Chechen fighter outside the Presidential Palace. This was the primary objective of the New Year’s Eve Russian assault. The command of the Chechen resistance was in a bunker in the basement of this building and remained active until overrun by Russian troops. (Getty)
The Initial Russian Attack into Grozny, December 1994.
By December 30, 1994, the Russian forces completely surrounded the city of Grozny. Though positioned on most of the major routes into the city, the Russians did not orient their force to isolate the city. For most of the battle the Chechen forces were able to bring supplies and reinforcements into the city from the southeast.
Four assault task forces were formed to attack into the city along four separate axes. From the southwest, General Major Petruk would attack with a regiment from 76th Airborne Division and two mechanized assault groups from the 19th Motorized Rifle Regiment. Their objective was the city railroad station, and to isolate the Presidential Palace from the south. A task force under General Major Pulikovsky was assigned to attack from the northwest with the 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade, and elements of the 276th and 81st motorized rifle regiments. The 255th Motorized Rifle Regiment under General Rokhlin was given the mission to attack the city from the northeast. Finally, General Staskov was to lead the southeastern task force consisting of elements of the 129th Motorized Rifle Regiment and part of the 98th Airborne Division. Their mission was to occupy the southeastern part of the city and seize a series of bridges over the Sunzha River. On paper this appeared to be a very formidable force and a solid plan, but only because it did not reflect the problems inherent throughout the Russian military in 1994. None of the units had trained in large-scale military operations, much less urban warfare. The motorized rifle units in particular were made up of hastily assembled units from all over Russia and many soldiers had only been together for a few weeks. Collective training as a unit was almost nonexistent and the individual training of many soldiers barely covered the use of their individual small arms. Commanders were not given time to conduct detailed planning for their missions, undertake reconnaissance, or rehearse with their troops.
The Russians were not expecting to fight a sustained battle for the city of Grozny, nor were they mentally or physically prepared for such a battle. Thus, as the battle developed, initial failings on the Russian side were as much due to lack of understanding of the situation as to professional incompetence, although there was an abundance of the latter. There were three phases of the battle. Phase one was the opening days of the attack. During this phase Russian commanders and soldiers were not fully aware of the combat environment in which they were engaged. In phase two of the battle, the Russian forces reorganized, developed tactics, and systematically wrestled the northern portion of the city from the Chechen defenders. In the final phase of the battle, Russian forces secured the city, eliminated the remaining Chechen forces in the northern part of the city, and pushed the Chechen forces out of southern Grozny.
The plan for the entry into the city was reasonably well conceived. However, its execution was extremely poor. Of the four major commands that were to enter the city, only one mounted a determined effort. In the west, the predominantly airborne forces of General Major Petruk encountered light resistance in the industrial areas just outside the city. However, the planned air support for the attack did not appear, and the units stopped their advance to await developments. In the east the airborne task force under General Major Staskov met heavier resistance on its assigned route of advance. The Russian forces, rather than fight through the resistance, turned north seeking an alternate route. They then ran into minefields and barricades. This force too, stopped its attack and awaited further orders. The northeastern force, under General Rokhlin, moved into the outskirts of the city and then considered its mission accomplished and switched to the defensive. The only force that made a determined effort to achieve its assigned objectives was the mechanized task force under General Major Pulikovsky approaching from the northeast – and they paid a great price for it.
General Pulikovsky’s force began its movement at 6am on December 31. Though ostensibly attacking to seize the city, the command’s understanding of the situation was completely unrealistic. Pulikovsky and his subordinates viewed the operation as a show of force to intimidate the Chechens into submitting to Moscow’s governance. They did not expect any serious opposition and therefore the units moved forward in a column formation with no reconnaissance or security forces deployed. Some of the motorized infantry slept in the back of their armored carriers. By midday, Pulikovsky’s force had entered the outskirts of the city. The 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment proceeded down Pervomayskaya Street moving directly south toward the Presidential Palace, while the 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade moved parallel to them to the west along Staropromyslovskoye Boulevard and then Mayakovskaya Street. Initially all went well and the tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled slowly down the very quiet streets of the city in carefully organized and aligned columns – as if on parade. The movement was very slow and deliberate, partly because the Russians were in no hurry, and partly because the units were not well trained and commanders wanted to ensure they did not lose control.
In the early afternoon, the 81st MRR made contact with the Chechen defenders. Numerous Chechen battle groups, probably totaling more than a thousand fighters, ambushed the carefully spaced column of armored vehicles from buildings and alleys on both sides of the street. Squads of fighters engaged with the armored vehicles with machine guns and RPGs from the upper stories of buildings. The top armor of the tanks and armored vehicles was thin: the RPGs easily penetrated the armor and destroyed numerous vehicles. The leaders of the Chechen forces were veterans of the Soviet army and knew how to execute an ambush. The attacks focused first on the lead and trail vehicles in each march unit. Once they were destroyed, the other vehicles were trapped and exposed in the street, which quickly became congested. Then, at a more leisurely pace, the RPG fire systematically engaged the rest of the column. Russian officers tried to rally their men but the buildings made radio communications difficult and the individual Russian units were hastily put together, consisted of many new conscripts, and very poorly trained. They were not equipped to operate on their own and when isolated by the ambush and lack of communications, discipline quickly broke down. Russian troops abandoned their vehicles and fought their way to the rear. Many didn’t make it to the hastily organized rally points. The Russians found that the ZSU-23-4 mobile antiaircraft vehicle, which was armed with four rapid-firing 23mm cannon, was one of the few weapons that could quickly and effectively suppress Chechen ambush positions. The rapid fire of the heavy cannon easily penetrated building walls, and the ability of the turret to traverse rapidly and elevate the guns to rooftops intimidated snipers and RPG gunners. The performance of the ZSUs was a small Russian success in an otherwise dismal battle performance. The crews of tanks and BMP mechanized fighting vehicles jumped from their vehicles, often while they were still operational, and made their way by foot to the rear. Other vehicles did not move, waiting in vain for orders, their engines idling until they were hit and set ablaze by Chechen RPGs. By afternoon the attack of the 81st MRR was completely defeated and the regiment was chased from the streets of Grozny, leaving behind dozens of abandoned and destroyed tanks and personnel carriers.
In contrast to the advance of the 81st MRR, the 131st Rifle Brigade’s move into the city was unopposed. By 3pm the brigade had reached its initial objective and reported no opposition. It was ordered on to its final objective in the center of town: the main railway station and town square. The brigade was unaware of the fate of the 81st MMR. By late afternoon the brigade reported its arrival at the railway station without opposition. One battalion occupied the station; a second battalion occupied the freight station several blocks away. The third battalion remained in reserve on the outskirts of the city. The troops at the main station dismounted and many went into the station and generally took a break. No effort was made to establish a defensive position. The brigade assumed the other attacking units were having similar experiences and would soon be linking with them at the station.
Not long after arriving at the station, the 300 men of the 1st Battalion, 131st Brigade were engaged by Chechen small-arms fire. After destroying the 81st MRR, Chechen fighters roamed the city looking for additional Russian units to attack, and discovered the unprepared battalions of the 131st. The Chechen fighting groups communicated by radio and soon fighters from all over the city swarmed toward the railway station. Suddenly BMP infantry fighting vehicles and tanks in the city square were exploding from RPG hits. Many of the Russian troops were dismounted and not near their vehicles. Troops who were in the vehicles were caught unaware, had no idea what was happening or where the enemy was, and because of their poor training, were unable to respond effectively. The Russian soldiers found themselves surrounded and under attack from rockets and machine guns from all sides. Estimates are that over a thousand Chechen fighters surrounded the station. Officers who moved into the open to evaluate the situation and rally their men were quickly cut down. Due to poor communications, and poor coordination, radio calls for reinforcements and artillery support went unanswered. The troops at the railway station formed a perimeter in and around the railway station and waited for reinforcements.
The fight at the railway station quickly engulfed the battalion at the freight station and it too saw its stationary vehicles destroyed by rockets fired by quick-moving gunners popping out of alleys or firing from the upper stories and roofs of buildings. Machine-gun fire and snipers kept the battalion pinned down, and destroyed vehicles blocked many of the streets. As in the 81st MRR ambush, tank crews found that their main guns could not depress low enough to engage enemy in the basements of buildings, or elevate high enough to engage the upper stories and roofs of buildings. In some cases crews panicked, and were gunned down as they abandoned tanks and armored personnel vehicles that were still operational. The reserve battalion was ordered to move in and reinforce the engaged elements of the brigade, but they were ambushed on the same streets that had been clear and quiet that morning and were quickly pinned down and fighting for their own survival. As darkness fell, the battle at the railway station raged on.
The morning of January 1 began with groups of Russians, including the bulk of the 131st Brigade, pinned down in the city or on the routes leading into it. Russian operations focused on extracting their forces and suppressing the Chechen fighters. Weather grounded the Russian air force on January 1 and 2, but the Russians relied heavily on the one weapon that the Chechens and the weather had little ability to affect: artillery. Russian artillery began pounding the city on January 1, in what appeared to be an indiscriminate manner. In reality, the Russians were attempting to hit what they thought were Chechen defensive positions, not realizing that what they perceived as a deliberate Chechen defense of the city built around strong defensive points was in reality moving ambushes. Thus, Russian artillery ravaged blocks of apartments as well as obvious military targets such as the Presidential Palace. The main victims of the barrages were Chechen civilians. Russian units remained trapped in the city, most notably the battalions of the 131st Brigade, hunkered down in defensive positions under constant Chechen sniping. Units outside the city, in particular parachute infantry units that had not been prepared to attack the previous day, attempted to renew the attack but the Chechen fighters, buoyed by their success the previous day, stymied all Soviet attempts to resume the attack. The Russian units outside the city were still unclear of the situation inside the city and the position of the surrounded units. Some Spetsnaz Russian special forces and paratroopers penetrated into the city but had no real objective. They wandered the city trying to avoid being cut-off themselves and eventually fought their way back to their own lines.
On January 2, the remnants of the 131st, mounted in previously abandoned armored vehicles recovered from the battlefield, attempted to break out of the city. The brigade commander was killed as the survivors fought through Chechen ambushes to escape the city. By January 3, what remained of the brigade had either escaped the city, died, or been captured. The brigade had lost the entire 1st Battalion – approximately 300 men and 40 armored vehicles. In total the brigade lost 102 of 120 armored vehicles, and 20 of 26 tanks; almost all of the officers in the brigade had been killed; total casualties in the brigade were approximately 700–800 personnel. The 81st MRR lost approximately 60 armored vehicles and suffered several hundred casualties. In total the two brigades that attacked from the north lost over 200 armored vehicles of all types, and sustained approximately 1,500 casualties. The Chechen fighters tried to take advantage of their success and push the Russian forces completely out of Grozny on January 2 and 3, however the Russian forces were very formidable in defense and the Chechens suffered significant casualties without removing the Russians from the city approaches. The failed Chechen counterattacks ended the first and bloodiest phase of the battle for the city.
After the defeat of the New Year’s Eve attack, the Russian army reorganized, reevaluated, and prepared to renew the offensive. The second phase of the assault to capture Grozny began on January 7, 1995. This time the Russians executed a systematic attack in which infantry platoons supported by tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, artillery and mortar fire, and air strikes, systematically advanced through the city toward the Presidential Palace. The small Russian assault groups attacked each building, captured it, and used it as a base to assault the next position. Artillery fire advanced ahead of the infantry. Tank fire raked each building before the infantry attacked. In this manner the Russians advanced steadily, block by block, toward their objective. They also systematically destroyed the city as they moved, and undoubtedly killed countless civilians caught up in their advance.
As the Russians attempted to advance on January 7 they met renewed Chechen resistance. The Chechens used a variety of techniques to thwart the rapid Russian advance. Civilians were taken hostage, Chechen fighters blended in with the civil population wearing civilian clothing, buildings and derelict vehicles were booby-trapped, sewers and other subterranean tunnels were used to move unobserved behind advancing Russian forces, and minefields and barricades were used to channel Russian forces into prepared ambush sites. The Russians responded by increasing the use of artillery and dispatching small reconnaissance units. The reconnaissance units were also tasked with finding pockets of Russian survivors from the New Year’s Eve attack and Russian soldiers being held prisoner in the city. Despite firing artillery into the city at a rate of 20–30 rounds a minute, the Russians were unable to make significant advances. Reports indicated that even Russian special operations units were captured by the Chechens. On January 9 the Russians paused and unilaterally declared a cease-fire to begin the next day and last until January 12. Both sides violated the cease-fire but no major offensive operations occurred.
On January 12, Russian forces resumed the attack, beginning with a three-hour artillery and rocket barrage aimed at the city center. Intense fighting occurred as reinforced Russian units fought building to building toward the city center aiming to capture their original objectives including the railway station and the Presidential Palace. Elite Russian naval infantry units were added to the mixture of Spetsnaz, paratroopers, motorized infantry, and tank units fighting into the city. Additional Russian troops moved south of the city to attempt to close routes that were being used to both resupply and reinforce the Chechen forces in the city, and evacuate key leaders and heavy equipment out of the city. For five days Russian forces systematically fought toward the city center. On January 19 the Russians secured the Presidential Palace and two days later the train station and the center of the city. The Russians then moved to the north bank of the Sunzha River and mopped up remaining pockets of Chechen fighters. On January 26, Russian military units turned over control of Grozny north of the river to internal security police forces. Chechen resistance in the center of the city had collapsed, but the battle was not over. The Chechen combat groups, estimated by the Russians to number about 3,500 fighters, withdrew over the Sunzha River, blowing up bridges as they withdrew, and established a new defense on the south side of the river.
While police security forces, reinforced by the army, battled isolated pockets of Chechen fighters left on the north bank of the river, Russian military forces crossed the river to drive the fighters from their remaining strongpoints in the final phase of the battle. The Russians made liberal use of air support, attack helicopters, artillery, and Shmel flamethrowers. The Shmel weapons were particularly effective at clearing snipers and RPG gunners from suspected ambush positions. The Chechens were fighting a rearguard action not so much to protect withdrawing forces but rather to draw out the battle. Every day of resistance and fighting in Grozny was a political and propaganda victory for the Chechens. On February 8, the Russians declared 80 percent of the city under their control. On February 16, a four-day cease-fire was called to exchange prisoners and wounded. On February 20, combat resumed and three days later the Russians surrounded the last significant Chechen forces in the city ending major operations.