Moscow's failures may bring real danger home

January 04, 1995|By James P. Gallagher | James P. Gallagher,Chicago Tribune

MOSCOW -- The Russian army's miserable performance in Chechnya -- where tanks, fighter jets and attack helicopters are faltering against vastly outgunned bands -- has stunned Kremlin leaders and confronted them with unexpected new dangers.

Three weeks after Russian forces rumbled off to war, confident they quickly would crush the breakaway regime in the tiny Muslim enclave, Russia's once proud and powerful army has been exposed as a paper tiger -- crippled by rivalries at the top and morale problems in the ranks.

The sorry state of Russia's armed forces will have serious ramifications reaching far beyond the bombed-out villages in Chechnya's scarred countryside and the hastily dug, snow-crested trenches where thousands of shivering Russian soldiers greeted the New Year.

Indeed, the fiasco in the Caucasus Mountains will place new strains on the domestic and foreign policies of President Boris Yeltsin, reviving pressure for greater regional autonomy throughout Russia and undercutting Moscow's hopes of reasserting a more influential role in world affairs.

"The next time Yeltsin objects to expanding NATO, he's going to have a lot less credibility than he did just a few weeks ago, before we realized what a disaster the Russian army has become," said a European diplomat.

Moreover, if opposition to the Chechen war spreads any more among key commanders in Moscow and at the front, the military operation's major casualty could be Mr. Yeltsin himself.

Having vowed to do away with the secessionist clique headed by Chechen leader Jokhar Dudayev and wrest the oil-rich region firmly back into the Russian fold, Yeltsin cannot afford to settle for anything less.

His recent dramatic appeal to Russian fighting forces during a televised address was an attempt to whip field commanders into line by rallying lower officers and confused conscripts behind the faltering war effort.

"I call on you to do everything you can to fulfill this task," Yeltsin told the troops, making it clear that those who dragged their feet were resisting not some Defense Ministry officials but the head of state himself.

At the same time, the president played upon Russians' deep-seated fear and hatred of Chechen's infamous criminal gangs.

Whether either argument will make Russian troops more supportive of the war -- and more determined to see it through to victory -- remains to be seen.

Military planners now predict it will be at least a few more weeks before Kremlin troops can take control of the Chechen capital of Grozny, a feat that Defense Minister Pavel Grachev once boasted could be accomplished in a mere hour by a single division of Russian paratroopers.

Even after Grozny is secured, with Russian garrisons patrolling the city and a puppet administration doing Moscow's bidding, a long guerrilla war could be just getting started, based in the nearby Caucasus Mountains.

Protecting Grozny while trying to quell guerrilla resistance would tax the resources and the morale of a military perilously short on both.

Russia's economic collapse, coupled with an epidemic of draft dodging, has left both the Russian Army and the Interior Ministry units shockingly short of reliable equipment and fighting men.

Meanwhile, corruption has become rampant in the military. Division commanders have enriched themselves by selling off everything from airplanes, tanks and heavy artillery to rifles, hand grenades and helmets. These weapons same helped to sustain several bloody conflicts in various parts of the former Soviet Union, including Nagorno Karabakh and Abkhazia.

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