Forced to retreat from a humiliating defeat at the hands of ragtag Chechen fighters, Russia’s military took out its frustration and fury on civilians Tuesday with bombing raids on outdoor markets, motorists and even a farmer driving his tractor across an open field.
After the disastrous new year’s assault in which hundreds of their soldiers died, Russian forces made no effort to move back into the center of Grozny. Instead, they kept to the air, the one place where they are safe from the Chechens’ hand-held antitank weapons.
Operating in bright blue skies, Russian bombers demolished two roadside markets near Grozny, killing numerous people, and dropped bombs on individual cars traveling the main southern road into the secessionist capital.
As the Russians pounded the countryside from the air, the scale of this weekend’s defeat on the streets of Grozny became clearer. A variety of visitors to the city described seeing the corpses of as many as 300 Russian soldiers, many of then charred beyond recognition, and up to 50 burned-out armored vehicles.
Although many people have thought it was not possible, the fighting for the Chechen capital keeps worsening.
“The Russians are going to bomb, bomb, bomb and bomb,” said Chechen Information Minister Movladi Udugov on a tour of the city. “The only thing left to them is to destroy everything from the air.”
This seems to be exactly what the Russian leaders have in mind. In Moscow, military officials said Tuesday that they had dispatched reinforcements, even as the political cost of the war appeared to be mounting rapidly.
Former Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar, once one of President Boris Yeltsin’s closest allies, said in a news conference Tuesday in Moscow that “there is a great danger of a military coup.” Russian democracy, he said, has never been shakier since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Gaidar, who broke with the president over the Chechnya policy, called events there “a massive military crime.” He urged Yeltsin to get rid of those “who pushed him to this adventure,” including Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai D. Yegorov and Oleg Lobov, the secretary of the National Security Council.
Russian military leaders appear to be increasingly desperate, as they have failed to defeat a weak and outnumbered opponent.
The Russians appeared to have taken their worst beating near the strategic Grozny train station. The neighborhood looked like a “tank cemetery,” the liberal Russian legislator Anatoly Shabad told a group of reporters on the Chechen-Dagestani border.
“I counted 30 tanks destroyed and many corpses of the Russian tank crews and infantry,” he said. “I saw several places like that in town. Now, my conclusion is that it was a complete defeat of the Russian army that tried to storm Grozny.”
Out of the more than 200 soldiers who took part in the attack on the station, only three survived, according to Vladimir Chudinov, a 19-year-old infantryman who was captured. In an interview with the Associated Press, attended by an International Red Cross representative, Chudinov said his 120-man company had almost no preparation for the assault. They arrived in the region Dec. 27, and were dispatched to Grozny four days later with orders to take control of the city railway station.
“Our whole company was killed. All the officers were killed,” Chudinov said. “I was the only one left.” Two soldiers from a second company were also taken prisoner in the failed attack, and are among more than a hundred Russians who were captured over the weekend in Grozny - the name means “terrible” in Russian.
The Russian assault on city ended much as predicted by the president of the breakaway region, Djokhar Dudayev. Even as Russians were crossing into the North Caucasus republic on Dec. 11, he vowed that his fighters would turn their tanks into “rolling coffins,” using rocket launchers, grenades and Molotov cocktails.
The Russians, who apparently had little training for intense street fighting, were sitting ducks for the Chechen fighters, who lay in wait in the city’s bombedout buildings.
“We showed them that we intend to defend ourselves whatever it takes,” the Chechens’ top military commander, Samil Besiav, said Tuesday.
The scope of the disaster has stunned Moscow, where several liberal legislators accused the Yeltsin administration of using young, poorly trained soldiers as “cannon fodder.” The independent television station, NTV, Tuesday night showed a mass grave filled with blackened corpses.
Noting that many Russian dead have not been accounted for, legislator Viktor Korochkin complained, “Our soldiers of 18 and 19 are lying in the streets in the hundreds, uncollected three days after being killed.”
Public sentiment already appears to be against the war, which was started with the aim of preserving Russian unity and restoring law and order in Chechnya. Nonetheless, one of Yeltsin’s closest aides, Viktor Ilyushin, said that Russian troops would not be allowed to give up their fight. “The federal government simply has no other solution except to go all the way, to the end,” he told the Interfax news agency.
Among the western reporters who have been covering the conflict here, there is a growing perception that the Russians may never take Grozny unless they are prepared to flatten the city with a relentless air and artillery assault.
In Shalli, south of Grozny, a Russian jet fired rockets at an open-air market, killing more than a dozen civilians. Reporters who arrived on the scene shortly after the attack found several dead civilians and at least half a dozen charred cars tossed on the side of the road. Other bodies had already been removed, the reporters said.
The Russians, who only last week had promised to use pinpoint bombing technology to limit civilian deaths, also bombed an outdoor market in Argun, a Grozny suburb. In other attacks, they appeared to target individual vehicles driving near Grozny. One bomb incinerated a tractor being driven by a Chechen man and his son. Both died, according to Moscow’s NTV, which showed the burning wreckage.
Chechen volunteers continued to pour into Grozny as the Russians kept up their shelling of the city center, at one point striking the presidential palace, a multi-story concrete office building. In front of the palace, Chechen rebels ignored the fire and did a celebratory dance, with Muslim fighters chanting “Allahu Akhbar!” - “God is great!” - for the cameras. Such dancing is integral to Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam practiced by the Chechens.
Despite serious losses, morale among the Chechens is extraordinarily high, with the separatist fighters reveling in the feeling that they have stopped Goliath.