Mon, 24 Jan 2000

Chechen war shows withering state of military

By Jim Mannion

WASHINGTON (AFP): The war in Chechnya has shown the depths to which the Russian military has deteriorated since the heyday of Soviet power in the Cold War, military analysts here said.

"It strains belief that such a formidable force could have eroded so precipitously," says Andrew Krepinevich, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis.

While NATO used precision bombing, stealth, and leap-ahead information technologies to defeat Yugoslavia in 11 weeks last year, Russia is using World War II-style bombardments in what promises to be a protracted war against "ragtag" Chechen forces, he notes.

"So in a sense Americans have moved on to 21st century warfare, whereas the Russians seem to have regressed to mid-20th century warfare," he said.

However, Russia has learned some lessons from its botched 1994-1996 war against the Chechens, Krepinevich and other analysts say.

"This time they have not underestimated the magnitude of the problem the Chechens pose to them," he said. "There is not the attitude they can win quickly or cheaply."

Gennady Chufrin, a specialist with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the main lesson learned by the Russians has been to use their superior air power and firepower to keep their own casualties to a minimum.

"This strategy is working quite well," he said.

The Russians also advanced on Grozny more cautiously this time, taking territory a bit at a time and carefully securing their positions against Chechen raids before venturing forward, says William Odom, a retired three star U.S. army general.

"That operation has brought them to outskirts of Grozny," he said. "But what do you do when you get to Grozny? Will it still work?"

Reports from the scene indicate the Russian military is meeting stiff resistance in the city, and is taking higher casualties in the cramped and dangerous urban terrain where Chechen guerrillas have the home field advantage.

This new phase of the campaign will test the Russians severely because fighting in urban terrain requires detailed coordination and special techniques and tactics not taught in run-of-the-mill training for open country warfare, said Odom.

Not that Russia lacks experience. It gained more expertise fighting in cities than any other country in World War II, notes the general, a former director of the supersecret National Security Agency.

"But training is expensive and it takes time. I doubt very seriously they've done it," he said. "So they're trying to improvise tactics for fighting in cities. Meanwhile, the Chechens are proving no less skilled this time."

"The way I see things, right now you have kind of a stalemate," he said. "It gets down to who has the staying power. Will the Chechens run out of water, ammunition, will they starve to death? Will the Russian army find itself trapped politically?"

"The cost in lives in lives and resources are going to be pretty high. They've also proved to be higher than (President Vladimir) Putin or (Defense Minister) Marshall (Igor) Sergeyev imagined," he said.

Chufrin says the Russians are under no illusions about the hard road ahead.

"The Russian military is prepared to fight in Chechnya for another several months and maybe even a couple of years," he told AFP in Stockholm.

So far, it has shown it can move from a distance to Chechnya, and keep them supplied with food, ammunition and fuel, Odom said.

But to put together a capable force in Chechnya, units had to be drawn from across the Russian military, which means they had little time to develop the cohesiveness that enables soldiers to function under the extreme pressures of combat.

"That is indicative of the high level of deterioration of the Russian military," he said.

Reports of Russian soldiers selling weapons to Chechens also point to serious morale and control problems within tactical units, he said.

Comparing the Chechen war to the Russian experience in Afghanistan, Odom said, "You've got the same thing in spades."

"Corruption, people selling weapons, soldiers poorly trained, officers involved in careerism, a really hardened population that knows how to shoot and handle weapons and likes to fight," he said.

As in Afghanistan, he said, the Russian government is "denying they're taking the casualties they're taking, lying to their public about it, which causes rumors to fly back home when bodies come back."