Officers of Russian regiment decimated in Grozny feel betrayed by politicians WAR IN CHECHNYA

January 18, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

SAMARA, Russia -- Surviving officers of Russia's most crippled regiment believe they know what went wrong when their men took horrendous casualties in Chechnya: They contend that Russia's liberal politicians stabbed them in the back.

It's a time-honored complaint among losing soldiers, but it could be a harbinger of dangerous unrest in the military in the months to come.

The officers of the 81st Motorized Infantry Regiment, based in this Volga River city, say they were ordered into Grozny, the capital of rebellious Chechnya, on New Year's Eve and then were abandoned when the government withdrew air and artillery support because of protests over the killing of Chechen civilians.

The regiment's tanks and armored personnel carriers were cut off and destroyed by Chechen fighters. Of the 81st's 1,000 men, at least 600 are reportedly dead, wounded or missing. Already, in Moscow, the nationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky has denounced the government for using inadequate force in the initial assault on Grozny. Earlier, Mr. Zhirinovsky had been keeping a very low profile on Chechnya, but now it appears that he has found his issue.

The question is whether the bitterness and resentment over the Grozny assault will grow into a broader and more far-reaching hostility toward President Boris N. Yeltsin and his administration.

The officers blame the government in general but focus their bitterness on Sergei A. Kovalyov, the Russian human rights commissioner who led a delegation to Grozny and criticized the Russian assault.

Mr. Kovalyov has been hailed by many for speaking out against the war and for his decision to spend several weeks in Dzhokhar M. Dudayev's presidential palace in Grozny, acting in effect as a deterrent to wholesale attack. But the army officers see him as something close to a traitor. Indeed, the story of Mr. Kovalyov's mission may well prove to be a controversial one in the months to come.

He and his colleagues could be portrayed as having courageously stood up for principles when it most mattered. Or they could be remembered for rushing to the side of a rebellious leader even as his forces were killing young Russians.

"Our democrats made a big mistake when they began to criticize the government from Dudayev's bunker," said Vladimir Druzhinin, who as deputy director of the Institute of Psychology in Moscow has been closely involved in earlier Russian political dealings with the Caucasian republics. "Instead of getting distance from both leaders, they were drifting toward Dudayev," he said.

"It's not smart to attack one dictator by defending another. Both sides should be condemned."

The officers of the 81st, in any case, are furious. But their sense of what actually happened is seriously distorted.

Lt. Col. Vladimir Molokov, who as chief of an army hospital here has spoken with many of the wounded officers and men of the 81st, talked about "these tricks of Kovalyov."

"Tanks are trying to break through," he said, "and Kovalyov is on the radio saying to stop fighting and to leave. 'The war is not right. Don't shoot at your people.' Well, the Russian soldiers were at a loss. That was the moment when the soldiers and officers realized that things were going wrong."

The men had been promised air and artillery support, he said, "but they got into the city, and one day passed, two days, nobody bombed, nobody helped them. Thanks to all this fuss over the bombing and artillery shelling, and public opinion, our troops were left without any support."

Lt. Sergei Teryokhin, 23, who was seriously injured in one arm, angrily asserted that Mr. Kovalyov had called on Russian soldiers to lay down their arms.

In fact, Mr. Kovalyov did not. He only said that Russian forces should pull back from Grozny.

It is also not true that no aerial bombardment took place Jan. 1 and 2. Despite Mr. Yeltsin's orders to halt the bombing of Grozny, local commanders sent jets on sorties over the capital, reportedly to try to aid the tank units trapped on the streets.

The 81st was a regiment of young draftees who, as even the officers concede, had received little training. The soldiers were living outdoors in Chechnya for nearly a month before the assault. They rarely got a hot meal; in all of December, they were allowed one bath.

They drove into Grozny the night of Dec. 31 without proper maps or clear orders.

But the legend has been planted in the minds of the regiment's young officers that for "humane" reasons the military intentionally held back from using its heavy weaponry -- and that this restraint led to their comrades being killed before their eyes and their unit suffering a debacle.

"Is it humane when we have soldiers here who are 18, who had their whole lives ahead of them, and now they're crippled?" asked Lt. Yevgeny Abramov, wounded in both arms and a leg.

"The mistake was, if it's a war it should be a war," he said. "Any military operation should strive for a minimum of casualties, but we couldn't use our precision weapons for protection.

"It's all because of world public opinion," he said, his voice heavy with sarcasm. "But what business do they have here?"

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