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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 / February 21, 1995



GROZNY, RUSSIA

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.

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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.

``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.