Chechen rebels killed at least 1,500 Russian soldiers in recent fighting and destroyed some 70 armored vehicles, including 13 of Moscow’s newest T-90 main battle tanks.
Pentagon intelligence officials told The Washington Times the T-90s were knocked out by Chechen guerrillas using rocket-propelled grenade launchers during fighting that has been going on since August.
Grenade launchers are one of the main weapons used by the lightly armed Muslim rebels, who have been battling thousands of Russia’s front-line infantry and armored units in the Caucasus fighting.
“It took them five or 10 rounds [for each tank], but they were able to knock out the tanks,” said one intelligence official.
After weeks of fighting that included large-scale artillery attacks with advanced munitions and Scud ballistic missiles, the Russian military captured the Chechen provincial capital of Grozny last week. The forces are continuing to pursue the rebels with aerial attacks in the province’s southern mountains.
Chechen rebels captured at least 32 Russian soldiers, whose fate is unknown, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon statistics on the war in Chechnya are based on classified assessments. The Clinton administration has not released any public figures on the conflict and has been reluctant to discuss Russian or Chechen military activities in the Caucasus.
The Pentagon’s casualty estimates are higher than official Russian government estimates, but smaller than figures reported by official Russian news media. Some news organizations in Moscow have estimated the number of dead as high as 5,000.
One official account from Moscow security sources stated that 926 soldiers were killed and 2,432 wounded in the fighting. Another estimate from Russian defense sources put casualties at 1,152 dead and 3,246 wounded since major ground operations were launched in August.
Among those killed was Russian Gen. Mikhail Malofeyev. Another Russian officer, a member of the MVD internal security forces, was captured by the Chechens, according to the Pentagon officials.
A DIA spokesman declined to comment about the assessments.
The T-90, Russia’s most modern tank, is equipped with reactive armor designed to fortify it against explosive attacks.
Officials said the Chechen rebels’ successful attacks without armor-piercing weapons is a sign the tank is not well built.
The tank’s 125 mm cannon can fire standard tank shells as well as laser-guided missiles.
Other Pentagon intelligence officials said the Russians have begun mopping-up operations in Grozny and have begun to launch new attacks on rebel strongholds outside Grozny and in mountain regions.
According to intelligence reports, the Islamic Taleban movement that controls much of Afghanistan recently offered to allow the retreating Chechen rebels to set up a government in exile.
The rebels also are seeking to move into parts of Ukraine during their retreat, according to news reports from the region.
Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week that the conflict in Chechnya “will not be solved by military actions alone.”
“It’s been going on for centuries and it won’t be solved by military action,” the three-star admiral said.
The DIA director said he believes the Russians are “ill-prepared to conduct urban warfare” and are having a hard time subduing the rebels.
Adm. Wilson said Russian military operations have demonstrated the ability to move forces to the region. “However, they have taken a high percentage of their [combat] ready forces to do so,” he said.
“They have used some of the same brute-force tactics that did not work well earlier in the ‘90s, in 1996 specifically of heavy bombardment of the city … followed up with [attacks by] infantry and internal security forces.”
CIA Director George Tenet said in testifying with Adm. Wilson that the Russians can expect continued resistance by the Chechens.
“Whatever victory they might secure, they certainly have to face a long-term type of guerrilla warfare coming from the Chechens,” Mr. Tenet said. “I think they’re encountering that kind of activity now, and I think they’re seeing evidence of mounting casualties.”
Russian aircraft yesterday launched bombing attacks against Chechnya’s southern mountains in a bid to attack rebel bases there, the Associated Press reported.
About 7,000 Chechen rebels are believed to be operating in the region.
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev told reporters in Moscow that plans are under way for a new military offensive against rebel strongholds in the southern mountains.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday condemning the government of Pakistan for allowing a visit to Pakistan by former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbyev. “The Pakistani military administration is entirely responsible for the organization of Yandarbyev’s trip to Pakistan, and for a large anti-Russian campaign in the country,” the statement said.
“In practically joining the alliance made up of Chechen bandits, Taleban and Pakistan extremists, certain circles in Islamabad are contributing to the creation of an entire chain of international terrorism,” the ministry statement said.
State Department official Stephen Sestanovich told reporters yesterday that Russian military operations are “an understandable effort to protect Russian territorial integrity and to counter the activities of terrorists” but the conflict “has come at enormous and horrendous human cost.”