Green, Drunk, Corrupt: Russia's Troops Stumble

For foot soldiers and generals alike, Chechens are only part of the battle

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LED by incompetent generals, staffed by sometimes-rebellious officers, and relying on poorly trained conscripts, the Russian Army has shown itself during the past two brutal months in Chechnya to be badly organized, poorly disciplined, and unprepared for combat.

Dozens of Russian officers and men fighting the Chechnya campaign, and Chechen fighters and civilians, interviewed during a two-week tour of the battle zone, told of a clumsily executed operation that has caused thousands of needless casualties.

From Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev - widely rumored among his officers to have been drunk when he ordered the Army's disastrous assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny on New Year's Eve - to the lowliest soldier routinely robbing Chechen travelers at checkpoints, the Russian armed forces have covered themselves in ignominy.

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``It must be admitted that the present-day armed forces are insufficiently prepared for participation in the resolution of local conflicts,'' President Boris Yeltsin said, mincing his words in his state-of-the-nation address last week.

A retired major general, Vladimir Dudnik, was more blunt. ``The Army that our country has at present is incapable of successfully waging modern warfare,'' he wrote in a recent article for the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. ``We have learned no lessons from the 1956 events in Budapest, nor from our defeat in Afghanistan. The Army needs large-scale and radical reform.''

General Grachev seems unlikely to be given the chance to oversee that reform, however. Never highly esteemed either by his fellow officers or the general public, his reputation is now at its nadir, and Moscow newspapers are openly speculating on the identity of his successor.

Although Grachev has blamed his subordinates for the bungled attack on Grozny on New Year's Eve - which cost more than 1,000 Russian soldiers according to survivors - his officers accuse him of grossly foolish planning.

Hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers trundled into the Chechen capital in parade-ground columns that night, with soldiers packed inside the vehicles. Apparently expecting little resistance, the troops made no attempt to support the columns on foot.

``The Chechens just took out the first vehicle in the column, and the last, and the rest were trapped in between,'' said one Russian officer, who asked not to be identified. ``Then it was like a shooting gallery.''

``It was a slaughter,'' a medical officer said simply.

Plunder reigns

Grachev is also mired in a scandal far from the Chechen battlefield, fighting off accusations that he profited illicitly from a Russian Defense Ministry bank account in Germany.

Should Grachev fall, the name of the new defense minister would be more important to Mr. Yeltsin's future than the state of the Army itself. In his showdown with parliament in October 1993, Yeltsin called only on some units of the Dzerzhinsky Division of the Interior Ministry and four tanks to shell the White House. What mattered was not the combat readiness of the entire Army, but that it should stay out of the conflict.

The bank-account charges are only the latest in a string of allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the armed forces. They have been given added force by the way in which corruption has burst into the open in Chechnya, where looting and robbery by soldiers are endemic.

``The Russian Army is busy not so much with fighting [rebel Chechen President Dzhokhar] Dudayev, but with plunder,'' charged Lecha Saligov, minister of information in the puppet Chechen government that Moscow has installed.

In the officers' mess at one regiment of Interior Ministry troops, charged with restoring law and order to Grozny, one officer had no qualms about storing the refrigerator he had looted. A soldier from the same unit filmed his comrades on patrol with a stolen video camera.

Mogammed Suleimanov, whom Russian troops detained at a checkpoint near the village of Assinovskaya in early February, was one of dozens of Chechens throughout the republic who told tales of Russian looting.

``I was held in a truck in a field for three days,'' he recalled. ``While I was there, officers made me load valuable things they had taken from Assinovskaya into trucks to be taken away.''

And when such trucks passed Interior Ministry checkpoints, their Army drivers brooked no interference. On the contrary, Interior Ministry soldiers at one such post recounted how Army troops had fired threateningly over their heads when they tried to search a truck they believed was carrying stolen goods from Grozny.

Not that the Interior troops appear to be behaving very much better. Almost every Chechen man who has driven through a checkpoint has a story to tell of how he has been robbed by soldiers who have the power to detain anyone suspicious.

Soldiers at checkpoints are often drunk by nightfall, adding an extra hazard to any journey in Chechnya. Or they are simply undisciplined: Having pressed a handful of bullets on me as a gift, one checkpoint guard was disappointed that I turned down his offer to let me try shooting his AK-47 rifle into the darkness.

Chechen fighters say they have turned this lack of discipline to their advantage, often buying ammunition and weapons directly from Russian soldiers for the price of a few bottles of vodka.

Guns are not all Russian soldiers have tried to sell to Chechens, according to Musa Alisultanov, a pro-Dudayev fighter in southeastern Grozny. ``Sometimes we have bought back the corpses of dead fighters from the Russians,'' he said. ``They charge anything from 700,000 rubles [$175] to 1.5 million [$375].

``One lieutenant came close to our lines with a white flag three days in a row, shouting that he would sell us three bodies for 4.5 million rubles,'' Mr. Alisultanov recalled. ``He was always drunk, always insulting us, and he kept raising his price. In the end, we shot him.''

When it comes to fighting, none of the conscript troops were prepared for the sort of combat they were thrown into in Grozny, officers concede.

``Only now, after several weeks of fighting, do we know what it's about,'' said Sgt. Sergei Bokhanov, a 19-year-old marine who was involved in some of the heaviest combat in the center of the city. ``It wasn't that I was frightened, I just didn't understand; it was new and strange.''

On top of the novelty, many soldiers labored under a lack of training. Some tank drivers, for example, had not used their vehicles for nearly a year before the war began because their units lacked money for fuel, according to one senior Army officer.

And even with training, professional standards in the Russian Army leave much to be desired.

Only 9 percent of the young men who should have been drafted into Russia's conscript Army last fall actually joined, according to Gen. Vladimir Semyonov, commander in chief of the Army. And those 9 percent were the dregs, the only ones who found no way to avoid the draft.

Even in the elite paratroop units, their commander, Gen. Yev-geny Podkolzin, said yesterday that ``Five years ago we selected for these troops excellent boys - today we accept whatever we are given.''

But some of the Army's plight in Chechnya is due to the Chechens themselves, who are heavily armed and well-organized. They have been preparing for this war for three years, since the separatist Chechen leader Dudayev declared the republic independent in 1991.

Other regions would be unlikely to seek out such a war with the Russians. The people of neighboring Ingushetia, for example, do not want the war to spill over into their territory - although they have a close-up view of Russian military flaws.

Harsh school of experience

And as the war has dragged on, the soldiers' fighting skills have increased, say their officers. ``This is altogether a different Army from the one that went into Chechnya,'' said one senior officer. ``The troops are getting better at fighting this kind of war, and they feel more confident.''

But he conceded that ``there is still a danger of a long conflict outside Grozny, where Dudayev's forces are strong.

``The Chechens are fighting in shifts,'' he said. ``It's just like going to work for them, with days on and days off. Our rear is military; Dudayev's rear is the whole country.''

So far, apart from the gruesome debacle over the New Year's weekend, the Russian Army has kept its casualties down by subjecting Chechens to massive aerial and artillery bombardment before sending infantry.

But Russian helicopters have been flying about 15 dead and more than 100 wounded soldiers out of Grozny on a normal day's fighting, say airport officials.

If efforts to negotiate a political settlement break down, and the war goes on, Russian officers fear their casualties will mount dramatically as the Army seeks to subdue Chechen villages and advances into the countryside.

``Now, in winter, we can see for a long way,'' said a Special Forces lieutenant colonel in Grozny who gave his name only as Alexander Sergeyevich. ``But when spring comes, the trees will be in leaf, there will be bushes, and there will be plenty of opportunities for guerrillas to hide. Then we'll have problems.''

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