MOSCOW — HUMILIATED by rag-tag groups of Chechen fighters with relatively little armor and no air power, the once-mighty Russian Army has become a military laughingstock.
More than a month into their bungled foray into the rebel republic of Chechnya, Russian soldiers are only now beginning to conquer their target - the Presidential Palace in the capital, Grozny - despite their numerical strength and superior hardware.
While Grozny is now suffering a massive new attack, streets are still choked with burnt-out Russian tanks, and servicemen remain hostage in a bunker beneath the palace (West balks at giving aid to Russia, Page 6).
Russian legislators returning from Grozny say 1,500 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, or roughly one-tenth of the Soviet Army's total losses during its 10-year war in Afghanistan. Official estimates put the losses much lower.
As Kremlin finger-pointing for the debacle heightens, there is a widespread feeling among military experts that the Russians used the wrong tactics in storming the city with tanks without enough infantry support.
Battles in built-up areas largely favor the defenders, even those with primitive weapons, as they are familiar with the terrain and can rely on local sympathies. Chechens know where the cellars and basements are, and how to lead tanks into literal dead-ends. A city such as Grozny - which before the war had a population of 400,000 - is a ready antitank ground.
The Russians ``used the wrong tactics for fighting in a built-up area, for urban warfare, by sending in tanks and armored vehicles unprotected by infantry,'' says one Moscow-based Western military attache. ``They were just complete sitting ducks for Chechens armed with antitank weapons firing from buildings.''
Tanks can rarely back up quickly, and vision is impaired if tank drivers have to shut down. Street battles, especially those on unfamiliar territory, can rapidly swing out of control.
``At every juncture they used the worse variant,'' says Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Moscow-based Strategic Studies Center. ``[Defense Minister Pavel] Grachev used his experience in Afghanistan.... But Grozny is not an Afghan village.''
The failed New Year's Eve offensive proved the catalyst for changing tactics, which has forced the Army to make slow but effective advances. Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev on Wednesday conceded that his forces could not defeat the enemy.
``The military leadership has sharply changed its view of the battle, refusing to storm the city and moving towards the classical `Stalingrad' tactics of street fighting,'' military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the daily newspaper Sevodnya. These new tactics include setting up strong points in tall buildings, using mobile assault groups, snipers, and pinpoint artillery attacks.
The Russian high command has also found it difficult to organize its ground and air forces, which are poorly trained because of a severe lack of funding following the Soviet collapse.
``No army in the world could fight under the conditions created for our army,'' Lt. Gen. Nikolai Tsymbal complained in Tuesday's Izvestia. Morale in this unpopular war has plummeted to an all-time low, and tales of battlefield desertions are common.
It is clear that the Russian military is not now a threat to the West - thanks to poor funding, little training, and difficulties with conscription, leading to heavy reliance on contract volunteers.
``If there is a threat, it is the instability of the country, particularly in border areas, which may draw NATO countries into something they do not wish to be drawn in,'' the attache says.
But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Ivan Skrylnik denies the Army is on its last legs. ``The prestige of serving in the Army has definitely fallen, but that does not mean that the Russian Army has turned into the army of some banana republic.''
The Russians failed to capture Grozny only because they feared an all-out assault on the capital would result in civilian casualties and endanger the Russian hostages, he says. ``If the Army was given the order to capture Grozny in one day and was able to use all the force at its disposal, it would do it just like the Allies destroyed Dresden and other cities in World War II.''
On Wednesday, President Boris Yeltsin proposed splitting the Army's general staff away from the Defense Ministry and making it directly subordinate to himself. The decision was considered a rebuke to Defense Minister Grachev, who boasted before Russian troops were dispatched to Chechnya on Dec. 11 that a single parachute regiment could take Grozny in a single day.