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,
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.
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 Kremlins 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.
interior ministry troops stand in a tank January 10, 1995 near
Grozny, Russia. Photo © Malcolm Linton
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).
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
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.
Strategy of Bombardment
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.
August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens
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.
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.
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
Soldiers and Their Pay
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.
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.
August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens
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.
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
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."
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
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
Discipline and Corruption
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.
August 2000. Photo © Bruno Stevens
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.
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!"
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.
for the Fight
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.
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."
fact in the 1990s 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
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.
Shortage of Munitions
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.
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.
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.
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
Vicious Cycle of Degradation
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Felgenhauer is an independent Moscow-based defense analyst, and
a columnist for The Moscow Times.