Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 42

Reports of Russian military losses in Chechnya, though varied and difficult to confirm, indicate the ongoing struggle within Russia’s army to realign its Soviet thinking, doctrine and tactics to deal adequately with terrorism and counter-insurgency. For instance, The Chechen Times on November 4 cited Chechen sources as reporting that rebel fighters had succeeded in killing several Russian troops and injuring up to 17 in various attacks carried out against Russian checkpoints and other attacks using remote controlled landmines. Incidents such as these illustrate the continued threat posed to Russian soldiers by rebel tactics which use landmines and target specific checkpoints using small numbers of gunmen, who attack armored personnel carriers and other infantry vehicles, as well as soldiers on patrols. Such incidents are often unreported within Russian media, allowing ordinary Russians already opposed to the continued conflict in Chechnya to misconstrue the nature of Russian military casualties in the worn-torn republic. The Chechenpress website reported an attack carried out on October 30 that resulted in the death of one Russian soldier and three wounded in what was described as a “special operation” carried out by militants. Such operations and casualties amongst Russian troops serving in Chechnya may in fact be more commonplace than the authorities wish to publicize.

The battle for hearts and minds within the republic is also revealing a picture that the Kremlin would rather conceal from the Russian public. As reported by Interfax on October 20, General Valery Astanin, head of the main mobilization and manning directorate in the Russian Defense Ministry, had to take the unusual step of denying that the autumn draft had been cancelled in Chechnya, underscoring numerous allegations that Russia cannot recruit sufficient levels of Chechens to serve in the army. Astanin went on: “Conscription peculiarities in Chechnya are due to the ongoing anti-terrorist operation on the republic’s territory. The registration of potential draftees in district military commissioners’ offices is not always at a proper level, and there are problems in the functioning of draft and medical boards on the territory of the republic. All these factors naturally affect the recruitment of Chechens for the army and the quality of their training.” Yet by his admission, only ten per cent of young Chechen men due for recruitment into the Russian army are actually drafted, and many of these are reluctant conscripts in the context of the long-running conflict. Indeed, Channel One television on October 24 cited conscription officers in the republic who confirmed the regular use of large-scale raids organized twice a month to find draft-dodgers.

Accurate and reliable casualty figures sustained by Russian military forces operating in Chechnya are known only to the General Staff and the upper echelons of the Defense Ministry. However, despite the claim made by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev in his address to the State Duma in October 2004 that Russian forces succeeded in killing 190 Chechen militants in 2004, there are clear signs of discontent within the Russian Defense Ministry.

While confirming that the 42nd Motor Rifle Division, which constitutes the backbone of the Russian military deployment in Chechnya, will continue to be stationed there “forever,” Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has publicly recognized the long-term futility of continuing to rely upon a military solution alone. As reported by Itar-Tass on November 12, Ivanov commented: “Of course, using only methods of force, we will never resolve the situation. The component of force and civil, economic and social components must run in parallel.” Ivanov stated that the 42nd MRD will be fully professional by January 1, 2005, and holds out hope that the professionalizing of the division will, in itself, bring greater efficiency and raise combat readiness amongst Russian troops in Chechnya. Around 90 percent of the 15,000-man division is currently serving on contract. The number of NCOs has been enhanced and barracks have been constructed that will help in making the transition successful, while also confirming the permanence of the Russian military presence in Chechnya.

The key to understanding the counter-terrorist campaign in Chechnya, which has run concurrent with President Putin’s time in office, is to identify the government-led effort to promulgate an image of progress in the popular media. The Kremlin must demonstrate tangible progress in the conflict, despite it showing no sign of abating. The latest move in military deployments aimed purely at generating more confidence (rather than actual progress) relates to the three battalions of the 76th Airborne Division (Pskov), which has been subject to an experiment in professionalization. Ivanov has confirmed that it will be withdrawn from Chechnya before the end of the year, reducing Russian forces stationed there by around 2,500, in a sign that the Defense Ministry wants to promote an image of normalization. As Interfax reported on November 11, Lieutenant-General Nikolai Staskov, airborne force chief of staff, echoed this line: “I am speaking about the withdrawal of three battalion-size task forces of the airborne force, which have been accomplishing combat and special missions as part of the Defense Ministry’s mountain troops in the south of the republic.” Its justification is based on the assertion that airborne units are no longer required there, since the size and scale of insurgent operations by Chechens has declined from 2002-03, when Russian forces encountered several hundred militants at a time.

Though the Russian authorities have long defined the conflict as a “counter-terrorist” operation, the removal of the 76th Airborne Division marks the transfer from a counter-insurgency phase of hostilities to actual counter-terrorist operations. Thus the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry (MVD) will be placed in charge of more units and overall control of the campaign in the Chechen Republic. Yet the continued and necessary deployment of the 42nd MRD also reveals contradictions at the heart of Russian security policy towards the troubled region. Colonel-General Vladimir Zaritsky, commander of missile and artillery forces, highlighted the prominence of artillery firepower in Russian military tactics and security thinking. “Missile and artillery forces can manage 50-65 per cent of all missions of inflicting attrition on the enemy, and the figure was even 70 per cent during the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya,” Zaritsky said, Interfax reported on November 12. The 42nd MRD, professionalized or not, will continue to figure largely in the estimations of Russia’s troop deployments in Chechnya, while for their part, militants will not distinguish between conscript or contract servicemen in planning and executing future operations.

Thus, Ivanov’s estimation of the security dynamics involved – “using only methods of force, we will never resolve the situation,” he said – seem accurate. Meanwhile, reports of Russian soldiers dying in Chechnya continue to emerge. The Kremlin, however, does its best to minimize these figures in the wider media, while commanders try to relay good news to their political masters regarding the downsizing of rebel formations, both attempting to suggest that the military has succeeded in normalizing the security situation in Chechnya. But the reality is far from clear, as Chechen rebels will continue to employ diverse tactics to inflict injury on the Russian military, thereby exposing the futility of a policy that stakes so much on the issue of manning Russian forces in the region with contract personnel. Young Chechens remain wary of active service in the Russian army while its forces are perceived as occupiers amongst the pro-independence populace. The true figures of Russian casualties in Chechnya will remain unclear as long as this news-managed attempt to promote the image of stability persists.