Russian Army Hogtied by Meek Moscow, Gutsy Moms

FROM the lowliest grunt, staying out of trouble by asking local residents to cut the fuel line on his truck, all the way up to a deputy defense minister, the Russian Army appears riven by doubts about its intervention in Chechnya.

Those doubts have made an insurmountable barrier out of simple passive resistance by Chechen civilians, as human roadblocks staged by head-scarved babushkas stem the advance of T-72 tanks.

Two of the three armored columns that were ordered nine days ago to seal off Grozny, the capital of the breakaway region, got no farther than the republic's borders by yesterday evening.

Only the Russian troops that advanced from the north, through territory controlled by pro-Russian Chechens, have neared Grozny or done any fighting.

Yesterday they were still battling Chechen fighters for control of Dolinsk, about 12 miles north of Grozny.

Here on the border with Dagestan, the soldiers ordered in from the east have not moved for a week, after running into resistance from Dagestanis who came to the aid of their neighbors.

At a makeshift checkpoint made of cement blocks, a small detachment of Russian soldiers are tired, hungry, and bored, fed up with a job that so far has consisted almost entirely of checking Chechen refugees for weapons.

Sleeping in canvas tents in the frozen ground and preparing meager rations over primitive camp stoves, they seem resigned.

``We don't want to fight. We are here just because we are carrying out orders,'' said Sgt. Oleg Budinikov, wearing the gray and black uniform of the elite OMON militia. ``But if my commander gave me the order to shoot someone, I wouldn't refuse.''

But so far, his superiors have given no such orders, and Moscow's anxiety to avoid the impression that it is waging a war against the Chechens has made its soldiers' job near impossible.

Troops have been strictly forbidden to fire on anybody unless they are fired at first, which has given unarmed but determined civilians the upper hand.

``There have been situations where peaceful citizens have been able to completely destroy tanks because the soldiers guarding them had orders not to shoot,'' complained Special Forces Comdr. Yura Ryabstov, as he checked a car trunk for weapons.

On the first day of the invasion, Commander Ryabstov's column lost four armored personnel carriers to Dagestani crowds who swarmed the vehicles. Prisoners were later released.

On the western side of Chechnya, Maj. Gen. Ivan Babichev has been relieved of his command of the column that he halted last week when he came up against a wall of grandmothers in the road.

His blunt refusal to go any farther, telling local citizens and reporters that using the Army against civilians was ``unconstitutional,'' was an act of mutiny that has deeply embarrassed Moscow.

But General Babichev's doubts had been publicly voiced before the intervention by Gen. Georgy Kondratyev, a deputy defense minister, who told the official Itar-Tass news agency 12 days agothat ``the Chechen issue cannot be solved by military means ... there is no need to send Russian lads to fall on the battlefield.''

Another senior Army officer, Deputy Minister for Emergency Situations Lt. Gen. Valery Vostrokin, openly criticized the operation yesterday. ``To be the aggressor, a policeman on our own territory, is not a good job for the military,'' he told reporters.

But for many soldiers on the ground, Babichev's attitude is unpardonable. ``When Babishev refused to shoot, we ended up losing a lot of Russian lives because our soldiers kept waiting for tank support that never arrived,'' said Ryabstov. ``He is a military man who did not fulfill his orders.''

As the operation runs into trouble, many troops feel confusion among politicians in Moscow is making their job harder, as President Boris Yeltsin extends deadline after deadline for a surrender by Chechen fighters.

But Mr. Yeltsin's hesitations may have as much to do with the Army's unreadiness as with his own uncertainties. There are nowhere near enough troops in position to attack the Chechen capital yet, and the Army seems unprepared for a bitter house-by-house battle for the city.

On yesterday morning, as a busload of refugees careened past a roadblock here, rifle shots rang out. ``Put on your flak jackets,'' one soldier yelled.

Several men ran toward a tank. But on the other side of the road, a group of young conscripts just shuffled nervously in the cold.

``Who wants to fight? Nobody, we are all terrified,'' said a young man who said his name was Roman. ``If we get orders, though, we will carry them out. We are not doing this of our own free will, after all. We are in the Army.''

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