Military Learning Between the Chechen Wars

The downward spiral of the Russian military that began with Afghanistan is often compared to the U.S. army’s experience in Vietnam. However, unlike the American experience, the conflict did not serve as an impetus for drastic military reform. In fact, the decline of the Soviet army continued through the 1980s, leading to the defeat of the Red Army’s “ghost” in Chechnya in 1996 at the hands of a few rebels. Three years later, President Vladimir Putin ordered the army back into Chechnya. The military did not undergo dramatic transformation in the intervening years, but performed remarkably better the second time around.

Two sequential questions are a necessary prelude for this paper’s attempt to explain this. First, how do military organizations learn and what are the prevailing theories of military learning? Second, how did the Russian armed services perform at the operational level during the two Chechen wars? This paper will argue that improved performances exhibited by Russian ground troops and artillery, an increased emphasis on elite units, and marginally better interoperability between forces suggests the Russian military underwent internal low-level learning between the Chechen wars. However, these lessons – some of which run counter to current trends in international norms – will be quickly forgotten without a deeper reformation.

Learning Theory

Many scholars have contributed to a substantial body of work on military learning. A favored topic is the so called RMAs, or “Revolution in Military Affairs:” periods when armed conflict radically transforms. The numeration of RMAs varies, but professionalization (implemented in the European conflict with Napoleon), and mechanization (fully instituted with the advent of the tank during World War II), all marked crucial changes in warfare. Militaries that fully embraced these RMAs defeated laggards. For example, France adopted the tank early in the 20th century. However, the German military harnessed the technology to achieve breakthroughs that allowed Berlin to take Paris and defeat France in just six weeks in 1940. This example demonstrates the importance of learning, although without clarifying why the two militaries implemented the same technology (learned from it) differently.

If these simple premises held true: open organizations encourage change; closed hierarchical organizations discourage change; losing organizations look for new alternatives; and winning organizations resist change, an observer could accurately predict tendencies for change and learning. However, few modern theorists have accepted that “militaries [are] hidebound bureaucratic actors, inert unless pushed, and oriented above all toward… predictability.”[1]

Williamson Murray argued against this type of simplification in his book Military Innovation in the Interwar Period. Murray argued that societal influence, military organization, individual personalities, government type, and budgetary constraints all played an inextricable role in determining what changes a military will adopt and the lessons it will learn from conflict.[2] This approach coalesced in the interwar period in military politics with the influence of politics and society, along with the clout of exceptional individuals.

Different Approaches from the Same Conflict

In Britain, society refused to pay for armaments during the interwar period and politicians acquiesced, halting armor development completely.[3] The British also slowed the advancement of reformers, enabling doctrine to stagnate as top echelons remained in place. Despite external social influences and internal organizational characteristics that limited tank warfare exploitation, Lord Milne managed to conduct important exercises with mechanized cavalry that emphasized the importance of large-scale mobility (Ibid., p. 26.). With more funding and a longer tenure for Milne in his post, the British possibly could have achieved greater advancements in mobile warfare than the Germans.[4] The French military also suffered from insufficient funding, while military passivity and frozen doctrine, as well as a political fetish for the levee en masse, all militated against significant tank development.[5] Here, Murray cited internal military conservatism in addition to external political/social pressures. The French meshed new armor with old planning, treating the tank like mobile artillery.[6] In contrast, Germany initiated a post-war research program that involved 400 officers from combatant commands and dozens of committees.[7] They were able to create and institute a new de facto doctrine, even before the famous Army Regulation 487.[8] This evokes Huntington’s suggestion that only the army can know and change itself.

  • Internal Learning – Two Approaches

Stephen Rosen discussed military learning in a different context. Rosen confined his 1988 New Ways of War: Understanding Military Innovation to modern Western (Anglo) armies whose peacetime innovations provided dividends in war. Outside political support for an internal military hierarchy already convinced of the importance to innovate, even following victory, fostered successful learning and new doctrine. Rosen defined military innovation as:

a change that forces one of the primary combat arms of a combat service to change its concepts of operation and its relation to other combat arms, and to abandon or downgrade traditional missions.[9]

For Rosen, mavericks could not influence military doctrine precisely because of their outsider perspective and alienating temperament. In two examples of peacetime learning, the U.S. military successfully prepared for World War II having seen the effects of eschewing preparation to fight in its last war and because senior military officials widely supported new doctrines.

The transition of the U.S. Navy from being battleship-based to carrier-based and the transformation of the Marines from a shipboard defense to an amphibious assault arm depended on military officers translating new capabilities into a new mission.[10] Once officers redefined doctrines and missions, they had to support a career path for younger leadership to grow into these new roles.[11] According to Rosen, the navy’s faith in carriers dated to 1919, to the appointment of Rear Admiral William Moffett as the first Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, who began an internal process that converted the naval outlook on carriers.[12] Moffett promoted aviators to form a substantial coterie of proponents of offensive carrier warfare, providing internal foundation to later development. Thus, the U.S. Navy developed differently from the Royal Navy, which had few aviators in leadership positions by 1939.[13] For example, Major Earl Ellis developed a rough doctrine in 1921 that described assaulting islands in the Pacific, but the Marines did not develop the Fleet Marine Force until the 1930s, under a new commandant.[14]

Rosen concluded that the ability of civilian governments to influence militaries in peacetime was severely limited, that change will only begin with the officer corps who can push new thinking that will then affect all levels of the military. A civilian leadership can best effect change through the appointment and promotion of officers amenable to reform. Rosen acknowledged that peacetime innovation differed greatly from wartime learning, but he suggested a greater role for civilian leaders and a faster pace of learning.

Neither of these caveats fit the learning described by Michael Doubler in his World War II text Closing with the Enemy. Doubler attributed two significant factors to U.S. military learning on the western front. The U.S. Army, created from a democratic society, permitted greater openness and discussion on issues of planning and waging war. Free discourse allowed privates at the front lines to proffer solutions. Open networks transmitted knowledge up the chain of command, which disseminated lessons horizontally to the entire force. When the U.S. First Army broke out from Normandy, company-level engineering troops fashioned the makeshift solutions that allowed the army to navigate tall embankments of bocage.[15] This bottom-up solution, and others like it during the drive to Berlin, occurred because information flowed freely in a democratic army. German tactical development prior to World War II, by contrast, depended on internal evolution that originated with top officers (a top-down variant of internal learning).

  • Externally Motivated Learning

Stephen Rosen’s article responded to conventional thinking about military innovation that emphasized the importance of civilian influence. Writers in this category included Kurt Lang, who emphasized the need for civilians to counteract the military’s conservatism.[16] Rosen cited Barry Posen as arguing that civilians effected change via the instrumental use of mavericks within the military.[17] A variation of this view espoused by Graham Ellison argued that militaries acted as oligopolies (or cartels) that attempted to minimize risk – thereby stifling change.[18] Thus, militaries evolved only because they were forced to respond to external pressures or threats. Downie placed many authors in this externalist camp: Jack Snyder, who argued military doctrines changed to preserve military independence; and Scott Sagan and Steven van Evera who held that the military preference for offensive military doctrine enabled the armed forces to maintain a high level of independence and funding.[19]

Downie’s internalists, arguing military innovation transpired from the military professional, rooted their discourse in Huntington’s understanding of the soldier.[20] Only the military professional could understand the unique concern connected with waging war and organizing and preparing a military force. Additionally, Huntington urged a civil-military divide that circumscribed planning and operations within the purview of the military officer.

Joint Learning Approach

A third theoretical grouping, a joint approach, combined external and internal thought. Kimberly Zisk argued against an either/or approach in her book Engaging the Enemy. Zisk argued that weapons procurement and development signaled a military’s willingness to innovate. The desire for resources is not only meant to justify the existence of the military, but to allow commanders to respond and react to the threats they perceive ahead.[21] In her discussion about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Sarah Mendelson emphasized learning that depended on both externalities and internalities: the Soviet decision to withdraw took into account domestic politics, foreign relations, changes in personnel, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for reform.[22]

Raymond Garthoff argued that Russian military learning was unique because of the political-military role played by the Communist party.[23] However, his description of changes in doctrine during the late 1980s mirrored externalist explanations. In 1987, the Russian military determined that doctrine required an emphasis on the avoidance of conflict.[24] The role of military doctrine, especially with regard to nuclear weapons, ceased focusing on just victory. This change followed political developments permitted by glasnost’ and Gorbachev’s personal involvement.[25]

The following two sections will describe the performance of Russia’s armed security services in terms of ground forces, air forces, special operations and intelligence, and command and control during the two Chechen wars.[26] The analysis will use frontline reporting, after-action reports from think tanks and war colleges, and Russian language articles. The depiction of the second war relies less on frontline reporting, as a media blackout limited independent news. Changes between the wars will provide a template to test the various theories of learning.

The First Chechen War, 1994-1996

  • Planning and Organization

The Russia military/security apparatus manifested a near systemic dysfunction during the first Chechen war. Anatol Lieven’s gripping account of the conflict in Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, emphasized the pervasive brutality, incompetence, and malaise affecting the Russian military. Yeltsin abdicated responsibility for planning the invasion, checking into a hospital for an operation on his “deviated septum,” which was likely a euphuism for Yeltsin’s drinking.[27] With responsibility for the operation in the hands of military leaders, the generals ignored rudimentary principles. Units sent to Chechnya did not know each other, had never trained or operated jointly, were cobbled together from different ministries and did not have interoperable communications or similar doctrines. “Jointness” is a current buzzword in Washington, but the benefits assumed from such integration assume common training. Even low-level combined arms actions proved beyond Russian capabilities.

  • Institutional Memory

The assault on Grozny demonstrated Russian forces could not conduct combined arms urban operations. Russian forces failed to employ lessons learned from WWII when soldiers called urban warfare “the corporal’s war” because small corporal-led units operated in isolation. WWII soldiers learned to control subterranean areas and storied buildings and to avoid wide boulevards by going from building to building using wall-busting techniques to smash through walls. Soldiers could avoid “murder alleys” and instead surprise enemies in adjacent buildings.[29]

  • Ground Forces – Armor

The armor NATO planners feared would be effectively used during a projected third world war suffered extensive losses in the first Chechen war. The BMD-1 (boevaya mashchina desantnaya) armored airborne vehicle, T-72 main battle tank, and other armored vehicles proved vulnerable to concerted Chechen firepower.[30] Chechens armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) savaged the 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade and the 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment when they entered Grozny because soldiers did not coordinate movements or receive close air support. One column lost 102 (85 percent) of its armored personnel carriers (APCs) and 20 (77 percent) of its battle tanks; the two units also lost all six of their Tunguska surface-to-air missile batteries.[31] In sum, the Russians lost 225 armored vehicles in the first month of combat.[32] Lt. Col. Aleksandr Labzenko cited the absence of even basic communication between units and their own commanders and reported that, “an enormous amount of armored equipment [was] thoughtlessly left in narrow streets without any cover… not protected by the infantry.”[33]

  • Special Forces

A very few ground forces exhibited discipline and order during the first war. Lieven noted the Interior Ministry Special Rapid Reaction Force (SOBR) silently surrounded a house he was visiting and controlled the building’s occupants without firing a shot in the middle of the night.[34] Lieven also remarked upon their relative sobriety and cleanliness.[35] However, even the “elite” SOBR, whose capabilities were said to be on par with U.S. regulars, emerged from an arbitrary amalgamation of troops from police, military units, the Federal Counter-intelligence Service, and the Interior Ministry, across all of Russia.[36] This potluck approach to military formations could have just as easily resulted in an incapacitated military unit. Such a formation usually requires time to establish camaraderie and familiarity necessary for unit cohesion.

  • Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence – C3I

Command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) activities failed to magnify the few bright spots in Russian military performance.[37] The 65th Motorized Infantry, sent into Grozny on Dec. 31, 1994, did not have maps of the city, intelligence about enemy concentrations, or even Global Positioning System targeting devices to call in artillery or air strikes when they contacted the enemy.[38] Many units entered battle without basic radios and those that did often lacked encryption capabilities, allowing the Chechens to monitor planned movements and operations.[39] In one successful intelligence operation, the Russians managed to assassinate Dzhokar Dudayev with a guided air-to-ground missile. The operation likely indicates cooperation between Russian air force and possibly the army’s GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye) intelligence service.[40]

  • Air Force

The Soviet air force failed to provide adequate close air support or timely intelligence and reconnaissance during the first Chechen campaign. Pilots did not receive adequate training hours and funds were not allocated for aircraft upgrades. Consequently, the Russian air force and army aviation units could not operate in poor weather or at night. Fixed-wing aircraft depended on dumb bombs. Only 2.3% of strikes used precision-guided munitions (PGMs).[41]

The Russian air force completed some basic tasks during the first war. The air force eliminated 266 Chechen aircraft on the ground.[42] The 4th Air Army and collected aviation units deployed 140 Su-25s, Su-22Ms, and Su-24s, as well as an A-50 Mainstay; these aircraft flew more than 9,000 sorties including 5,300 strike missions and hundreds of reconnaissance missions.[43] Army aviation deployed more than 100 helicopters, including Mi-24s and Mi-8s.[44] The Russian air force had the numbers to repeatedly strike targets in the open with dumb bombs, but did not effectively do so. Timothy Thomas also argued that the air force ignored command and control centers and other targets of opportunity because of a focus on traditional air missions – destroying the Chechen “air force” and flying combat patrols.[45] In the first year of combat the air force lost: 12 helicopters; 3 fighters; and another 24 fighters were damaged by anti-aircraft fire.[46] Without an integrated air defense, the Chechens still managed to down one in 10 Russian helicopters and damage one in four.[47]

Second Chechen War, 1999-Present

Mark Kramer and many other authors writing about the second Chechen war noted Russia’s improved performance against the rebels. The Russians seized and held cities, and most counterattacks failed to route Russian forces. The Russians adopted different tactics against the Chechens in 2000 and different leaders sent better trained forces into battle. Security services created a more efficient media blackout during the second war, but the two wars still offer an excellent comparative case study for military learning.

  • Planning and Organization

The military spent so much time planning and organizing the second campaign that Timothy Thomas of the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Ft. Leavenworth joked the Russians not only read lessons learned in 1996, but they reread histories of the conflict between Imam Shamil and tsarist forces in the early 1800s.[48] In 1999, Russia amassed 100,000 troops for a multi-phase operation that involved – 1) cordoning Chechnya from the rest of the Caucasus; moving the cordon south to the Terek River; 2) establishing complete control over Chechen territory where Russia could create a model Chechnya; and 3) finally dealing with remaining terrorists in southern mountains. Additionally, the Russians attempted to establish a single command to control the army, internal, and other security forces.[49] In February, 2001 Putin placed the Federal Security Service (FSB – Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti), successor to the Soviet-era KGB, in charge of the Chechen mission.[50] This change indicated a desire to complete combat operations and move on to a low-level counter-terrorism phase of conflict. Events did not unfold as hoped, but to its credit, the Russian military did plan for the second war.

  • Command, Control, and…

Improved planning before the onset of conflict improved the Russians’ starting position compared to the 1994 invasion, but primitive systems hampered effective implementation. In the 1990s, U.S. war planners developed net-centric warfare theory. Generals wanted to eliminate Karl von Clausewitz’s “fog of war” with perfect real-time knowledge of the battlespace. In 2001, the report “Building and Development of Armed Forces Plan for 2001-2005,” acknowledged Russian backwardness.[51] The plan called for reinforcing the south and unifying command and control (C2) systems.[52] Conventional militaries need to integrate communications and intelligence at multiple levels to succeed in modern warfare. Yet as late as 2001, the Russian command structure still struggled to establish authority over subject power structures.

  • Ground Forces – Infantry

Ground forces bombarded cities and populated areas at range. Russian soldiers’ poor tactics in urban terrain and a fear of ambushes encouraged them to mimic western standoff bombing, but without western precision, using high-explosives and superior firepower to destroy urban landscapes from a distance. Whether or not this proved the local assumption that the Russian conscripts were afraid of Chechens, it did show a capacity to innovate and change.

Soldiers used land-based multiple-launch fuel bombs called “Buratino” (Tos-1) against population centers in the second war, weapons largely absent from the first.[53] The thermobaric blast zone created by the Buratino is deadly against closely packed soldiers in urban settings. The Russians also used RPO-A single-shot flamethrowers against fortified bunkers.[54]

  • Urban Warfare

Lester Grau and Timothy Thomas, writing for the FMSO and Marine Corps Gazette, argued unequivocally that Russian military commanders learned from the two previous battles for Grozny – January 1995 and August 1996 – in a third fight for the city in January 2000.[55] Russian forces surrounded the city and refused ceasefires that would allow the Chechens to resupply and rearm. Russian troops in the city learned to advance to contact the enemy, but quickly pull back 300 meters – the maximum effective range for the RPG-7 and Kalashnikov.[56] Once Russian troops located the enemy, they called in heavy artillery from the surrounding hills. They also depended on former mayor Bislan Gantemirov and his local militia to act as scouts.[57]

  • Ground Forces – Armor and Artillery

Instead of entering Grozny where they were vulnerable to RPG fire, tanks and artillery took up station on hilltops ringing the city to provide indirect fire support. Troops used zonal-targeting, which allowed a rifle company to quickly contact battalion-level officers for additional indirect fire support from nearby assets.[58] The decentralization of authority plus the addition of mortars and batteries allowed for a concentration of firepower not seen in the first Chechen war.[59] Building on this, Russian forces employed several tactics not employed since Afghanistan, including the fire block, artillery sweep, defensive box barrage, and fire corridor.[60]

  • Air Force

The first air campaign provided valuable training for Russian pilots, but the Russian military failed to upgrade aircraft and weapons during the interregnum to the point where air power would play a decisive role in 1999. Stephane Lefebvre wrote that the Russians introduced the Pchela-1T unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the second war, but reports placed the UAV in the field as early as 1995.[61] Lefebvre also noted the introduction of Ka-50 prototypes, but the helicopter never entered full-rate production.[62] The night-capable Mi-28N will not enter service in significant numbers this decade. Combat experience improved pilots’ skills, remedying inadequate training hours, but aircraft never received real-time, all-weather, and precision technologies necessary to capitalize on accrued experience.

Some analysts suggested the air force learned to depend more heavily on the Frogfoot during the second conflict, but this is only backed by generalizations.[63] The Finnish Fighter Tactics Academy said Russian Su-25s led the second air campaign, but Frogfoots and Fencers both played an active – if sometimes ineffective – role in both conflicts.[64] The air force flew 5,800 missions in less than a year according to Col. Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, but these were not nighttime strikes and there is little indication of the prevalence of forward air controllers, who are necessary – barring aircraft upgrades – to improve ground attack accuracy.[65]

Some technical improvements for aircraft are underway, but funding issues perpetually delay upgrades. The MoD is equipping Su-27s with new radars and precision weaponry and Su-25s are being upgraded with new displays and terrain-mapping radars, but as few as five upgraded versions of the latter platform could enter service in 2006, more than a decade after the first war began.[66] The Ministry of Defense regularly announces planned upgrades and improvements, but few programs are ever carried through to completion. In 2000, the Russian military still had not procured the planned “N”-version Hind helicopters; by 2001 a “PN”-version night- and fog-capable Hind was still in the experimental stage.[67]

  • Special Forces

Special forces in Chechnya continued hunting high-value targets in the second war, but their success has been mixed. Russia’s FSB assassinated Samir Saleh Abdullah Al-Suwailem (also known as Khattab) in March of 2002, with a poisoned letter delivered by messenger.[68] On March 8, 2005 the FSB claimed credit for killing former president Aslan Maskhadov in Tolstoy-Yurt.[69] However, Russian forces failed to capture or kill terrorist leader Shamil Basayev, despite numerous reports of his demise.[70] In fact, Basayev claimed responsibility for assassinating Chechnya’s Russian-backed President Akhmad Kadyrov during a parade in May 2004.[71] In February 2000, during a three-day battle, Chechens wiped out the 2nd Battalion of the 104th Paratroop Regiment, Pskov Division that parachuted into the Argun Gorge.[72] An OMON group later took heavy casualties in the same region.[73]

Still, Russian special operators are considered competent and capable forces, while regular forces remain undependable. Russian high command believes it can train and improve special forces units. Accordingly, in 2006 the Russian Security Council ordered security agencies with special operations arms to boost training and equipment and develop long-term strategies for their organizations operating in the Caucasus.[74] With training and new equipment, special forces should be able to operate in rugged areas like the Argun, the implication being that such operations – regardless of state investment – are beyond the capability of regulars.[75]

Because Russian special forces are effective, military leaders are giving them a greater combat role, command authority, and boosting their numbers. In 2005, Defense Minister Ivanov announced the creation of two special Defense Ministry mountain warfare brigades for the Caucasus.[76] Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry created a special anti-terrorist crime center with a command responsible for OMON, SOBR and special interior forces (VV – Vnutrennikh Voisk).[77]

Analysis and Conclusion

Pavel Baev and Roy Allison both argued for a void of innovation in The Russian Military: Power and Policy over the course of the Chechen wars.[78] Baev argued the joint interpretation that innovation only occurred with the “convergence” of external and internal factors.[79] He blamed internal opposition for the Russian military’s failure to reform, but also the disintegration of the armed forces as a whole in the 1990s. General officers eager to maintain their status militated against any streamlining that threatened their prestige.[80] He said that only an end to the Chechen conflict could provide space for genuine reform.

Allison also believed that the war in Chechnya impeded reform and development, but he did not assess the situation as starkly. The first Chechen war did not create a large movement for reform and politicians failed to exert external pressure. The few changes that occurred at the tactical level did not portend significant change and learning because Russia did not incorporate Chechen lessons for every other local intervention by Russian military forces.[81] Allison also viewed a lack of adherence to international norms as indicative of a Russian military learning failure.[82] The first assumption, about incorporating Chechen lessons and applying them to every instance of operations other than war, is a broad and simplistic transference. For example, the trans-Dniestr region has never required the same application of force as Chechnya. The second assumption about respecting human rights in modern conflict is based on the assumption of norms that are not universally held.

Allison further disallowed military learning by crediting internecine Chechen conflict with allowing Russia to create a “construct” of imagined Russian power.[83] Allison also included several caveats about performance during the second war: the Russians gave troops better training and conducted command staff exercises; tactics at the individual level evolved; air power improved; and organizational and command structures underwent change.[84] His criticism ultimately centered on the absence of a “modern counterinsurgency doctrine” for the second war. This remains a significant deficiency that will impair Russia’s ability to achieve a lasting victory, but Allison’s exceptions acknowledged a broad range of changes. The failure to establish permanent readiness mobile response forces also received criticism. Politicians supported the idea, but military necessity demanded attention to the immediate war in Chechnya instead. This prioritization, according to Allison, evinced a rejection of change – but was likely rather a practical response to the most pressing demands on the ground.

The Russian military operated more effectively at the tactical and operational levels during the second war. The Russian military learned to use brute force in the second Chechen war because it did not have a military that was capable of conducting a modern “bloodless” war. Russian soldiers learned to apply their superior firepower on the battlefield more effectively, while simultaneously increasing their own chance of survival. An effective chain of command could have taken advantage of minor battlefield achievements by sharing this learning vertically and horizontally within the military. Or, general staffs and military colleges could have evolved new strategies that took battle-tested units and coordinated new doctrines and joint operations. Neither event took place, limiting Russian military improvement to low-level internal learning.

The Russians did not just reinvent the World War II wheel in Chechnya, as Sean Edwards suggested in his assessment of military operations in Grozny.[85] When Russian forces moved into the southern mountainous portion of Chechnya, the armed forces had to relearn counterinsurgency tactics developed during the Afghanistan campaign. Conceivably, the Russians could have considerably boosted military efficacy by integrating special forces with aircraft modernized for precision strike. Such jointness would have considerably improved the ability of troops to amass firepower on defined enemy targets. The military did increase its focus on special operations troops, but it also used tanks and artillery indiscriminately against population centers. Thus, the army learned to use its troops more effectively, but not to train effective soldiers. The increased dependence on special military units had a downside as well: this will increasingly balkanize the military hierarchy at a time when the chiefs are attempting to unify commands. More chains of command make joint operations and combined arms warfare harder to realize on the battlefield.

The changes between the two wars suggest learning. However, a weak institutional memory – due in part to turnover among conscripts, a non-existent non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, and an organization that is reluctant to change and adapt – is unlikely to retain these lessons if fighting ceases completely. A “learning organization that institutionalizes the organization’s learning philosophy,” as described by Lt. Col. Stephen Gerras, calls for a more thoroughgoing transformation of discourse and cooperation in military operations than what occurred between the two Chechen wars.[86] The Russian military learned from the first conflict, but a system trained to understand, develop, and disseminate new theories did not emerge.

The Russian Military Doctrine of 2000 called for a military that could effect:

standardized command and control of troops and control of weapon assets, communications, intelligence-gathering, strategic-early warning, and electronic warfare systems, and precision mobile non-nuclear weapons and the information support systems for them.[87]

The military showcased few of these improvements during the second war although it succeeded by focusing on already-existing strengths: greater numbers, massive firepower, heavy weaponry, and dominance of the sky. General officers have not created an institution where leaders spend as much effort thinking about learning as they do carrying out the basic functions of command.[88]

Change is taking place at the tactical level rather than in headquarters, leaving the army unprepared to move beyond the current crisis in Chechnya. Russian fighter pilots “trained” in combat and special forces troops received more training and money as the conflict progressed. Yet, too often those were standalone improvements – such as new sensors for aircraft or radios for troops on the ground – done without any view towards creating an integrated and responsive military force. Ground forces learned to avoid close quarters combat and blast their enemies from a distance. These changes improved military efficacy in the short-term, but these tactics have not led to new doctrine and the Russian army does not seem prepared to continuously learn from its mistakes and widely disseminate lessons learned at the lowest levels of combat.


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[1] Kimberly M. Zisk, Engaging the Enemy: Organization Theory and Soviet Military Innovation, 1955-1991 (Ewing, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), p. 11.

[2] Williamson Murray and Allan Millett, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 7-8.

[3] Ibid., pp. 11, 20, 21.

[4] Ibid., p. 29.

[5] Ibid., pp. 12-15.

[6] Ibid., pp. 32, 34.

[7] Ibid., pp. 36-37.

[8] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[9] Steven Barry Rosen, “New Ways of War: Understanding Military Innovation,” International Security, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Summer 1988), p. 134.

[10] Ibid., p. 151, 136.

[11] Ibid., p. 136.

[12] Ibid., pp. 155-156

[13] Ibid., p. 157. In 1926, the U.S. had one carrier, but four admirals, two captains and 63 commanders receiving flight pay. In 1939, the British, with three carriers, had just one flying admiral.

[14] Ibid., pp. 162, 164.

[15] Michael D. Doubler, Closing with the Enemy: How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, Ks.: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1994), pp. 37, 44-45. Engineers equipped tanks with pipes and cutters to bulldoze through the bocage, enabling tanks to support infantry as they advanced together through hedgerows.

[16] Rosen, New Ways of War, p. 138.

[17] Ibid. p. 139.

[18] Ibid. p. 140.

[19] Richard D. Downie, Military Doctrine and the “Learning Institution:” Case Studies in Low Intensity Conflict (dissertation, Calif.: presented to the Univ. of Southern California, 1995), p. 4.

[20] Ibid., p. 6.

[21] Zisk, Engaging the Enemy, pp. 11-12.

[22] Sarah E. Mendelson, “Internal Battles and External Wars: Politics, Learning, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” World Politics, Vol. 45, No. 3 (April 1993), pp. 327-328.

[23] Raymond L. Garthoff, Deterrence and the Revolution in Soviet Military Doctrine(Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990), p. 112.

[24] Ibid., p. 101.

[25] Ibid., p. 94.

[26] This essay considers “special forces” any troops with more training and better equipment than regular contract soldiers or conscripts. This includes, among others, OMON (Otryad Militsii Osobogo Naznacheniya – special police for the Ministry of Interior), Spetsnaz (Spetsialnoe Naznachenie – special mission troops under army intelligence), and SOBR (Spetsial’nie Otryady Bystrogo Reagirovaniya – special rapid reaction forces, also known as OMSN). The U.S. distinction between special forces and special operations forces is not applied to the discussion here.

[27] Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1998), p. 103.

[28] Doubler, Closing with the Enemy, p. 92.

[29] Ibid., p. 93.

[30] Quentin Hodgson, “Is the Russian Bear Learning? An Operational and Tactical Analysis of the Second Chechen War, 1999-2002,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2 (June 2003), p. 70.

[31] Timothy Thomas, “The Caucasus Conflict and Russian Security: The Russian Armed Forces Confront Chechnya III,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Ks., Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1997), <>.

[32] Lester Grau, “Russian-Manufactured Armored Vehicle Vulnerability in Urban Combat: The Chechnya Experience,” Red Thrust Star, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Ks. (January 1997), <>. In “Mars Unmasked: The Changing Face of Urban Operations,” Sean J.A. Edwards noted Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky’s claim that only 16 vehicles were destroyed.

[33] Thomas, The Caucasus Conflict and Russian Security.

[34] Ibid., p. 51.

[35] Ibid., pp. 51-52.

[36] Ibid., p. 53.

[37] As a point of contrast, U.S. war planners now use the acronym C4ISR (which stands for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to describe modern net-centric warfare. The technological-individual integration envisioned in C4ISR is beyond the capability of many NATO allies, not to mention Russia.

[38] Lieven, Chechnya, p 110.

[39] Hodgson, Is the Russian Bear Learning?, p. 71.

[40] The GRU and other intelligence organs were responsible for psychological operations and winning the “hearts and minds” of the Chechens, but this essay will not include a discussion of those measures and their effectiveness. Suffice to say the first Chechen war was wildly unpopular and liberal Russians sympathized with the independence movement. The second Chechen war did not evoke similar feelings. Terrorist attacks in Russia and the U.S. muted most criticism about the war from the left. A clampdown on the press under Putin prevented Russians from obtaining unfettered access to the frontlines of the second war.

[41] Anne C. Aldis and Roger N. McDermott Eds., Russian Military Reform 1992-2002(London.: Frank Cass, 2003), p. 152.

[42] Ibid., p. 151.

[43] Ibid., p. 151.

[44] Aldis, Russian Military Reform, p. 152.

[45] Timothy Thomas, “Air Operations in Low Intensity Conflict: The Case of Chechnya,” Airpower Journal (Winter 1997), <>.

[46] Ibid., p. 152.

[47] Hodgson, Is the Russian Bear Learning?, p. 72. Coffey: The Chechens never, by most accounts, deployed advanced man-portable air defenses during the first war in significant numbers.

[48] Timothy L. Thomas, “A Tale of Two Theaters: Russian Actions in Chechnya in 1994 and 1999,” Analysis of Current Events, Vol. 12, Nos. 5-6 (September 2000), <>.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Pavel Felgenhauer, “The Russian Army in Chechnya,” Central Asian Survey, Vol 21. No. 2 (2002), p. 157.

[51] Michael Fiszer and Jerzy Grusczynski, “Results of Russia’s Military Reforms Exhibited in Minsk,” Journal of Electronic Defense (July 2003), p. 35.

[52] Ibid., p. 35.

[53] Felgenhauer, The Russian Army in Chechnya, p. 158. Lester W. Grau and Timothy Smith, “A ‘Crushing’ Victory: Fuel-Air Explosives and Grozny 2000,” Marine Corps Gazette (August 2000), Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Ks., <>.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Lester W. Grau and Timothy L. Thomas, “Russian Lessons Learned From the Battles For Grozny,” Marine Corps Gazette (April 2000), Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Ks., <>.

[56] Scott E. McIntosh, Thumping the Hive: Russian Neocritical Warfare in Chechnya (thesis, Calif.: presented to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., September 2004), p. 61.

[57] Grau, Russian Lessons Learned From the Battles For Grozny.

[58] McIntosh, Thumping the Hive, p. 61.

[59] Ibid., p. 62.

[60] Ibid., p. 62. Fire blocks barrage an area to pin an enemy. Fire sweeps are systematic and evenly-spaced harassing fire against enemies in remote areas. A defensive box barrages a forward position to prevent overruns and fire corridors target suspected enemy artillery sites while barraging troops.

[61] Stephane Lefebvre, The Reform of the Russian Air Force (Surrey, U.K.: Conflict Studies Research Center, July 2002), <>.

[62] Ibid., p. 13.

[63] Alexander M. Golts and Tonya Putnam, “State Militarism and its Legacies,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2004), pp. 137. Hodgson, Is the Russian Bear Learning? p. 68.

[64] Heikki Nikunen, “The Current State of the Russian Air Force: Tactical Viewpoints,” Dec. 28, 2000, <>.

[65] Nikunen, The Current State of the Russian Air Force.

[66] Denis Trifanov, “Russia Boosts Counterinsurgency Efforts in North Caucasus,” Jane’s Intelligence Review (February 2006), p. 37.

[67] Felgenhauer, The Russian Army in Chechnya, pp. 161-162.

[68] “Chechens ‘Confirm’ Warlord’s Death,” BBC News, April 29, 2002, <>.

[69] Musa Muradov and Sergey Mashkin, “Aslan Maskhadov Killed,” Kommersant, March 9, 2005, <>.

[70] Basayev died on July 10, 2006, when explosives being transported in a truck detonated accidentally. “Chechen Rebels Confirm Basayev’s Death, Blame it on Accident,” MosNews, July 11, 2006, <>.

[71] “Profile: Shamil Basayev,” BBC News, July 29, 2005, <>.

[72] Thomas, A Tale of Two Theaters. Air power could not protect this force because of poor weather, wrote Pavel Felgenhauer citing the Russian high command. Felgenhauer, The Russian Army in Chechnya, p. 161.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Trifanov, Russia Boosts Counterinsurgency Efforts in North Caucasus, p. 34.

[75] Ibid., p. 34.

[76] Ibid., p. 36.

[77] Ibid., p. 36.

[78] Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, eds., The Russian Military: Power and Policy(Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

[79] Ibid., p. 67.

[80] Ibid., p. 68.

[81] Ibid., p. 127.

[82] Ibid., p. 126.

[83] Ibid., p. 128.

[84] Ibid., pp. 128-129.

[85] Sean J.A. Edwards, Mars Unmasked: The Changing Face of Urban Operations (Santa Monica: RAND Arroyo Center, 2000), p. 27.

[86] Lt. Col. Stephen Gerras, The Army as a Learning Organization (Strategy Research Project, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., March 3, 2002), p. 1.

[87] Russia’s Military Doctrine, Arms Control Today (Russian Ministry of Defense, 2000).

[88] Col. John Richard, The Learning Army, Approaching the 21st Century as a Learning Organization (Strategy Research Project, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa., May 22, 1997), p. iii.

About the Author

Michael Coffey

Michael Coffey graduated with an M.A. in European and Eurasian Studies from George Washington University. He also studied in an RSL program through SRAS at American University – Central Asia during the 2006-7 school year, where he followed the complex political developments in Kyrgyzstan closely.

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