WASHINGTON — THE Russian Army's deadly struggle to subdue Chechnya has highlighted leadership, manpower, and equipment problems in the force that are deeper than previously believed, United States officials and military analysts say.
``The military is in worse shape than we thought. We knew it was suffering severe morale problems, funding problems, training problems, and equipment problems. That has been confirmed even more so,'' says Prof. John Lepingwell, a Russian military expert at the University of Illinois.
But the quagmire at the front only partly explains the humiliating losses and mistakes of the Russian force, up to 40,000 strong, which has tried since Dec. 11 to claw its way to the center of the independence-seeking republic's devastated capital, Grozny.
US officials and military analysts also blame President Boris Yeltsin and his defense minister, Pavel Grachev, saying they dismissed the Chechens as easy prey with the same blustery arrogance that led the former Soviet Union into its 10-year Afghanistan disaster.
Mr. Yeltsin and General Grachev ignored the rust in their armed forces and opposition by senior generals to intervention in Chechnya. They also failed to give their military leadership enough time to assemble and train a capable force, analysts contend.
Says a US official: ``It's hard to imagine that there do not exist in Russia up to 150,000 troops who are well taken care of and in fine fighting trim,'' the official says. ``So, conceivably those troops could have been put into Chechnya. But, Chechnya was a seat-of-the-pants operation.''
The Chechnya intervention could not have come at a more critical juncture for the Russian military. Five years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it is in the midst of a difficult, underfunded and confusion-rife transition from conscription to voluntary service. The military still relies on conscription. But the draft now meets only an estimated 20 percent of manpower needs, analysts say. Furthermore, many men who would have sought military careers in the old days are now drawn to better-paying private sector jobs.
The result is a serious manpower shortage that has left some units with only about half their required strength, according to a letter sent to the Russian parliament last year by disgruntled generals. The shortages, US analysts say, account for the deployment in Chechnya of mismatched and under-strength units, which were drawn from all over the Russian Federation at the beginning of the war.
The overall quality of the troops was also poor, many of them conscripts hurled into combat for the first time, the analysts add. They cite a lack of training and problems with the draft itself.
In their letter to parliament, the generals complained that because of the military budget cuts, the Army had been unable to hold division-size training exercises since 1992. The draft has been crippled by massive evasion, while other branches of the federal military are given first choices of available conscripts, leaving the Army ``the dregs,'' says Phil Petersen, a former Pentagon policy planner.
Furthermore, there are few noncommissioned officers and junior officers with any experience, especially in the small units crucial to the house-to-house fighting that convulses Grozny. Morale is suffering due to low pay and other problems - including spare-parts shortages, equipment breakdowns, and a lack of housing for many of the more than 500,000 Russian troops withdrawn from the former East Bloc.
Morale suffers further in Chechnya due to a lack of popular support in Russia for the assault, the absence of a clear political objective, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, analysts say. Some soldiers, including senior officers, refused orders to attack.
Still awaited is the full fallout from the new strains the war has added to existing tensions between Yeltsin, Grachev, and the military. US experts believe a coup is unlikely. Instead, they say that in return for reconciliation, the Army could force Yeltsin to give it a greater slice of his limited budget, thereby threatening new economic turmoil. Beyond that, the generals could work against his reelection in 1996.