ambushes.
Mobility also contributed to rebel successes. Mortar crews remained on the move almost constantly. Having fired three or four rounds, they would quickly drive away from the area to preclude effective counterbattery fire. Troops armed with anti-tank rocket launchers reportedly traveled through the city in automobiles with the roofs and backseats removed, perhaps to provide more room for men and equipment. In addition to heavy machine guns, the Chechens had some number of portable SA-7s and SA-14s for use against Russian air assets. In mountain towns, although not in Grozny, anti-air guns such as the ZPU-2 and ZPU-4 were mounted on truck beds. This weaponry was reportedly reasonably successful at bringing down Russian helicopters despite countermeasures (chaff and flares) that decreased SA-7 effectiveness.
The Chechens also took steps to influence public opinion. The large number of journalists in the area had virtually unlimited access to Grozny, as Moscow made little effort to constrain their movements. The rebels were very open to press interest, granting interviews and generally making themselves available to domestic and foreign journalists. But they were also not averse to more creative approaches. For instance, the few tanks the rebels had were dug into multistory buildings in the center of the city. When the Chechens fired from these positions, Russian return fire inevitably hit civilian housing, schools, hospitals, and day care centers. When the cameras recorded and sent these images home, the Russians looked especially heartless, and the Chechens appeared even more the victims.