Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 24

Since the official Kremlin line insists that Russia’s military operations are succeeding in the pacification of Chechnya, it is difficult for Russia’s generals to discuss candidly in public the precise reasons why their operations are in fact failing. The June 20 issue of Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie (Independent Military Review), a weekly military affairs supplement to the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya gazeta, includes an article by Mikhail Khodarenok which is obviously based on detailed conversations with counter-insurgency specialists within the Russian army and which provides a rare glimpse into their thinking. Much of the material is self-serving, or obsolete in light of the very latest events, and should therefore be used with caution. It nevertheless sheds considerable light on the purely military side of the Chechen conflict, at least as seen by the Russian camp. Khodarenok’s article clearly reflects the opinions and the interests of the mainstream armed forces under the Defense Ministry–including the GRU military intelligence agency–rather than those of the Interior Ministry, which has heavily armed units of its own in Chechnya and with which the Defense Ministry has a longstanding bureaucratic rivalry.

Khodarenok begins with what he calls a “paradox”: Despite an unending and indeed intensifying wave of mine explosions and other guerrilla operations by the secessionist rebels, “there are practically no large scale missions left for the [federal] armed forces to carry out within Chechnya.” His sources tell him that the largest rebel units have either been destroyed or have dispersed into smaller, “indestructible” groups which find it easy to conceal themselves in the southern highlands. Typically such a group contains fifteen to twenty guerrillas. (One should note that a more recent statement from the Russian military described bombing raids in the southern highlands against what was said to be a concentration of some 500 rebels.) In the view of Khodarenok’s sources, these small groups are generally not the ones now planting bombs and mounting raids in Chechnya’s large cities and northern plains. Rather, these actions are being carried out by “legalized” rebels disguised as civilians: “The illegal groups have in their possession ample supplies of the documents needed for this.” (The implication, not directly stated by Khodarenok, is that these “legalized” rebels include members of the ostensibly pro-Moscow Chechen police.)

Khodarenok’s sources claim that it is the “spetsnaz” (special forces) commandos–of the GRU, of the paratroop forces and of the interior troops–that are now carrying the heaviest burden of the war on the rebel groups in the highlands. The most successful of these, according to the specialists whom he has consulted, are the GRU commandos, whose training and equipment are “clearly” superior. Their share of the overall campaign has now sharply increased.

One reason for this, writes Khodarenok, is that conventional military forces are simply disproportionate in size for today’s typical mission. It makes no sense to send battalion-sized or regimental-sized units of motorized infantry with artillery support into the heavily forested hills in search of two or three guerrillas who have been sniping at a federal base. It is also ineffective: The large scale units are under constant observation by the rebels, and it is impossible for them to move without being detected.

Also, when the federal forces move out to conduct a “zachistka” security sweep, they have to travel by roads “which have long since been mined.” The Chechen populace is itself constantly using such roads–but the rebels have learned to detonate the mines by remote control when the federal convoys are passing over them. In practice, it is thus impossible for conventional military units to use the roads “without thorough, careful engineering reconnaissance.” But “the rate of such reconnaissance, at best, is one kilometer per hour: The engineers and the mine detecting dogs cannot work any faster.” Moreover, a “zachistka” requires the advance setting up of temporary “checkpoints,” the presence of which then shows the rebels precisely where the security sweep will take place. So “if one operates in complete obedience to the instructions developed by the northern Caucasus military okrug, then all persons who are suspicious from the standpoint of ‘checking passports’ will long since have run off into the woods and hills by the time the federal forces arrive.”

In short, the conventional military generally finds itself unable to use its considerable strength and instead spends its time protecting itself, bringing up supplies and manning “checkpoints.” Nevertheless, “according to the general opinion of the specialists” (or at least of those specialists whom Khodarenok has consulted), a strong contingent of the conventional armed forces should continue to be present in Chechnya “as a pledge of future stability.” It is clear from his commentary that the Defense Ministry is lobbying against civilian proposals for a sharp reduction in the number of troops in the republic.

Khodarenok goes on to observe that a “fundamental problem” for all the federal forces is the lack of “precise intelligence information” about rebels guerrilla units. Often the federal forces remain idle simply because they do not know where to strike. One of the reasons for this shortage of intelligence data is that the rebel leaders have become more cautious about revealing their positions to electronic eavesdropping. They have almost entirely stopped using radios or mobile telephones to direct their troops, relying instead on written orders or videocassettes delivered by trusted couriers. For sensitive missions they depend on guerrillas who have proven their loyalty by years of service–these are often relatives. Thus, it is extremely difficult to infiltrate their inner circles.

Another problem is the constant leakage of sensitive information from the federal side to the rebels. One channel for such leaks, according to Khodarenok’s sources, is “rebel espionage agents working within Chechnya’s [i.e., the Kadyrov administration’s] newly created organs of internal affairs.” Another is “the ordinary Russian enlisted man who by simple naivete reveals what his unit plans to be doing in the near future as he gossips in the local bazaar while buying a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer.” The “seemingly innocuous and soft-hearted” Chechen women who work in the bazaars are adept at picking up such information, which they then quickly transmit to the rebel government’s espionage organs. In short (though Khodarenok does not state it quite so baldly), the federal forces’ specialists rate the rebels’ espionage networks as being more effective than their own.

One counter-measure to such leaks is disinformation: The planting of misleading rumors by Russian servicemen who have been well trained and specially briefed for this purpose. Khodarenok’s sources insist that this is highly skilled, delicate work which the federal forces are currently not doing nearly well enough. They recommend the creation of “a single command for counter-terrorist operations…with strict vertical subordination.” (Though Khodarenok does not say so, this recommendation has clear political overtones–directed both against the Kadyrov administration and against the Defense Ministry’s rivals in the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service, or FSB.) Another purported advantage of a single command is that it would shorten the federal forces’ excessively long “reaction time”–the delay between receiving information and acting on it. The persistence of this problem means that the federal side often finds itself attacking places that the rebels have already left.

The federal forces may indeed now be moving toward tighter unity of command, but if so it is not in the form favored by Khodarenok’s sources in the Defense Ministry. At least on paper, the lead in the Chechen conflict is now supposedly being taken by the Interior Ministry. This is part of the Putin administration’s pretense that it is no longer fighting a real “war” in Chechnya, merely a police operation against scattered outlaws. On June 29 the deputy interior minister, Aleksandr Chekalin, told journalists that from July 1 onward his ministry would be taking responsibility for “operations to preserve law and order” in Chechnya.

Another problem, according to Khodarenok’s sources, is that the federal forces have too few modern, all-weather helicopters for redeploying troops quickly without using the mine-infested roads. “Lately the quality of the helicopters has only grown worse, and the helicopters are diluted among the various armed services.” In fact, many veteran officers complain that their espionage and reconnaissance technology in general is obsolete and needs to be modernized. (Again, these statements are clearly self-serving–but that does not necessarily make them false.) Veterans also bemoan the lack of “smart bombs” and other high-tech weapons capable of extremely precise targeting. (Against such statements should be set the bloody carpet-bombing of Grozny in both 1995 and 1999, when the federal air force made no attempt to concentrate on military targets even to the extent allowed by low-tech weaponry. )

Yet another problem is that tours of duty for military officers in Chechnya are simply too short, typically just six months. Strikingly, the typical tour of duty for an FSB officer is even less–only three months. Key personnel are constantly rotating, with the result that too many officers either have just arrived and are still getting oriented, or are just about to leave and are already thinking mostly about staying alive. It is unsettling that Khodarenok offers as a positive model the czarist General Aleksei Yermolov. He commanded the Russian Empire’s forces in the Caucasus with undiluted authority and without interruption from 1817 to 1826–and is still remembered by Chechens with loathing for his policies of deliberate cruelty.