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Russia: Self-Deception Underlie Recent Chechen Debacles

  • Sophie Lambroschini

High Russian officials have pronounced that the war in Chechnya is now all but over. But in the past 10 days, Chechen ambushes have cost Moscow at least 100 lives and decimated two elite commandos units. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini talked with Russian analysts who believe their government and military commanders' own self-deception about the war's realities help explain the recent debacles.

Moscow, 9 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- During the past several weeks, both Russian acting President Vladimir Putin and its military commanders have said that large-scale operations in Chechnya are over. According to them, the Russian military controlled all of the republic's territory except the southern mountains, and its task was now to hunt down isolated groups of Chechen separatist fighters hiding out in those mountains. But two bloody ambushes of Russian soldiers by the rebels in recent days belie official claims that the war in the Chechen flatlands is really over.

A week ago (Mar. 2), an unguarded column of about 100 OMON elite Interior Ministry troops lost at least 20 men in an ambush while driving through a suburb of Grozny that had been officially deemed safe. And earlier last week (Feb. 29), in a far bloodier incident, a Russian paratrooper detachment was taken by surprise by what was officially described as 2,500 Chechen fighters. That ambush near the village of Ulus-Kert, in Chechnya's southern lowlands, cost the lives of 86 paratroopers.

As is their wont, Russian officials initially issued reports underestimating the casualties. The independent Russian military news agency (AVN) was the first to report that almost all of the paratroopers ambushed had died in the Ulus-Kert battle, information later confirmed by a Russian official.

Yury Gladkevich is head of the Chechen department at AVN. He explained to RFE/RL his view of why the Russians were suffering so many casualties:

"By trying to deceive the public, and I don't know whether sincerely trying to deceive the Russian authorities, they [that is, the military] actually deceived themselves. They relaxed [their defenses]."

Gladkevich pointed out that once victory was announced in the so-called "freed territories" of Chechnya, the Interior Ministry troops switched over to a peace-time regimen. That's why, he says, so many OMON men died in the ambush in Grozny last week:

"They said that they were moving as if in a Russian-controlled territory -- without being accompanied [by armored vehicles], without checking and clearing the route beforehand. It was just an ordinary column. That's how they got caught. And many [soldiers] get caught that way."

Gladkevich also says that the Chechens proved that they are not the decimated, isolated groups Russian authorities claim and were still capable of efficiently fighting back:

"The [Chechen] 'bandit' formations that escaped are still under control [of their leaders] and as a rule are able to organize a pretty good resistance. Yes, they're blocked in several districts. But as the battles near Ulus-Kert already showed, the head of the [rebel] formations are capable of concentrating fighters in a precise place and seek to break through [the Russian] blockade. This is what happened in Ulus-Kert [and elsewhere]"

Another military specialist, Andrei Nikolayev -- who is a former chief of the Russian border guards -- also says that Russian official self-deception is one of the reasons for the two recent ambushes. In an interview with the weekly "Moskovskye Novasti," Nikolayev says that one of the Russian government and military's chief mistakes is insisting on considering the war in Chechnya as an anti-terrorist operation, in which Interior Ministry elite troops play a large role. In reality, he says, Russian forces are facing not small isolated terrorist groups, but organized fighters. And, he adds, Interior Ministry troops are not trained in large-scale battle tactics.

Nikolayev says that Russia's regular infantry troops themselves are not combat-ready. That explains, he believes, why paratroopers and marines were sent to Chechnya -- even though they too, he says, were not properly prepared for the kind of warfare they experienced.