Russian troop morale is so low, conditions are so poor, and losses are so heavy that the Russian attempt to take Grozny is foundering, two Russian soldiers captured in the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya said Thursday.
"The soldiers are against this war, and so are our commanders," said Alexei Razgulyayev, 20, a junior sergeant who was caught while trying to steal food from an empty house in Grozny after he had gone five days without a solid meal. "We are forced to fight."
The two soldiers said the Russian positions had frequently been bombed by Russian warplanes, many soldiers had been killed by "friendly fire" from the Russian side, and constant vehicle breakdowns made it impossible for them to pick up their dead and wounded.
"In a company that had 100 men, now there are only 50 left," said Alexei Polyakov, a 19-year-old private who, like Razgulyayev, is from the 129th Motorized Rifle Regiment based in Vyborg, near St. Petersburg. "In our battalion, out of 350 men, over 250 have been killed."
The soldiers' accounts indicate that new official figures putting the Russian military death toll at 394 soldiers were vastly understated. Chechen sources put the Russian casualties at about 3,000 dead.
Despite their losses, the Russians appeared to be mounting a new storming of Grozny on Thursday, with armored vehicles heading toward the city on several roads and Russian troops beating back Chechen fighters street by street. Especially intense shelling by artillery led Chechens to predict yet another Russian attempt to take the presidential palace.
Chechen fighters claimed to have ousted the Russian forces that have been pinned down near the railway station. An Associated Press television cameraman said the Russians had used antipersonnel explosives and phosphorus bombs in the area.
However, fierce shelling in the Minutka neighborhood indicated that Russian forces are gaining ground in the southern part of the city, which is controlled by the Chechens and has so far been spared heavy fighting.
A Russian family in Minutka said Russian forces fired mortars into the neighborhood overnight, and warplanes began dropping rockets at 6 a.m. One rocket landed in their front yard, blasting 74 shrapnel holes in the metal fence that surrounds their home, they said.
"These Russians are worse than the Fascists," said Grigory A. Smirnov, 50, whose beloved cherry tree was decapitated by the rocket. "Four young guys have been killed on our street. They weren't fighters, they weren't against anyone.
"I apologize for what Russia is doing here," Smirnov said. "I'm embarrassed by my country in front of the whole world."
Russian forces on Wednesday sent buses to collect some of the elderly and infirm residents, mostly ethnic Slavs, who have been trapped in Grozny for weeks, witnesses said. The refugees were fed a hot meal and then taken to Russian bases in the north.
A month after President Boris N. Yeltsin promised the Russian public that law and order would soon be restored to Chechnya, and that the "illegal armed formations" in Grozny would quickly be disarmed, it was unclear whether the Russian forces could soon break through the fierce Chechen resistance.
"I don't think they can take the city," Chechen fighter Magomed Balgayev said. "They can destroy it, but they can't capture it."
Since Yeltsin ordered thousands of troops into Grozny on Dec. 11, the Russian military intervention has been hamstrung by generals who have refused to advance, soldiers captured after refusing to fire on the civilians who surrounded their tanks, and paratrooper commanders who have reportedly refused to send their units to Chechnya.
Amid the chaos, disinformation and outright lies that have characterized the bungled Russian military operation, it is impossible to confirm battlefield reports. Ironically, the most specific and accurate information about the state of the Russian forces has come from Russian prisoners of war.
The two Russian prisoners, who had entered Grozny on Dec. 20, looked exhausted, filthy and frightened. If their condition is typical of the rest of the army, it is not surprising that the Russians have not yet attempted another all-out infantry assault on Grozny.
"Frankly, there is no discipline, no anything, in the military now," Polyakov said. "The soldiers are weakened, they haven't washed for a long time, they are hungry and unshaven."
Polyakov said his unit was deployed to the Russian base in Mozdok, in neighboring northern Ingushetia, on Dec. 17, and were told that their task was to "mop up Chechnya and defend Russia's national interests, because Chechnya is part of Russia."
"We arrived in Mozdok as peacekeepers, and came here as a motorized rifle division," he said.
After the failed attempt to storm Grozny on New Year's Eve, the unit tried to retreat but was prevented from doing so by volleys from grenade launchers behind them.
"We still don't know who shot them," Polyakov said. "Then on Jan. 1, our air force started to bomb our positions. We didn't know what was going on. They were bombing us almost constantly. . . .
"There were times when more of us were getting killed by our own people than by Chechens. We don't even have time to pick up our dead, just no time. Either we're fighting the Chechens, or our own air force is bombing us."
Polyakov added that they had been ordered "to kill everybody, from kids to old people, not just Chechens but also Russians."
The two soldiers said they went into a house in the northeast Grozny neighborhood of Kalinino on Wednesday to look for food, because they had not had a proper meal for five days. They had been surviving on dry rations that were never enough and were delivered to their positions irregularly.
Moreover, so many of their vehicles had broken down that they had no means of carrying away the dead, they said. When a working vehicle did arrive, it was immediately sent back to base, towing up to two disabled armored personnel carriers behind it.
As the prisoners spoke, Chechen fighters gathered around to listen. Upon hearing the Russians admit that they had broken into the house, one man shouted angrily, "Looters!"
"All we wanted was something to eat," Polyakov muttered.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
Mozdok is in North Ossetia, not Ingushetia.
--- END NOTE ---