Secessionism in the small autonomous north Caucasus republic of Chechnya led to two Russian campaigns, the first from 1994 to 1996 and the second beginning in 1999 and, in a much reduced form, continuing at the time of this writing. Of Chechnya’s land area, totaling some one hundred by eighty kilometers, about 11 percent is comprised of medium-high mountain and 8 percent of high mountains. The area of medium height is heavily forested particularly over the slopes facing north, with beech forests, oak, elders, and hornbeam. In the first Chechen war, after Russia’s violent “shock and awe” campaign had flattened Chechnya’s capital city of Grozny and cleared the lower areas of Chechnya, the insurgents withdrew to the higher ground in the south and its sixty-mile-long border with independent Georgia. The forested mountain areas with the two Argun rivers provide a route of entry into Chechnya both for supplies and foreign volunteers, such as Saudi Arabian Wahabis, Uzbekhs, Somalis, and others. In times of difficulty the forests could also serve as a route for any hard-pressed insurgent band to escape into safety. Road transport in these areas is, at best, difficult and dangerous because of limited visibility; at times, especially in the rainy season, vehicle movement is impossible. In the nineteenth century the tsar’s army had cut open some swathes of forest to provide fields of fire and some protection against ambushes. The Russians tried to follow their forebears’ tactics, together with helicopter logistic supply support for outposts and border posts.
In both Chechen wars the Russians experienced great difficulty in flying helicopters in the forest rayons. Wind conditions could vary greatly and suddenly both in direction and strength, making landings hazardous and any use of helicopters as gunships quite uncertain. In the first conflict the Russians sought to extend shock and awe, and the destruction of villages on the edges of the forests, by positioning artillery at the actual edge and firing into the forest while dropping random bombs at the same time. Some of the bombs and shells were new, highly destructive, tactical-level, thermobasic, or fuel-air explosives. In their occasional forays into the forest, poorly prepared Russian soldiers were more concerned with preserving their own lives than with attacking their opponents; the forays achieved little. The Chechen insurgents, supported by well-publicized foreign Muslim volunteers often of little military value, would then withdraw further into the forests, trying to lure the Russians into pursuit to then ambush them from all sides. Some insurgent bands either lived entirely in the woods or found shelter in remote forest villages, emerging to strike at Russian posts or headquarters. Russians initially remained prudent in the use of helicopters, keeping them airborne. One reason for this caution was the sharp differences of opinion on how, or even whether, the war should be fought and which of the many rival government services and agencies should be in charge. These differences eventually led to a cease-fire and the end of the first war.
In the second war the Russians and their Chechen collaborators again saw their priority as taking control of Grozny and the lower ground areas, hoping that, by so doing, resistance would continue for only a short time in the mountains and forests. Russian forces were by now better equipped and trained with much greater gun, mortar, and rocket-launcher firepower which they planned to use at maximum range. Artillery or mortar batteries were attached to company-level sub- units in all areas. With the aim of securing their approved Chechen leaders’ power; the Russians again launched a heavy assault on Grozny, flattening the capital city and its surrounding suburbs and towns, the areas of economic importance. Included in these assaults were units equipped with the Buratino, a 36-barreled rocket launcher capable of firing incendiary or fuel-air explosives and laser-guided projectiles from their 220-mm mortars. Having devastated the low country, the Russians moved to more proactive incursions into the forest areas in the south, particularly in the Shatovski rayons. The incursions mostly took the form of raids mounted from the forest edges preceded by artillery shelling and aircraft bombing; pursuit groups with flame throwers would seek to encircle forest bands. The Russians admitted, however, that many escaped.
Other groups were landed by helicopter in small village areas or small open clearings deep in the southern mountain forests. These groups were usually Special Forces rather than line infantry and were to meet unexpected hazards. The Russians have been reticent and have not released a full account of all the practical difficulties these missions experienced, but accounts of two disasters and other press reports pro- vide some insight.
The first disaster occurred at the end of February 2000, when airborne solders of a Parachute Desyant Company were massacred in or following a helicopter landing on a forest-covered hill near Ulus Kert. The second occurred in April 2007, when an HIP Mil Mi-8 helicopter carrying men of the 22nd Spetsnez Military Intelligence Brigade crashed near Sanoy, killing all the men aboard. The brigade had been called to help units already on the ground who were in pursuit of an insurgent group but had become bogged down in mud. The Russian HIP helicopters were old, most twenty-five years old or more, with reduced rotor thrust and other control problems. Further, in the HIP and other Russian helicopters the pilot’s range of vision was limited to the front, making landings in windy conditions in small tree-lined spaces very dangerous indeed. Between 19 August 2002 and 27 April 2007, a total of eighteen helicopters were lost in Chechnya, seven by fire from the ground, three by crashing into a mountain, and the remainder by technical problems or pilot error causing rotor blades to hit treetops. But as the Russian pursuit attacks became progressively more effective, Chechen forest and mountain resistance fell. The strategy of opposition changed to one of sporadic attacks in Russia and the neighboring autonomous republics. The death of the leading Chechen guerrilla leader led to a nominal cease-fire and the installation of a client regime. In Russia itself the small number of casualties per month continues to arouse criticism, and on a remote forest-lined stretch of the Moscow-St. Petersburg railway, North Caucasian insurgents blew up the prestigious Nevsky Express train in November 2009, killing twenty-six people and wounding at least a hundred.
Much useful information on the Chechnya operations may be found in Lieutenant-Colonel C. W. Blandy, North Caucasus: Problems of Helicopter Support in Mountains (Swindon, UK: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, 2007).
Michael Orr, “Better or Just Not So Bad, an Evaluation of Russian Combat Efficiency in the Second Chechen War,” and Lester W. Grau “Technology and the Second Chechen Campaign,” both in Anne Aldis, ed., The Second Chechen War (Swindon, UK: Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, 2000)