To travel the roads north of the Chechen capital of Grozny is to sneak a look at the innards of the Russian military machine.
The muddy byways are clogged with columns of armor; checkpoints often are manned by barely pubescent boys. Some of them look like they barely outweigh their bulletproof vests.
Still, the sheer dimensions of the 7-week-old Russian offensive on the breakaway republic of Chechnya are impressive.
Bases replete with house-size tents and rows of armored personnel carriers appear every 10 or 15 miles all the way from just above Grozny to Mozdok, the operation’s supply center about 100 miles to the northwest, indicating the Russian troop presence in Chechnya that began at a reported 40,000 has swelled dramatically.
But Russian armies always have been known for winning through overwhelming masses of troops rather than elegant efficiency. And given the number of glitches in the machine, evident even from a cursory glance, it looks as if this war will be no different.
One glitch came into view on the mud road between Tolstoy-Yurt, the main staging ground of Russian artillery attacks on Grozny, and the Chechen capital. A Russian attack helicopter that had crashed nose-first into the ground stood sadly by the side of the road, reminiscent of an ice-cream cone that has fallen scoop-first onto a sidewalk.
The official version was that two helicopters had crashed, but witnesses said that, in fact, Russian artillery fire accidentally had hit the helicopter as it came up over the rise from Grozny.
No one was surprised.
Sometimes, said Capt. Andrei Chusov of the Interior Ministry’s police force, his troops and the regular army “end up shooting at each other by mistake. They have different radio frequencies.”
It does not help, he said, that Chechen fighters often grab army or Interior Ministry forces’ armored vehicles, ride up to checkpoints and attack them before Russian troops can figure out that they are enemies.
That painful experience keeps troops’ trigger fingers itchy, Chusov said.
Chechen officials enjoy telling the tale of a Russian Interior Ministry unit and a Russian army unit that Chechen fighters in Grozny recently provoked into bombarding each other - until one of the units called for an airstrike and the pilots figured out that they had been asked to bomb a Russian position.
That story may or may not be true, but the fact that the regular Russian army and Interior Ministry troops have not been working well together is admitted even by top Russian officials.
Col. Vladimir Mamontov, an Interior Ministry commander in Grozny, said that if he had the Chechen operation to do all over again, he first and foremost would “organize cooperation better between the army and the Interior Ministry.”
Also, he said, he never would have sent so many armored vehicles into the narrow streets of Grozny because all the Chechen fighters had to do was paralyze the first and last tanks in a column and all the rest became sitting targets, unable to escape.
Many armored vehicles already have been discarded in favor of more mobile forces, he said.
And in an age-old Russian military tradition, the men in the field appear to have been left largely to fend for themselves.
Chusov, a kind-eyed Siberian from Krasnoyarsk manning a checkpoint near Tolstoy-Yurt, apologized for the grime coating his hands and neck.
His unit had not received any water for days, he said, and too much of the surrounding snow had melted into the ubiquitous mud to allow his men to use it for drinking and washing.
At a checkpoint near Grozny, soldiers had been given firewood instead of field stoves and were busy boiling potatoes they had cleaned themselves to mix in with the can of kasha-and-meat hash they had been issued.
“This is our favorite food,” one said.
Judging by the dozens of out-of-commission armored personnel carriers, tanks and trucks being jury-rigged by the side of the road, there also was an apparent shortage of spare parts.
Soldiers guarding the headquarters of the Federal Counterintelligence Service in Chervlyonnaya near Grozny admitted that they were badly short of fuel.
In Mozdok, theoretically the main disseminator of Russian information on how the fight is going, the murky press arrangements seemed like a time-warp projection of the classic Soviet runaround.
Reporters directed to the Interior Ministry’s headquarters at the extensive military airport were detained, told they needed a special pass to enter, then directed to the city’s military police office. A Russian reporter later said he had searched for an Interior Ministry press center for a whole day after sneaking into the airport but found nothing.
The military police said to go to the city’s Culture Palace, which is similar to a community center, and check Office 35.
But the office held no one except a group of ethnic Kumyks, a small Russian minority, discussing a cultural program.
The military police then said to try the Mozdok Hotel, where an old woman at the reception desk said that an officer she believed might be some kind of spokesman was staying in Room 38.
He wasn’t there.
Perhaps the only reliable information came from a young Interior Ministry guard at the entrance to the Mozdok airport. He had fought in Grozny for two stints and expected to be sent back.
“No one will tell you the truth,” he said.
“There is a horrible war going on there, worse than Afghanistan.”
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