Russia's Military Nadir: The Meaning of the Chechen Debacle

Russia's Military Nadir: The Meaning of the Chechen Debacle

Mini Teaser: "In war the moral is to the physical as ten to one.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

"In war the moral is to the physical as ten to one."


The Chechen War may come to be seen as one of the greatest disasters
in Russian military history, greater than Tannenberg, greater than
Tsushima; not, obviously, because of Russian losses, which have been
limited, but because of what Chechnya has revealed about the
humiliating depths of contemporary Russian military decline. Quite
simply, the Russian army today is weaker in relative terms than it
has been for almost four hundred years--a fact which, if it persists,
may be of incalculable significance for the future of Eurasia.

The hard evidence of the Chechen War should make Russian military
weakness in the conventional field obvious to everyone--but it is
still necessary to emphasize and repeat it, since so many in the West
have a vested interest in avoiding the issue. It is also true of
course that even when the present state of the Russian army is
admitted, a major question remains as to whether this collapse is
temporary and reversible, or is likely to prove long-lasting.

This question is obviously of key importance in the context of a
possible Communist return to power in Russia. I myself believe that
the Communists could do little in the short term to turn the army
into an effective fighting force--partly because the reasons for its
present collapse have above all to do with morale, and are linked to
deep changes in Russian society and culture; and partly because a new
round of ideologically-inspired Communist mishandling of the Russian
economy would make Russia even less able to pay for major military
reform than it already is today.

The evidence suggests, too, that the Russian generals are well aware
of their forces' weakness--how could they not be?--and that they
themselves would speedily disabuse a new Russian regime of any plans
for major external aggression. The consensus among Western military
attachés in Moscow is that it would take ten years at least to work
such a transformation, and then only in favorable economic
circumstances--which are unlikely to be forthcoming.

One would be tempted unequivocally to rejoice in this weakness--and
it certainly ought to make the Balts and Ukrainians feel safer--but
for two worries. The first is that the demoralization of the army
derives partly from the demoralization of Russian society, which is
literally that--a lack of the most elementary social morality,
leading to a wholesale criminalization that indirectly threatens the
West as well. The second concern is that, sooner or later, some
outside power will be tempted to take advantage of Russian military
weakness--as in previous ages they certainly would have done. For
since intercontinental missiles do not suffer from demoralization,
Russia may become a very weak conventional power and yet remain a
very--indeed increasingly--dangerous nuclear one. The very weakness
of the conventional forces would encourage an early recourse to the
threat of using nuclear ones--as Russians have already threatened
unofficially in the case of NATO expansion to the Baltic States.

Communist hopes of restoring the Soviet Union are partially shared by
the Yeltsin regime, which speaks less expansively of "reintegrating
the CIS." Both ambitions are largely negated by the facts of Russian
military and economic weakness, and also by a sheer lack of what can
only be called national will. Since much of the Western debate about
Russia today--and for that matter, much of the debate in Russia
itself--revolves around the question of rebuilding an empire, it
seems fair enough to ask what the great European empire-builders, or
imperial bards and prophets, would have made of Russia today. Their
answer seems quite obvious: Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Milner, and
Alfred Thayer Mahan would say that this is a feeble, shiftless,
demoralized, decadent, undisciplined people. In particular, they
would say that the Russian ruling elites are utterly cynical and
corrupt, that they are ruthlessly obsessed with short-sighted
personal gain, and that their patriotic rhetoric masks a fundamental
lack of all real patriotism, spirit of self-sacrifice, and capacity
for fulfilling great imperial tasks. Looking at the faces of the men
now surrounding Yeltsin, it would be hard to deny the truth of this

Failure at Every Level

On the other hand, how Kipling would have loved the Chechens! In
fairness to the Russian soldiers, one must admit that in the Chechens
they have run into extraordinarily brave, tough, resourceful, and
skillful opponents, who would have given even the best army in the
world a hard time. This is not the place for an extended analysis of
the Chechen fighters, but it may be said briefly that their success
stems from a perhaps unique combination of "primitive" and "modern"
military qualities. Primitive in that most Chechen units have been
formed spontaneously on the basis of familial and neighborhood links,
and the individual Chechen soldier has been motivated and disciplined
primarily by considerations of personal and familial honor and shame;
"modern" in the sense that the Chechens have used with great success
relatively large-scale military units and sophisticated weapons
systems. Their success in this regard, for example, contrasts sharply
with the general failure of Afghan mujaheddin groups which I
accompanied in the late 1980s. Underlying these successes is an
immensely high morale rooted in Chechen national history and

Western military analysts should be looking hard at Chechen military
success and Russian failure. The West's victory in the Gulf War has
contributed to a current obsession with technological superiority;
but it cannot be stressed too strongly that the deserts of Iraq and
Kuwait, as flat and bare as a parade ground, were a highly unusual
battlefield. As the world's cities spread and spread, it is likely
that more and more wars in the future will take place in settings
like that of Grozny. Urban fighting at the best of times is a bloody,
nasty, hole-and-corner, terrifying business, in which artillery and
airpower are of limited use, and small groups of men often have to
fight alone, separated from their officers and chain of command. The
key to success is thus above all good infantry; and the key to good
infantry is less equipment than a mixture of training and morale. The
Russians in Grozny had neither; but to fight such a war successfully,
Western troops too would need not just assiduous preparation, but a
strong moral conviction that the war in question is necessary--or one
could say, to use an antique phrase, a belief in the righteousness of
their cause. The Rangers' fight in Mogadishu was obviously a small
disaster compared to the Russian assault on Grozny, but may still
serve as a warning about the risks of this kind of war.

The bloodiest single Russian defeat in Chechnya, and a striking
example of the mixture of demoralization and tactical incompetence
affecting the Russian forces, happened on December 31, 1994, when
several Russian armored columns launched a massive assault on Grozny.
The result was a virtual turkey-shoot. As a Chechen fighter told me,
"The Russian infantry wouldn't get out of their armor to fight, so
their vehicles had no cover. We just stood on the balconies and
dropped grenades onto them as they drove by underneath." Several
hundred Russian soldiers died in the course of a few hours, and
complete disaster was only narrowly averted.

This was a failure at every level--the individual soldier, the
tactical platoon and company commander, and the generals who sent
their troops into the city with no plan and, as prisoners told me
later, often without even any maps. Drivers were told simply to
"follow the vehicle in front." The fighting in Grozny in particular
also drastically exposed a classic failure of the Soviet (and Russian
imperial) army: its acute lack of good and respected non-commissioned
officers (NCOs).

As in Afghanistan, poorly led, poorly trained, poorly motivated
infantry simply will not leave the shelter of their armored personnel
carriers to brave enemy fire in the open. The result is of course
that the safety of these carriers proves largely fallacious. The
rocket-propelled grenade, or more precisely the hand-held anti-tank
rocket, has been the Queen of Chechen battles. In urban areas and
broken country, and in the hands of men trained in the Soviet army
and knowing the precise weak spots of Soviet armored vehicles, it has
had a most devastating effect.

But if Grozny would have presented any army with a horrible problem,
the same cannot be said of the campaign in Chechnya as a whole. The
most astonishing aspect of the war has not been the botched assault
on Grozny, but the repeated tactical failures since, beginning with
the failure to surround Grozny by driving armored formations and
motorized infantry through the open country to the south, and
continuing with the failures this year to trap and destroy Chechen
units, even when these were cut off and surrounded in Gudermes,
Pervomaiskoe, Novogroznensky, and elsewhere. The usual problem in
fighting guerrillas is to get them to stand and fight. In Chechnya,
the Russians have repeatedly had the Chechens pinned down--and then
let them slip away.

Essay Types: Essay