Professionalizing The Russian Airborne Forces: Will It Help In Chechnya?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 46

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), already with a powerful say in the shape and planning of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya, has disclosed serious concerns about remarks made by Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev on Al-Jazeera television. The FSB believes that future militant attacks may switch from Chechnya and Dagestan to Moscow, perhaps in the style of the Dubrovka theater (Nord-Ost) hostage taking in October 2002 (Kommersant, July 5).

Yet, despite these fears and the potential for Chechen militants to vary their tactics in pursuit of their political goals, Moscow shows little sign of varying its use of military planning or tactics in its counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya. Reports of Russian military casualties during the current conflict have become part of daily life in the North Caucasus, though declining in public attention in Moscow. Indeed, the Chechen news agency, Kavkazcenter, claimed that around 20 Russian soldiers had been killed in combat on July 4 (Kavkazcenter, July 4).

As the political leadership in Moscow demonstrates a continued inability to diversify its attempts to end the conflict, plans to support combat operations by utilizing recently professionalized airborne troops have become a defining test case not only for improving military performance in Chechnya, but also in the wider and on-going internal struggle on the future personnel system of the Russian armed forces.

In July 2003 some 1,000-contract servicemen from the Cherekhinsky 104th Airborne Regiment, together with 60 pieces of combat hardware, were deployed to the North Caucasus. In 2004, three battalions from the 234th Regiment relieved these troops. This was a risky yet necessary element to assess the early mistakes in forming a professional structure, which could be applied when forming other all-volunteer permanent-readiness units.

By establishing such elite units and deploying them to conflict zones such as Chechnya, the military has indicated its belief that it is possible to correct the notoriously low standards of combat readiness that were so much in evidence in the first Chechen conflict and re-emerged, albeit in a lesser form in the recent conflict. However, payment levels for contract soldiers need to be complemented by adequate social conditions, including housing and other benefits. Professional training and the successful introduction of NCOs to strengthen the junior command elements must underpin an all-volunteer structure.

Volunteers joining the 76th Airborne Division (Pskov), the jewel in the crown and forerunner of all future Russian professional units, were understandably more keen to sign up for service at headquarters rather in the combat units destined for Chechnya. By mid-2003 only the 104th Parachute Guards Regiment had been professionalized. There followed the predictable round of inspections — as many as 17 in one year — designed to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the unit in its ability to perform combat operations as part of the Airborne Troops Operational Group in Chechnya. The inspections concluded that the regiment was capable of conducting its missions in peace and war, but was less than enthusiastic about the standards it observed (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, April 16). Such forces have seen combat action in special operations in Chechnya’s inaccessible mountainous areas, as well as setting up blockades, protecting supplies, performing search and reconnaissance operations, and working closely with the local population in uncovering bases and weapons caches of militants.

More airborne divisions will follow the 76th in professionalizing its personnel system. The 98th Airborne Division has already instituted key changes, paving the way for future success. Lieutenant-General Nikolay Staskov, Airborne Chief of Staff, proposed introducing small numbers of NCOs in each regiment and creating the rank of sergeant-major. The NCOs are tasked with carrying out the role of duty commanders within the battalions, reporting cases of abuse among soldiers directly to the regimental commander. This has resulted in a decline in cases of abuse and desertion. However, as significant as these empirical advances are in practical terms, it will take the mammoth bureaucracy of the Russian MoD to extend the experiment in introducing NCOs throughout other professionalized formations and setting aside sufficient budgetary levels for regimental schools to train more NCOs.

One key lesson that Russia planners have learned thus far is that the whole process takes far more time and commitment than originally foreseen. If there is consistent and stable political backing for the professional experiment in these key formations, Russia could well take a step towards overall success in this area. Most likely, it will have implications for its use of airborne forces in “hotspots,” perhaps enhancing the level of early success in small local conflicts. Yet, in the context of Chechnya, it could have unpredictable repercussions; it may convince some political forces that the security structures alone can stabilize the North Caucasus.