Incident at Muc Wa

But the Russians won, after all!

(lessons from the Chechen wars)

by Daniel Ford (long essay, fall 2007)

When I wrote about Chechenya earlier in the term, I was persuaded by the jest that, when it came to occupying Grozny, ‘Moscow was stepping on the same old rake, only to be hit in the forehead again’.[1] Though federal forces finally took the city in February 2000, I attributed the Russians’ victory to the four-months’ bombardment that reduced Grozny to rubble, killed perhaps 5,000 civilians, and sent 230,000 into exile.[2] It seems, however, that they did much more than increase their firepower. They really did learn from their earlier misadventures in Chechnya, though most of their remedies were not such as would be readily employed by a western army.

Fleshing out the regiments. Though it had inherited more than a million soldiers from the Red Army, the Ministry of Defence could deploy only about 30,000 soldiers for its first Chechen campaign (supplemented by troops from the Interior Ministry and other quasi-military agencies). ‘Russia needed to mobilize all of its strategic reserves to sustain the fighting in Chechnya.’[3] This was a consequence of its decision to hollow out regiments as their soldiers and officers quit the service, because it was cheaper to maintain it on paper than to disband it. (There was probably also a desire to maintain the structure of the vaunted Red Army.) Mobilizing for Chechnya in 1994, each half-strength regiment had to bring in fresh conscripts or men from sister units; as soon as it reached 1,500 men, it was sent on its way without ever having trained as a unit.[4]

Between the wars, an effort was made to reduce the number of paper units and to maintain the best as ‘permanently ready forces’, fully equipped and kept at 80 percent of their nominal wartime strength. As a result, the Army was able to send 60,000 troops to Chechnya in the fall of 1999.[5] Though still untrained in urban combat, many had learned how to fight in the mountains at a division-level school in Siberia.[6]

Developing a professional force. The soldiers who stormed Grozny in 1994 were mostly green conscripts with only two or three months’ service; some had never fired a weapon. Between the wars, the ministries of Defence and Interior both stepped up efforts to develop a more highly paid corps of ‘contract soldiers’. Though volunteers, they weren’t professional soldiers by western standards: ‘the scum of the earth’, one veteran said of them. ‘They stole everything they could lay their hands on, even in battle’.[7] Michael Orr agreed with this assessment: ‘The typical Russian kontraktnik is closer to the popular image of a mercenary, in his Rambo-like appearance, lack of discipline and tendency to maraud and plunder at every opportunity’. From 7 percent of troop strength at the beginning of the second campaign, the kontraktniki supposedly accounted for 40 percent by April 2000.[8]

Altogether, the shift to a professional military was still a work in progress at the time of the second Chechen war. Russian conscription remained ‘one of Europe’s worst human-rights scandals’, with more conscripts dying each year from murder, suicide, and accident than the US Army loses in Iraq.[9] As for the kontraktniki, fewer than 20 percent reenlisted, due to low wages and lack of recreational facilities.[10] Perhaps the army’s most serious personnel flaw was the lack of a professional corps of non-commissioned officers, obliging lieutenants to perform duties that in any other army would fall to a sergeant.[11]

Cooperation between forces. Russia had more than a dozen armed forces at the time of the first Chechen war. The composite force was fraught with ‘rivalries between the different branches of the armed services, … mutual distrust and failure to coordinate operations’. Overall command shifted back and forth between the Defence and Interior ministries, until a  ‘Temporary Joint Forces’ command was improvised in January 1995; even then, some units continued to take orders from their own Moscow headquarters. During the climactic battle for Grozny, each of the three major ministries—Army, Interior, and Security—had a headquarters in Mozdok on Chechnya’s northwest frontier.[12] In combat, the fractured command lines led to multiple instances of fratricide, which may have accounted for 60 percent of Russian military deaths in the first Chechen war.[13] ‘In one particularly egregious case, [a] Ministry of Interior regiment fought a 6-hour battle with an army regiment’[14]

Between the wars, the Army took the lead in forming Joint Force Groupings, four of which were employed in the second Chechen campaign, each with an Army general in command. To improve cooperation, an effort was made to choose commanders who knew and liked one another: ‘Lacking an effective joint doctrine the Russians have had to rely on such links to make their command system work’.[15] Different forces were given discrete objectives where possible: a naval infantry battalion might encircle a village, while Interior troops entered and cleared it. At the same time, the Army showed a new readiness to take on duties that in the earlier war it would have left to the Interior troops, such as guarding facilities, securing lines of communication, and checking civilian identities.[16]

Because the Army had closed its sniper schools in 1952, marksmen from the Interior forces, Border Guards, and Security services helped train Army snipers. Throughout, the Russians paid more attention to the capabilities of troops—e.g., recognizing that Interior soldiers weren’t suited to high-intensity combat or for calling in air and artillery support.[17]

A Vision So Noble

Time and patience. ‘And yet, my dear boy,’ said General Kutuzov to Prince Andrei, ‘there’s nothing stronger than those two warriors, patience and time’.[18] The Russians who went into Chechnya in 1994 took a rather different view: their motto was Davai! Davai!’—‘Crack on! Crack on!’[19] When they attacked Grozny on New Year’s Eve, their blockade was limited to the north and west, allowing the Chechens to reinforce, to resupply, and eventually to withdraw their fighters.[20]

The Russians knew better by 1999. A preliminary sweep through Dagestan was followed by an operational pause, while they built their troop strength to 90,000 men (two-thirds Army) and held training exercises at every command level, from Joint Force Grouping down to five-man storm teams, with special emphasis on coordinating Army and Interior units. The training day lasted 10-12 hours, including nightime. Troops were taught how to deal with ambushes, mines, snipers, and obstacles, and such Chechen tactics as attacking from the rear.[21]

Then, when they finally advanced on Grozny, the Russians settled into a four-month siege and bombardment before attempting to enter the city.

Honoring the ‘God of War’. The 1994-95 assault on Grozny was repulsed ‘with shockingly high losses’, and two more months, 13,650 casualties, and a massive artillery bombardment were needed to capture the city.[22] In the second round, the Russians went straight to the bombardment, both air and artillery, albeit at a huge cost to the civilian population and to the city, which was essentially reduced to rubble.

Troops up front. That initial assault on Grozny in 1994 was the world’s largest urban tank battle since the Red Army entered Berlin, nearly fifty years before.[23] It was a debacle: Chechens with RPG launchers disabled the first and last tank in a column, then killed or maimed the survivors at leisure. A US Marines study estimated that the leading armoured brigade lost 80 percent of its men, 77 percent of its tanks, and 85 percent of its troop carriers in three days’ fighting. Anatol Lieven spent a week in Grozny in February 1995: ‘only once did I see Russian soldiers on foot patrol…. The rest clung to their armoured vehicles with limpet-like strength’.[24]

This folly was remedied in the second battle for Grozny, when battalions were reformed into company-sized storm groups, which in turn were made up of teams containing three riflemen, an RPG grenadier, and a sniper. (One observer argues that these teams were an idea borrowed from the Chechens who’d defended the city in 1994-95.)[25] The leading group advanced ‘by bounds’ in platoon-based sections, taking up to 25 metres of ground each time, supported by sappers with explosives. They were followed at about 100 metres by the command group comprising the battalion CO and his staff, sniper teams, and heavier weapons such as machine guns and Shmel  launchers for fuel-air explosive.[26] Supposedly only one Russian tank was lost in this second battle of Grozny.

Avoiding the hug. The Chechens defending Grozny in 1994-95 proved adept at ‘hugging’ the Russians so close—50-250 metres—that the federal forces couldn’t bring air and artillery bombardment to bear on them. In the second round, the Russians used materiel prodigally and manpower sparingly by ‘fighting at maximum range’—300 metres, at least, beyond the deadliest Kalashnikov and RPG range. At least one artillery battery was assigned to each battalion, and the CO had authority to call in more. Rotary and fixed-wing aircraft (including unmanned drones and the robust, agile Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ jet) were assigned at regimental level, with a Forward Air Controller embedded in each company. Decentralized control reduced the time from target identification to putting fire on target.[27]

Before any advance the area in front of the troops was subjected to a prolonged series of artillery and air strikes until the Russian commanders felt confident that rebel resistance had been crushed. Any Chechen positions that were discovered in the course of the advance were quickly engaged by the artillery and aviation available to the company or battalion commander in whose zone of responsibility they were located. Once an area had been occupied[,] bases were occupied and fortified, with platoon-sized strongpoints and smaller checkpoints in key positions. The Russians would then begin to reconnoitre their next advance, using fixed wing aircraft, drones, ground patrols, radar and radio intercept, before beginning the process of fire destruction and advance again.’[28] 

The Russians also generously employed smoke grenades, smoke pots and smoke generators to blind the enemy, especially when approaching buildings.[29]

Force protection. In the first battle for Grozny, Chechen fire teams would establish themselves in the upper stories of buildings so they could fire down on the vulnerable tops of Russian tanks and troop carriers. In 2000, the Russians put sandbags atop their vehicles and screened them by wire mesh or by reshetka armour resembling venetian blinds fabricated out of steel bars. The mesh detonated an RPG round before it could penetrate the armour, and rounds striking the reshetka screens became trapped between the bars or disintegrated without detonating their shaped-charge warheads. The Russians parked their vehicles within existing barriers or enclosed them in a ‘garage’ made from sandbags.[30]

Unconventional units. Similar to what was done for the second Chechen campaign overall, when it came to counter-terrorist operations in the countryside, detachments would be formed on the spot for reconnaissance, raiding, securing facilities and lines of communication, deploying outposts, escorting supply columns, laying mines, clearing obstacles, and deploying small combat task groups and sniper teams.[31]    

The Only War We've Got

‘Chechenization’. Just as the Americans, with more success than they are usually given credit for, managed to turn the Vietnam war over to indigenous forces in 1972, the Russians ‘Chechenized’ their own quagmire. Loyalist militias were used in the first war, but only to a limited extent. In the second war the former mayor of Grozny helped plan and lead the assault on the city, and another Chechen led the 25-man Spetsnaz unit that first raised the Russian flag in Grozny.[32] The Russians also used Chechen partisans as spies.[33] In the counter-insurgency campaign that followed the recapture of Grozny, the Army and the Interior forces each recruited two battalions of Chechens, who proved adept at finding and destroying rebels in the mountains. By 2006, an estimated 20,000 Chechens were serving as peacekeeping personnel, or nearly half the forces in the republic.[34]

Information warfare. During the first war, ‘nearly 90 percent of the information from the zone of conflict came from Chechen sources’.[35] The Russians made no attempt to control the press, while the Chechens took them in and spread the Chechen story for the world to see and read; Russian television regularly showed ‘piles of brains, charred bodies, and severed limbs on the evening news’.[36] In the fall of 1999, by contrast, the Russians launched an information campaign to coincide with their move on Grozny. They cooperated with the media and thereby gained control of it, enabling the government to reinforce the public’s support for the war. The enemy in Chechnya was characterized as ‘armies of killers’ and, especially after September 2001, as ‘international terrorist gangs’.[37]

The Russians used information tactically as well. Some of the first aircraft and missile strikes targeted radio towers and the like, to disrupt Chechen propaganda. Federal troops negotiated with village elders before entering villages; other times, they issued leaflets instructing fighters to evacuate a village, or otherwise artillery and air strikes would reduce the town to ruins. As Grozny fell in February 2000, Russians used disinformation to persuade the Chechens that there was an undefended route out of the city, which in fact led through a minefield (Chechen leader Shamil Basayev lost a foot to this bit of psyops [but see the footnote]). Where necessary, unfriendly journalists were killed.[38]

The Russians even discovered ‘hearts and minds’ as terrain worth fighting for. A military publication presented ‘Twelve Commandments for Servicemen’, such as Avoid unwarranted confiscations and unlawful requisitions of food and property!’ and ‘Respect Chechen women, girls, old men, and children as if they were Russians!’[39]


In my Short Essay, I took the easy route of denigrating the performance of the Russian armed forces and especially their ability to learn from experience—stepping on the metaphorical rake and having it hit the Muscovite forehead again and again. I wasn’t alone in this. Russian defence analyst Vitaly Shlykov concluded that ‘some elementary lessons have been learned, but they don’t amount to a reform. Apart from a sobering effect, these campaigns have had no impact’.[40]  David Betz dismissed ‘the Russian military at the end of the 1990s [as] essentially a poor, shrunken, and angry version of the Soviet Army’.[41]

Still, its performance during the second Chechen war showed that the Russian military, and especially the Army, were able to learn from experience and to adopt innovative structures, strategies, and tactics. Thus, Quentin Hodgson argued that Russia ‘learned a great deal from its experience in the first war and applied these lessons to great effect in the second’.[42] The 1999-2000 campaign resulted in a victory for the federal government, after all, and though the Chechens were able to sustain a low-level insurgency in the countryside thereafter, they were far from being able to recapture Grozny as they’d done in August 1996.

Following the second Chechen war, Vladimir Putin seems to have concluded that his military couldn’t compete with Europe and the US, and that the imperative was to increase its ability to fight small wars, causing him to ‘cancel all plans for the buildup and integration of the strategic forces’. Pavel Baev concluded in 2004 that ‘the war in Chechnya would continue to define the key requirements of the Russian armed forces in the years to come’.[43] (That reorientation may have been temporary: Russia’s oil wealth enabled Putin to increase defence expenditures by about 25 percent in each of the next three years, mostly for high-profile stuff like attack helicopters, jet fighters, tanks, and missile submarines.)[44]

Indeed, one American army officer concluded that it was the Russians, not the Chechens, who merit admiration for the flexibility of their tactics. The two campaigns, he argued, represented ‘an unusual occurrence in military history: a large, doctrinally based, modern army implemented change more quickly than a small, unprofessional, mobile force.’[45]  In theory, the loosely organized force has the greater ability to adapt, but the Chechens didn’t significantly alter the way they fought from one campaign to the next.

Altogether, western governments should heed the adage: ‘the Russian army is never as strong as it describes itself, but it is never as weak as it seems from the outside’[46]—or, arguably, as slow to learn from experience. Above all, the west should refrain from schadenfreude about Russia’s travails in Chechenya. As Olga Oliker warned in 2001: ‘The enemies that U.S. forces will face in the future are far more likely to resemble the Chechen rebels than the Russian Army’—or indeed the Iraq Army—‘and the battlefield will very likely look more like Grozny than Central Europe’.[47]

[1]  Ford 2007, quoting Trenin et al 2004, p. 109

[2]  Jenkinson 2002, p. 74

[3]  Baev 2004

[4]  Orr 2000; Babchenko 2008, p. 34

[5]  ibid

[6]  Hodgson 2003

[7]  Babchenko 2008, p. 383, himself a kontraktnik in the second Chechen war

[8]  Orr 2000. Also Politkovskaya 2001, p. xxv-xxvi; Gall & de Waal 1998, p. 241

[9]  ‘How Are the Mighty’ 2005

Poland's Daughter

[10]  ‘Contract Soldiers’ 2006

[11]  Jenkinson 2002, p. 88. Also Lieven 1998, p. 293

[12]  Orr 2000; Gall & de Waal 1998, p. 208; Oliker 2001, pp. 22-28

[13]  Oliker 2001, p. 26, quoting Izvestia 15.02.95

[14]  USMC 1999, p. 12

[15]  Orr 2000.

[16]  Thomas 2005

[17]  Jenkinson 2002, pp. 67, 85. But Oliker 2001, p. 36, says that the Army reinstituted sniper training in 1999

[18] Tolstoy 2007, p. 744

[19]  Orr 2000

[20]  Lieven 1998, p. 109

[21]  Thomas 2005

[22]  USMC 1999, p. 5

[23]  Jenkinson 2002, p. 1

[24]  Lieven 1998, p. 47. Also USMC 1999, pp. 14-15

[25]  Jenkinson 2002, p. 68; Oliker 2001, p. 45

[26]  Orr 2000. Also Thomas 2005; Oliker 2001, p. 26

[27] Jenkinson 2002, p. 72; Oliker 2001, p. 20; Hodgson 2003

[28]  Orr 2000

[29] Jenkinson 2002, p. 86

[30] USMC 1999, p. 18; Jenkinson 2002, p. 86

[31] Thomas 2005

[32] ibid

[33] Jenkinson 2002, p.75

[34] Saradzhyan 2005

[35] Thomas 2004. Also Lieven 1998, p. 119; Gall & de Waal 1998, p. 198; Evangelista 2002, p. 145

[36] Lieven 1998, pp. 205-6

[37] Oliker 2001, p. 63. Also Hodgson 2003

[38] Jenkinson 2002, p. 74; Evangelista 2002, p. 161. [Added September 2008: My tutor challenged the statement that a Russian disinformation effort resulted in Baseyev's injury. When I tried to check Major Jenkinson's source, I was unable to retrieve it.]

[39] Thomas 2005

[40] ibid

[41] Betz 2004, pp. 155

[42] Hodgson 2003

[43] Baev 2004

[44] Chamberlain 2007

[45] Jenkinson 2002, p.77

[46] Trenin et al 2004, p. 112

[47] Oliker 2001, p. 2


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Baev, Pavel (2004), ‘The Trajectory of the Russian Military: Downsizing, Degeneration, and Defeat’, in Steven Miller and Dmitri Trenin, The Russian Military: Power and Policy (Cambridge: MIT Press)

Betz. David (2004), Civil-Military Relations in Russia and Eastern Europe (London: RoutledgeCurzon)

Chamberlain, Gethin et al (2007), ‘Putin Rearms his Cold War Military’, Sunday Telegraph, 19.08.07

Moscow Times, 25.08.06

Elliot, Geoff (2007), ‘Putin Tells Russians of “Grandiose” Nukes Plan’, The Australian, 19.10.07

Evangelista, Matthew (2002), The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington: Brookings Institution)

Ford, Daniel (2007), ‘Grozny is a terrible town: how the Chechen wars changed Russia’s armed forces’, WiMW short essay submitted 25.11.07

Gall, Carlotta, and Thomas de Waal (1998), Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press)

Hodgson, Quentin  (2003), 'Is the Russian Bear Learning? An Operational and Tactical Analysis of the Second Chechen war, 1999-2002', Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 64 - 91

‘How Are the Mighty Fallen’ (2005), The Economist, 02.07.05 (US edition)

Jenkinson, Brett (2002), Tactical Observations from the Grozny Combat Experience (Fort Leavenworth KA: MA thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College)

Lieven, Anatol (1998), Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Orr, Michael (2000), ‘Better or Just Not So Bad? An Evaluation of Russian Combat Effectiveness in the Second Chechen War’, in Anne Aldis ed., The Second Chechen War (Camberley: Conflict Studies Research Centre), pp. 82-101

Politkovskaya, Anna, tr. John Crowfoot (2001), A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya (London: Harvell Press, 2001)

Saradzhyan, Simon (2005), ‘Interior Troops to Fill Caucasus Ranks With Chechens’, Moscow Times, 23.12.05

Thomas, Timothy (2005), ‘Russian Tactical Lessons Learned Fighting Chechen Separatists’, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 731-766

Tolstoy, Leo, tr. Richard Peavar & Larissa Volokhonsky (2007), War and Peace (New York: Knopf)

Trenin, Dmitri, et al (2004), Russia’s Restless Frontier: The Chechnya Factor in Post-Soviet Russia (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

USMC (1999), Urban Warfare Study: City Case Studies Compilation (Quantico VA: Marine Corps Intelligence Activity)

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