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Thursday, 16 December, 1999, 15:05 GMT
Unanswered questions of Grozny battle

Russian troops head to Grozny Russian forces are now encircling the capital

By world affairs correspondent Nick Childs

The Russian authorities are denying reports that their forces were involved in a battle with Chechen fighters in the capital, Grozny.

But Western reporters say they have seen what looks like the aftermath of a fierce battle, and talk of upwards of 100 Russian casualties.

Battle for the Caucasus
With Russian forces encircling the city, it is quite possible that an armoured column could simply get lost, take a wrong turning, and find itself trapped.

Testing resistance

But it is equally possible that, as they lay plans to try to take Grozny, Russian commanders could mount a probe to test what level of resistance they might face.

They would, of course, be hoping this would be limited or non-existent, allowing them to follow up with a full-scale push.

It is unlikely that commanders would use an armoured column purely for reconnaissance.

There have already been reports of small Russian contingents carrying out reconnaissance missions.

Past lessons

It is possible the Russian military might also use special forces for such missions. And they will also have aerial photography.

Even so, it is unlikely they have a very clear picture of the strength of Chechen fighters still in the city and what the resistance will be if and when they try to move in.

In the conduct of its operations in Chechnya so far, the Russian military has suggested it has learned from its humiliation in the last Chechen conflict.

International condemnation

It has relied chiefly on air power and long-range artillery, rather than infantry troops who are generally ill-trained and ill-motivated, and who were humbled by much better-motivated and more determined Chechen guerrillas last time.

These tactics have provoked international condemnation, but have kept Russian casualties so far to a minimum and thus been popular at home.

And, mindful of this, the Russian top brass has said its force will not storm Grozny.

But, if they are to take the city against any kind of armed opposition, there will be little alternative to the use of infantry in the painstaking and dangerous process of taking control, in effect, street-by-street.

Armoured columns, on their own, will not be enough.

Tanks and armoured vehicles are extremely vulnerable in built-up areas.

What will be required will be troops with a high level of training and high morale.

It is a daunting prospect. And any reverses now will only raise the spectre of the last disastrous assault on Grozny.

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See also:
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Russians ambushed in Grozny
10 Dec 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Danger ahead for Russia's military
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Q & A: Andrew Harding in Chechnya
16 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechnya's voter appeal
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Grozny to fall 'in days'
14 Dec 99 |  Europe
Chechens flee besieged capital
30 Sep 99 |  Europe
Profile: Aslan Maskhadov, the quiet general
24 Oct 99 |  Europe
The first bloody battle for Grozny
12 Dec 99 |  Europe
Daily ceasefire set for Grozny

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