Battles in Chechnya: Lessons for an Increasingly Urbanized World

In December 1994 Russian troops embarked on a painful and bloody campaign to wrest Grozny, capital of the breakaway region of Chechnya, from secessionist forces. The Russian soldiers who entered Grozny in December 1994 did not expect a fight. But for the young men who spent New Year's Eve attacking the city, Grozny - which in Russian means "terrible" or "menacing" - lived up to its name. At the cost of numerous casualties and severe damage to the city, the Russians eventually succeeded, but their victory proved short-lived. Five years later to the day, Russian troops were once again battling rebel forces in Grozny's streets.

A new RAND report, Russia's Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat, examines both Russian and rebel tactics and operations in Grozny and other Chechen towns and villages throughout this conflict, focusing on how and why the combatants' approaches did and did not change over time. Failure to prepare for urban combat was a key error the Russians made in both Chechnya wars, but it was not the only one. Hampered by poor training and supplies, decrepit equipment, and abysmal planning, the Russian troops who fought the 1994-1996 war presented a stark picture of how much this once-great force had deteriorated. The war also demonstrated how poorly Russian military organizational structures functioned when disparate forces were called upon to work together. The more recent war, which began in the fall of 1999 and continues today, however, provides a more nuanced picture, in which real improvements, particularly in planning, force coordination, basic tactics, and public relations are evident, but a wide range of other difficulties remain.

According to Oliker, the key mistake the Russian military made between the wars was in drawing the wrong lesson from urban combat: not only that it should be avoided, but that it could be avoided, and therefore required no preparation. When this belief proved false, the Russians found themselves making the same mistakes in the same streets that they had made five years before. Both times, Russian failings were exacerbated by Chechen advantages, among these, the fact that the Chechens knew their cities and were prepared to defend them.

As the Chechen war sputters on, it seems likely that, given time and determination, the Russians can "succeed" in Chechnya. But to do so, they must choose between destroying the region, settling in for an extended and bloody occupation, or some equally unpleasant combination of the two. The Chechens are counting on them to decide that Chechnya is not worth the cost.

The analysis in Russia's Chechen Wars is important to western military planners and analysts for two reasons. First, the Russian urban combat experience in Chechnya provides important insights into Russian capabilities, tactics, and adaptability. Second, the Chechnya conflict is a unique source of information about urban combat in the modern age. The Russians twice proved unprepared for combat in built-up areas, both times as a result of consciously taken decisions not to train forces specifically for this environment. In an increasingly urbanized world, military planners worldwide have a tremendous opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to learn from the Russian experience.