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A Russian View of the War By: Pavel Felgenhauer
TheMoscowTimes.com | Monday, April 21, 2003


As the war in Iraq winds to its inevitable end, uneasy reflections are taking over Russia's political and military elite. No one in Moscow ever seriously believed that Saddam Hussein might indeed "defeat" the allied forces. But the speed and decisiveness of the offensive has bewildered many.

Russian generals were expecting another prolonged so-called non-contact war, like the one against Yugoslavia in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001 or the first gulf war in 1991, when a four-day ground offensive was preceded by a 39-day air bombardment. It was believed that the Americans were afraid of close hand-to-hand encounters, they would not tolerate the inevitable casualties, and that in the final analysis they were cowards who relied on technical superiority.

In the first week of the war, allied forces rapidly fanned out of Kuwait, occupied most of southern Iraq and moved deep into the central part of the country without prolonged preliminary air bombardment. This successful blitz caused shock in Moscow. Then came news of the first U.S. casualties and prisoners, of severe sandstorms hampering movement, of increased Iraqi attacks and an overall pause in the offensive.

As the allies' push into Iraq seemed to falter, many hearts in Moscow and in Europe rejoiced. In a poll taken in late March, 52 percent of Russians were of the opinion that the U.S.-led military action in Iraq was unsuccessful; 58 percent believed it would be a long war; 35 percent were convinced the United States would win in the end, while 33 percent assumed Iraq would prevail.

Last week it was disclosed that two retired three-star generals -- Vladislav Achalov (a former paratrooper and specialist in urban warfare) and Igor Maltsev (a specialist in air defense) -- visited Baghdad recently and were awarded medals by Hussein. The awards were handed out by Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Khashim Akhmed.

It was reported that the retired generals helped Hussein prepare a war plan to defeat the Americans. Achalov confirmed he was in Baghdad just before the war and received medals from Hussein for services rendered. He also told journalists that the defense of Baghdad was well organized, U.S. tanks would be burned if they enter the city and U.S. infantry would be slaughtered. According to Achalov, the only way the allies could ever take Baghdad and other Iraqi cities was to raze them to the ground by carpet bombing.

Last week, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov echoed Achalov's opinion: "If the Americans continue to fight accurately, avoiding high casualties, the outcome is uncertain. If the Americans begin carpet bombing, Iraq will be defeated." Ivanov also announced that the Defense Ministry was attentively studying the war in order to learn how to build a stronger Russian army.

It seems that up to now the result of the study has been negative. It would appear that Russian generals and Ivanov assume it's the Americans that should be learning from them how to flatten cities -- the way our military destroyed the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Many Russian generals truly believe that a bombing campaign that leaves some buildings still standing is ineffective. Precision-guided munitions are widely considered to be costly pranks -- not real weapons. In Chechnya, we tried to use some of these gadgets, but they did not work, as most Russian officers and men have not been trained in how to use the limited number of modern weapons our military inherited from the Soviet armed forces.

The worst possible outcome of the war in Iraq for the Russian military is a swift allied victory with relatively low casualties. Already many in Russia are beginning to ask why our forces are so ineffective compared to the Brits and Americans; and why the two battles to take Grozny in 1995 and 2000 each took more than a month to complete, with more that 5,000 Russian soldiers killed and tens of thousands wounded in both engagements, given that Grozny is one tenth the size of Baghdad.

The Russian media is generally avoiding the hard questions and serving up anti-American propaganda instead. It is alleged that the U.S. government is "concealing casualties" (like its Russian counterpart), and that hundreds if not thousands of U.S. soldiers have already been killed. Maybe this deceit will become the main semi-official excuse for disregarding the allied victory.

Or perhaps our generals who do not want to build a modern post-Soviet military will come up with some other propaganda ploy.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.




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