The Chechen War: Part II
BY 1LT JAMES REED
203RD MI BATTALION
In this, Part II of a three part series, well take a look at the Russian attack on Chechnya's capital city of Grozny. Part I focused on the history of Chechnya and its people. Part III will explore Russian lessons learned from the war.
In October of 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet nuclear bomber pilot, was elected president of the Republic of Chechnya. Soon after, he declared Chechnya a free and independent state. Russian political leaders did not take his declaration of independence well, and organized a covert military campaign to oust Dudayev, which included supplying opposition groups with money and weapons. Dudayev knew that if these Kremlin-supported opposition groups were not able to wrestle power away from him, then some day the Russian Army might be used against him, in order to enforce Russias will. Dudayev spent the three years leading up to the war (1991-1994) preparing his republic for this inevitable Russian invasion.
On December 11, 1994, the Russian invasion of Chechnya began. The initial Russian plan called for a three stage attack.1 The first stage called for three columns to advance on Grozny from the north, west, and east, leaving the south open for Dudayev and his forces to withdraw to the mountains. Russian leaders did not expect Dudayev to stay and fight in the city. The second stage called for the establishment of a new pro-Russian political leader in Grozny, and for this person to begin the slow and deliberate winning of the hearts and minds of the Chechen people. The third and final stage called for the mopping-up of Dudayev and any of his remaining resistance forces in the mountains. Russian leaders hoped to complete the entire operation within three years.
Commanders were stunned at the amount of resistance they encountered. They did not expect to see any fighting until after having taken the city.
At the outset, the Russian plan began to break down. The western and eastern columns were attacked even before they crossed their lines of departure. A 1992 Russian military operation involving ethnic cleansing in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia had fueled a hatred for the Russians, and gave these people a reason for attacking the Russian columns as they moved on Grozny. Whether or not Dudayev asked for their help against the Russians or they just took it upon themselves to attack is unclear. The northern column almost made it to Grozny before being attacked by Chechens and getting bogged down. Commanders were stunned at the amount of resistance they encountered. They did not expect to see any fighting until after having taken the city. Also, civilians blocked the columns on several occasions, causing the commanders of the western and eastern columns to slightly shift their axis of advance to less populated areas. At one point, civilian demonstrations actually blocked the eastern column for several days. Before ever reaching the city, both the western and eastern columns were rendered combat ineffective by roadblocks, obstacles, ambushes, and sniper and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks. The total number of Russian troops involved in this initial push on Grozny is estimated at 10,000.
By 24 December Russian forces had finally surrounded Grozny. While many expected them to completely encircle the city and either starve or bomb its inhabitants, Russian leaders decided instead to storm the city.
Dudayev, not deserting Grozny as the Russians expected him to do, used the next seven days to prepare his defenses, refine his defensive plan, and stockpile supplies. He was using the still as yet unsealed opening in the southern part of the city to move in supplies and ammunition.
Also during this week, Russian artillery and air strikes began to pummel the city. As the Russian Air Force began its air campaign its repercussions were being felt throughout the republic. Chechens, finally realizing Russian's intention to destroy them, began pouring into the city to augment its small band of defenders.
The Russian Air Force at this time also began bombing other nearby villages. Not realizing that many of these villages were pockets of anti-Dudayev/pro-Russian support, the Air Force effectively encouraged all Chechens, regardless of their political affiliation, to unite in a common defense of their homeland.
By the 31 December attack there were at least 5,000 fully armed male Chechens ready to defend Grozny. Almost all of these men had served in the Russian military as conscripts and knew well its tactics.
While the Chechens only had small numbers of anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder fired surface to air missiles (SAMs) to defend against air attacks, the overcast winter weather kept the Russians from effectively employing their precision-guided munitions within Grozny. In fact, Russian troops were often the target of their own air campaign. Once the fighting began within the city, the Chechens used radio direction finding equipment to locate forward air controllers (FACs) callIng for air support and would then bring heavy direct fire to bear upon these FACs. They would also break into FAC radio nets and direct aircraft into attacking their own troops.2
Combat aircraft employed were the Su-17/FITTER, Su-24/ FENCER, Su-25/FROGFOOT, Su-27/FLANKER, Mig-31/FOXHOUND, and the Tu-22M3/ BACKFIRE. Initially, the Air Force quickly destroyed all Chechen aircraft and airfields. Most of what the Chechens had were simply training aircraft. Concrete-piercing high-explosive bombs were employed to crater airfield runways, and later were used against Groznys Presidential Palace.
Russian Army Aviation consisted of approximately two squadrons of MI-24/HIND helicopters, two squadrons of Mi-8/HIP, and several Mi-26/HALO heavy lift helicopters. Interestingly, attack helicopters (MI-24s) played almost no role In the attack on Grozny. They were used leading up to the assault, but once it began, on 31 December, only Air Force fixed-wing aircraft were used to support operations within the city.
The 1994 New Years Eve assault into Grozny was intended to be a complete surprise to the Chechens. However, they were so well prepared that it really did not matter. The Russian plan called for four different strike forces to attack into the heart of the city toward objectives on, or near, the central Presidential Palace.
Each strike force consisted of a motorized rifle brigade. In actuality, after taking into account that units were operating at only about 30-50 percent strength, each strike force was approximately the size of a reinforced motorized rifle battalion, comprised of roughly five hundred soldiers. Most were conscripts who had a year or less of service in the Russian Army. The other part of the plan called for two groups of Spetsnaz to be inserted by helicopter into the mountains south of the city to disrupt the enemys rear.
It is interesting to note that the Russians had no maps of the city, and their main strategy seemed to be to simply charge forward, to get in and drive toward the center of the city. The Hero of Russia medal, Russias highest award, was offered to the first infantry squad to get into the Presidential Palace.
It is estimated that the Chechens had initially only 42 T-72s, 38 BMPs, 26 BTRs, 14 BRDMs, an unknown number of Luna-8 and Luna-8M multiple rocket launcher systems, an unknown number of 152-millimeter self-propelled howitzers, approximately 150 pieces of towed artillery, and a large number of antitank weapons to defend the city.
Only one of the four strike groups reached its objective, a few hundred meters north of the Palace. All four groups were essentially annihilated. The 131st Maykop Motorized Rifie Brigade was particularly hard hit, with all of the brigades officers killed in action, 20 of 26 tanks destroyed, and 102 of 120 BMPs destroyed. Most of the Spetsnaz troops surrendered to the Chechens, "......after wandering about hopelessly for three days without food, let alone any clear idea of what they were supposed to do."3
Assuming that the Russians would attack head-long into the heart of the city, using the central Presidential Palace as their main objective, Dudayev prepared his city by creating corridors along the main city streets for BMPs and tanks to advance toward the Palace. Using obstacles to barricade off smaller side streets, the Chechens were able to destroy large numbers of enemy vehicles by attacking them with RPGs from atop buildings and from the rear of the columns. Once lead and tail vehicles of the columns were taken out, most others were trapped.
Dudayev prepared and organized his men for the coming battle. He made his defenses flexible and mobile, created avenues of approach for the enemy to move along, stockpiled food and ammunition, organized his men into small bands of 20-50 armed with light weapons, and prepared them mentally to be cut off.
While waiting for RPG gunners to engage a target, Chechens would spray the tops of vehicles with machine gun fire, keeping infantryman buttoned-up. RPGs and Molotov cocktails were used to disable Russian vehicles, causing their occupants to dismount, usually dyingnearby in a hail of machine gun fire.
Chechens even attacked Russian second-echelon forces outside the city. A unit of airborne soldiers and an artillery battalion were both raided.
While the Russian attack called for airborne units to be air-assaulted in along the four separate attack routes to seize key buildings, intersections, and choke points, it seems no one bothered to coordinate with these units. At some point during the day, airborne units, realizing that they had been left out of the operation, began to march into the city, in hopes of being able to support their mechanized comrades.
Many incidences of friendly fire were reported, and Russian units often fought each other for hours before realizing what was happening. By late afternoon the Russian assault had ground to a halt. Chechens roamed the city searching for targets and survivors.
The 31 December assault on Grozny was a disaster for the Russians. They continued, however, to attack Grozny for several months. It took until 26 January to finally capture the Presidential Palace, and street fighting still raged throughout February. By the end of March, 1995, Grozny had finally been taken. It is, however, just a shell of the once prosperous city it had been. Having been leveled by air and artillery strikes, only 100,000 out of 400,000 of the citys residents remain.
They really screwed it up.