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Chechnya: A Testing Ground For Russia’s Army

December 15, 1994

MOSCOW (AP) _ In these early days of its intervention in Chechnya, the Russian army has displayed low morale, confusion about its role in the breakaway republic and an unwillingness by soldiers to fight against their countrymen.

Combined with the political howl set off in Moscow, experts say the Chechnya incursion could drag the army into a quagmire in which it is unable to attack and unable to withdraw.

An estimated 10,000 to 40,000 Russian soldiers, supported by tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships, moved into the southern republic Sunday and were surrounding the capital Grozny by Thursday.

Already, according to Independent Television, as many as 70 Russian soldiers have been killed.

The Chechnya operation is being mounted at a time when the army is mired in its deepest financial crisis since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Only half of the $12 billion 1994 military budget has been delivered.

Pavel Felgengauer, a military analyst for the newspaper Segodnya, wrote Wednesday that the army was ill-prepared for such a large-scale undertaking. In the event of full-scale war, he predicted, hundreds of soldiers would die because of unpreparedness.

″Because of permanent money shortages, the Russian troops have had no real training for the past two years,″ he said.

Four days into the invasion, soldiers in the field were confused about their exact role and were asking why the Kremlin waited three years to deal with rebel Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

One officer said troops were asking him why they were there.

″The soldiers are coming to me and asking: If Chechnya is part of Russia, who are they trying to conquer? Our own people?″ said the officer who requested anonymity.

Several Russian officers from the Pskov paratroop division resigned this week in protest of the actions in Chechnya, according to another officer.

Since the incursion began, there also have been logistical problems.

The newspaper Segodnya said, ″Military activity in the past couple of days has made it clear that the Russian army does not have enough troops to blockade Grozny.″It said tank movements were bogged down outside the city.

Just as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev used the military in failed attempts to preserve the union, Yeltsin defends the use of force as necessary to hold the Russian Federation together.

But experts say it’s questionable whether today’s conscripts and officers have the stomach to fight a battle that would inevitably involve civilians and ethnic Russians living in Chechnya.

In the August coup of 1991 and the October 1993 storming of the Russian parliament, soldiers were loathe to take on civilian targets, to open fire on fellow countrymen.

Gorbachev, who once sent troops to the Baltics and other independence- seeking Soviet republics, said the Chechnya operation was a blunder. The army should not be put ″in a position where they are dealing with women and old people and children,″ he said in an interview Wednesday.

In Chechnya, some Russians have been taken prisoner when tank crews refused to crash through human roadblocks.

″They looked like Russians, we could not fire,″ said Lt. Col. Vitaly Seryogin, who was shown to reporters Wednesday three days after being captured as his tank approached the Chechen border.

In the Chechen village of Dovidenko, unarmed residents on Tuesday blocked the road to Grozny, the Chechen capital. Russian tanks, faced by 500 villagers, ground to a halt.

Maj. Gen. Ivan Babichev, commander of the tank column, said he decided to stop the advance. ″We don’t want to shoot the people,″ he said.

″Army servicemen are not happy about their involvement,″ the newspaper Izvestia’s military expert, Viktor Litovkin, said. ″This isn’t an operation to defend their land, not an operation with lofty goals.″

The public largely shares that view. A survey of 680 Muscovites this week by the Mnenie polling service found 70 percent of the respondents against intervention in Chechnya, with only 13 percent supporting the action. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.

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