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Glitches Mar Russian Show of Force : Chechnya: Troop strength is impressive. But telltale signs indicate that Moscow, if it wins this war, will do so by sheer numbers rather than skill.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To travel the roads north of the Chechen capital, Grozny, is to sneak a look at the innards of the Russian military machine.

The muddy byways are clogged with columns of armor, the checkpoints often manned by barely pubescent boys. Some look as if they barely outweigh their bulletproof vests.

Still, the sheer dimensions of the 7-week-old Russian offensive in 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 that the Russian troop presence in Chechnya that began at a reported 40,000 has swelled dramatically.

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But Russian armies have always 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 last week 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 the sidewalk.

The official version was that two helicopters had crashed, but witnesses said that, in fact, Russian artillery fire accidentally hit the helicopter as it came up over the rise from Grozny.

No one was surprised.

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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 then attack before the Russian troops can figure out that they are enemies. Such painful experiences keep troops’ trigger fingers itchy, he 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 acknowledged even by top Russian officials.

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Col. Vladimir Mamontov, an Interior Ministry commander in Grozny, said that, if he had the Chechen operation to undertake all over again, he would first and foremost “organize cooperation better between the army and the Interior Ministry.”

Also, he said, he would never 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 the rest became sitting targets, unable to escape. The tactic has already been discarded in favor of more mobile forces, he said.

In a Russian military tradition, the men in the field appear to be 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.

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At a checkpoint near Grozny, soldiers had been given logs for firewood instead of field stoves and were busy boiling potatoes they had cleaned themselves to mix in with the cans 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 is also a 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.

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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 that after sneaking into the airport, he had searched for an Interior Ministry press center for a whole day--but found nothing.

The military police told reporters to go to the city’s Culture Palace, which is similar to a community center, and to check Office 35. The office held only a group of ethnic Kumyks, a small Russian minority, discussing a cultural program.

The military police then said to try the Mozdok Hotel, where the old woman at reception said that an officer she believed might be some kind of spokesman was staying in Room 38. He wasn’t there.

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Perhaps the only reliable tip 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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