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April 18, 2003

The armed conflict in Chechnya that began in September 1999 is well into its fourth year. Despite repeated pledges by the authorities in Moscow that they would do their best to improve the human rights situation and stop the constant abuse of civilians by members of the federal military and security forces, the atrocities continue, apparently unabated.

As far as is known, no high-ranking Russian officer has been meaningfully punished for allowing or participating in the abuse of civilians or the mistreatment of separatist combatants who have been taken prisoner. In December 2002 the most publicized case of a Russian officer to face charges over conduct in Chechnya - the prosecution of the tank regiment commander Colonel Yuri Budanov, accused of strangling an 18-year old Chechen girl in 2000 - ended with the defendant acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity. Following an international outcry, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the verdict in February 2003 and has ordered a retrial.

Budanov’s initial acquittal by a military court seemed like a signal to Russian commanding officers and security service officials that killing Chechen civilians was acceptable and that no one would be seriously punished, no matter what they did. At the same time, it is clear that continued massive mistreatment of the Chechen population is undermining the Kremlin’s policy of trying to pacify the rebellious republic. Virtually all outside observers, including many influential members of the military and political elite in Moscow, agree that the continuing abuse of civilians by the military and security forces is the main source of support for the rebel movement – helping it to recruit more young men and women to fight for the cause to revenge dead relatives.

Russian interior ministry troops stand in a tank January 10, 1995 near Grozny, Russia. Photo © Malcolm Linton

A Promise Unfulfilled

In October 1999, when Russian troops invaded Chechnya to crush the separatist rebellion, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (who has been president since 2000) told the nation that this time it would be done properly: the enemy would be defeated, casualties would be low, the war would be short, and it would be the Chechens themselves, not the Russians, who would be fighting the rebels - chasing them out of villages. It actually seemed at times that Richard Nixon was back, talking of the "Vietnamization of the war" (the notion that the Vietnamese would fight Vietnamese, while the U.S. soldiers would go home).

Instead of attacking with infantry and tanks, the Russian army, in an attempt to reduce its own casualties, used heavy equipment and firepower to lay waste to the Chechen capital Grozny and many other towns and villages. The loss of life, mostly civilian, and the damage to property was terrific -- today most towns are still in ruin. In many instances Russian troops committed appalling war crimes, deliberately attacking the civilian population in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. There is credible evidence of use of the so-called Heavy Flamethrowing System (TOS-1) - a fuel bomb land-based multiple launch delivery system, also known as "Buratino" among the Russian rank and file - against Chechen towns and villages during the winter campaign of 2000. The third protocol of the 1980 Geneva Convention strictly forbids the use of such "air-delivered incendiary weapons" in populated areas, even against military targets.

After the fiasco of the first Chechen war, the Russian Defense Ministry created "permanent readiness" army brigades and divisions that were intended to be almost fully manned and ready for deployment to deal with local conflicts. But the basic quality of the Russian troops did not change dramatically. It turned out that "permanent readiness" units could not be moved to the front as full-strength brigades and divisions. In combat in Chechnya in 1999-2003 Russian military staffs were forced to use combined "operational groupings" instead of a traditional system of divisions, regiments, brigades and battalions. Combined tactical groups were formed, often built around battalions with strong reinforcements, especially of artillery.

A Strategy of Bombardment

As the campaign has progressed, it has become obvious that the Russian forces in Chechnya do not have any good infantry units capable of swiftly engaging Chechen fighters at their weakest moment without massive air and heavy artillery support. Instead of seizing the initiative to exploit sudden opportunities, Russian field unit commanders tend to plough ahead with the execution of battle plans approved in advance by their superiors.

Grozny, August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens

To compensate for the low quality of their fighting units in Chechnya, Russian military chiefs have adopted a strategy that tries to copy NATO's policy in the Balkans in 1999: bomb till victory and win without heavy casualties.

This strategy of victory by bombardment has inevitably lead to massive war crimes. In attacks on Chechen towns and villages Russian forces have not only extensively used TOS-1 (Buratino), napalm and fuel air bombs, but also "Tochka" and "Tochka-U" ballistic missiles that can fly up to 120 km and cover up to 7 hectares with cluster shrapnel on impact. The use of such mass-destruction weapons as aerosol (fuel) munitions and ballistic missiles against civilian targets was undoubtedly authorized by Moscow and may implicate the President Putin personally, as well as his top military chiefs, in war crimes.

However, the indiscriminate attacks did not make the second Chechen war a "low casualty" engagement even for Russian forces. Unofficial estimates put Russian military losses in both Chechen conflicts (1994-1996 and 1999-2003) as high as 12,000 dead and some 100,000 wounded. Chechen losses (mostly civilian) are estimated at 100,000 or more.

Contract Soldiers and Their Pay

High casualties and the need to replace conscripts who had completed compulsory military service forced the Russian Defense Ministry to begin in the spring of 2000 a massive campaign to recruit volunteers - the so-called “kontraktniki”. soldiers in Chechnya involved in combat missions were promised high pay by Russian standards (800 rubles or approximately $28 per day). Many kontraktniki enlisted, but the process of screening volunteers for Chechnya was superficial and they were sent into combat without any further selection or training. Many of these volunteers have been drunks, bums and other fallouts of Russian society.

In 1999 Putin announced that soldiers fighting "terrorists" in the Caucasus would be paid as well as Russian peacekeepers in ex-Yugoslavia - up to $1000 a month. Most likely the Kremlin actually believed that the war would be short and victorious and that the bill for extra pay would be limited. But as the campaign dragged on, the extra pay bill increased to 2-3 billion rubles a month and the Russian Finance Ministry became nervous, as such expenditures were not envisaged in the budget.

Grozny, August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens

From June 1, 2000, the Finance Ministry began to strictly limit the disbursement of funds to cover “combat pay” in Chechnya. In October 2000, a limit of approximately 800 million rubles a month was imposed for all extra combat pay for all of Russia's multiple armies involved in the Chechen campaign. This has led to growing arrears and protests.

The problem of the extra combat pay was also aggravated by rampant corruption in the ranks of the Russian military. Instructions were issued that not all soldiers were eligible to get combat pay, but only those who were involved in combat and only for the time they were actually fighting. Commanders were given authority to issue or withhold extra pay on whim - a situation that created unique opportunities to steal soldiers pay and has led to constant money scandals within fighting units.

In 2000 Russian volunteer kontraktniki started protesting in the streets of Rostov-on-Don near the headquarters of the Northern Caucasus Military District (NCMD), which is in charge of operations in Chechnya, demanding to be paid. Protests have also spread to the war zone: Russian soldiers told government TV channel RTR reporters in October 2000: "All we think about is getting food and smokes. We're supposed to be on full allowances and pay here, but we get nothing at all. We're not even issued uniforms."

The Russian kontraktniki serving in Chechnya are in many instances not military professionals, but badly trained mercenaries – contract killers, not contract servicemen. Typically, they enlist for 6 months to grab pay and leave. But there are many reports coming from the North Caucasus that indicate that these kontraktniki are not getting the money they believe they are owed, and this is further diminishing morale.

There were independent reports that in November and December 2002, several Russian kontraktniki units in Chechnya went "on strike" over pay - refusing to obey orders and staging noisy street demonstrations in Grozny. During sweep operations (searching Chechen towns and villages for alleged rebels) the kontraktniki have pillaged and raped the population - believing they are just taking what they are due, what the Russian government promised them but did not pay in time.

Poor Discipline and Corruption

In July 2000 a series of spectacular Chechen suicide truck bomb attacks left more than 100 Russian servicemen dead or wounded. Days after the attacks Putin publicly scolded military commanders including the Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and the Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo for negligence. "Many of the losses could have been avoided in Chechnya with better discipline, professionalism and responsibility," said Putin.

Grozny, August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens

Putin's assessment seems to be accurate: Russian soldiers and their commanders in Chechnya are undisciplined, unprofessional and irresponsible. Putin should have also added: rampantly corrupt. As their chiefs steal big, Russian soldiers and officers also do their best to make some money on the side. A regular racket of kidnapping Chechens as "terrorist suspects" for ransom has been established by Russian military personnel, who also collect bribes from anyone passing a checkpoint, take part in illegal extraction and export of oil in Chechnya and so on.

In July 2000 Russian government TV showed footage of the arrest of a Chechen pusher who was selling heroin to Russian soldiers in exchange for weapons and ammunition in the premises of the main Russian military base and high command headquarters in Chechnya, in Hankala, east of Grozny. While Russian officers were apprehending him, the Chechen pusher began to yell: "I'll pay you $1000! I swear!"

There have been reports of Russian servicemen in Chechnya as high-ranking as colonel being involved in sales of arms and ammunition to the rebels. In May 2002 an explosion of a Russian-made antipersonnel mine in the Dagestani town of Kaspiysk killed and wounded some 200 soldiers and civilian bystanders during a military parade. Several Russian officers from the garrison of the nearby Dagestani town of Buynaksk were accused of selling the radio-controlled MON-90 mine that was used in the attack in Kaspiysk and were put on trial in January 2003. There have been also numerous reports that Russia security forces arrest scores of Chechens as "suspected terrorists" only to release them later for a bribe – sometimes as small as $300 and sometimes as big as $2000.

Unequipped for the Fight

It is obvious that Russia entered Chechnya in 1999 without a capable, professional army – and also without the kind of modern military equipment that is most needed to fight low-intensity anti-guerrilla wars. For ten years the Russian Defense Ministry has been talking of creating a corps of professional sergeants that would form the backbone of a professional army and also talking of the need to buy modern conventional weapons – but it has been just talk.

The Russian forces in Chechnya have no radar-equipped attack planes or helicopters, capable of providing close air support in fog or at night. In the first week of March 2000, a company of paratroopers (84 men) from the 76th Russian Airborne Division based in Pskov was wiped out by Chechen rebels in the mountains of southern Chechnya. The Russian high command announced that this military disaster happened "because fog did not allow the deployment of attack aircraft."

In fact in the 1990’s the Russian arms industry had developed prototypes of night/fog-capable attack aircraft. But the Russian Defense Ministry deliberately channeled funds to buy ballistic missiles. Now that the war in Chechnya has fully exposed Russian military deficiencies, attempts are being made to reverse the situation. First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Manilov told me in February 2000 that modified Mi-24N (Hind) attack helicopters with radar had been ordered by the Russian Defense Ministry. He also told me that the Russian military hoped that several Mi-24Ns would be fully operational in several months. Nevertheless as of February 2003 there are still no night-capable attack helicopters deployed in Chechnya and no one knows when any will be ready for combat.

It was also announced that in 2000 the Russian Defense ministry acquired its first three modernized Su-25 attack jets equipped with radar for close air support in fog or at night. But up to now there has been no indication of the deployment of such planes in the North Caucasus region. Until battle-ready night/fog-capable close air support units are deployed in the Caucasus, Russian forces in "liberated" Chechnya will either have to stay put at night and in bad weather, or risk being ambushed by rebels.

A Shortage of Munitions

Indeed the first and second wars in Chechnya have been wars without any serious procurement of heavy military equipment or munitions. The Russian Defense Ministry has been dipping deeper and deeper into Soviet Cold War stocks that have become increasingly depleted. In October 1999, at the beginning of the invasion of Chechnya, Russia was able to deploy in the war zone only 68 transport and attack helicopters – a quarter of the number amassed for the war in Afghanistan, though the number of Russian servicemen sent to Afghanistan and the second Chechen war were roughly the same.

Between August 1999 and January 2003, Russian forces lost up to 50 helicopters in Chechnya. The attrition rate has been appalling and especially painful for the Russian military, because there was no additional procurement during this period. Spare parts to repair aging planes that are often riddled by enemy small arms fire are a serious problem. Its reported that helicopter fans for Mi-24 are especially in short supply. Replacements for lost helicopters in Chechnya are being sent to the NCMD from other Russian military districts, while injured planes are dismantled for spares. The Russian troops in Chechnya have lost the capability to perform large-scale tactical air-mobile operations. Even company-size helicopter airborne landings in Chechnya seem to be out of reach as the Russian army's airlift capability diminishes further and further.

The Russian troops in Chechnya have made extensive use of heavy artillery fire to suppress the rebels and this has severely depleted munitions stockpiles, as there has been no serial production of heavy shells in Russia for a decade. In the 1994-1996 Chechen war officers complained that they were using shells produced in the 1980s. In the present conflict shells produced in the 1970s and 1960s were supplied to the front. In December 1999 the Russian government reportedly released 8 billion rubles ($285 million) to buy new heavy shells. But the Russian defense industry has not managed to resume serial production of such munitions.

Reports from Chechnya say that Russian troops are running out of ammunition for their most used heavy gun - the 122mm D-30 howitzer. One of the remedies being considered in the General Staff in Moscow is to bring out of strategic storage the pre-Second World War M-30 122mm howitzer for which there are millions of rounds, kept since the 1940s.

A Vicious Cycle of Degradation

It’s often said that wars speed up military-technological progress. In the North Caucasus the opposite is happening - the Russian army is degrading both morally and technically. Bad training, badly organized logistical support, and constant marauding by the troops have brought low discipline. soldiers, constantly high on drugs or vodka, fail to maintain their equipment and misuse it. Outdated military equipment constantly breaks down, even when properly managed. Outdated munitions misfire, killing and maiming troops, which reduces morale still further.

Today the Russian troops in Chechnya are trapped in a vicious cycle of degradation. The process has become so obvious that the Kremlin, despite its constant barrage of "victory over terrorists" propaganda, was forced to acknowledge the problem and announce a serious review of its operations in Chechnya.

Moscow has pledged to withdraw troops from Chechnya, while the local pro-Moscow militia will be expanded. In the end, the Kremlin insists that only permanent garrison units of the 42nd Defense Ministry Motor-Rifle Division and the 46th Interior Ministry Motor-Rifle Brigade will stay in Chechnya (approximately 22,000 men), supplemented by local pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Ministry forces. But the withdrawal has been constantly postponed and is at present on hold.

The problem is further complicated by the poor quality of Russian troops, especially the newly formed 42nd Motor-Rifle Division. This unit was planed by the Kremlin to be a first-rate reinforced 4 regimental division of 16,000 men, manned mostly by professional contract soldiers and armed with the most modern conventional military equipment.

In reality this division is one of the worst in the present Russian army. To form the 42nd Motor-Rifle officers were gathered from all over Russia and, predictably, many commanders used the occasion to get rid of outcasts that they wanted out anyway. In 1995-1996 the Russian Defense Ministry also formed a "permanent deployment" brigade in Chechnya - the 205th Motor-Rifle based in Hankala. Throughout the NCMD the 205th brigade was known as "always drunk" 205th. In the battle for Grozny in August 1996 the 205th brigade was defeated and decimated by the Chechen rebels. Its remnants were withdrawn later to Budenovsk in the Stavropol region where the unruly kontraktniki of the 205th created havoc, assaulting the local Russian population.

The worst cases of contract soldiers not being paid during the present Chechen campaign are reported from the 42nd division. It was also reported that in the mountains of Chechnya the soldiers of the hapless 42nd division actually eat bark, to stop diarrhea caused by drinking contaminated water, because they do not have any other medicine. The water purification equipment has broken down and their is no replacement, overall sanitation is appalling, medical supplies have been commandeered by the top brass, and it is felt that officers do not care about the men.

Such a "permanent garrison" will hardly be able to control Chechnya on its own anytime soon. Other Russian units will have to stay to reinforce them, so the announced "partial" withdrawal of troops will be very partial indeed. It would be equally unreasonable to expect that there will be any significant improvement in the overall situation of the military in Chechnya at any time in the foreseeable future.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent Moscow-based defense analyst, and a columnist for The Moscow Times.

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