Thursday, September 01, 2005

Chechnya in 1919

Window on Eurasia:

Volunteer Army's Operation in Chechnya in 1919 a Model for Today

Paul Goble

Tartu, August 31 - One measure of Moscow's increasing desperation in Chechnya is the appearance of an essay by a Russian historian who argues that Russian security forces would enjoy more success in the future if they were to copy the strategy and tactics used by anti-Bolshevik forces in the northern Caucasus during the Russian civil war in 1919.

In an article written on the basis of extensive archival research, Sergei Balmasov notes that the Russian Volunteer Army developed a highly sophisticated approach to Chechnya and thus was able to pacify the entire republic in the course of only 18 days ith minimal losses in men and materiel (

For that reason and because both the White Russians then and the Russian government now oppose granting the Chechens independence, Balmasov continues, the actions of units of the Volunteer Army in Chechnya during March-April 1919 "can provide valuable lessons for the actions of our force structures now," none of which has had equivalent success.

The initial efforts of the Volunteer Army in Chechnya were not successful, Balmasov points out. At first, units under the command of Generals Pokrovskiy and Shatilov used the same tactics that they had employed in ethnic Russian and Cossack units and were repulsed by a joint Chechen-Bolshevik force.

But after committing additional forces, the Whites did manage to occupy Grozny on January 23, 1919. Unfortunately for them, Balmasov notes,that proved a hollow victory: the Chechen opposition forces simply withdrew into the mountains and refused to negotiate with Russian officers committed to a unified Russian state.

After taking unacceptable losses from Chechen hit-and-run attacks, the Volunteer Army changed commanders and changed tactics, and as a result, within two months, the Whites not only had repulsed the Reds but had succeeded in winning Chechen acceptance of the principle of autonomy within Russia.

The new White commander was MajorGeneral Daniil Pavlovich Dratsenko,a young officer who had first distinguished himself in punitive expeditions against the Kurds in northern Persia in 1912-13. Both before and during those actions, Balmasov says, Dratsenko made a close study of the mentality of eastern peoples and the best tools to use against them.

Dratsenko concluded that the most effective way to defeat an insurgency in the east was through the massive use of force against particular locations - an early version of what some would later call "shock and awe" - without any attempt to destroy opposition military formations or to garrison territories in the event of the withdrawal of the latter.

Balmasov cites the judgment of one of Dratsenko's staff officers who said his general understood that because the Chechens are such a highly imaginative people, they are invariably impressionable - and thus are certain to attribute more to a particular massive defeat or an individual victory than others do.

As a result, inflicting a psychological defeat by destroying one of their villages iw what Dratsenko decided was the best way to intimidate the Chechens and bring them to the negotiating table. And that is precisely what he and the units under his command did,first destroying one aul and then saying they would destroy others if the Chechens refused to talk.

With that goal in mind, Dratsenko reduced the Volunteer Army's traditional reliance on cavalry and instead employed massive amounts of artillery and well-placed infantry units to ensure that the Chechens would not be able to flee before experiencing what modern artillery barrages could do.

Having achieved the destruction of one Chechen village, Dratsenko achieved a "psychological" victory over the Chechens even though he chose not to try to occupy any new territory. That allowed him to open talks with the Chechens and gain their acceptance of broad autonomy within a united Russia.

Obviously the situation inChechnya now is different than the one that existed 86 years ago, Balmasov concedes, but the White Movement's development of a strategy based on an understanding of Eastern psychology was remarkably effective, at least until the general collapse of the White front in south Russia made it irrelevant.

And Balmasov concludes with words that are certain to gain his argument the attention of at least some in Russia's force structures now: He writes that "if the White Guard commanders had acted in the spring of 1919 as the federal forces are today, then the entire Volunteer Army would not have been enough for the pacification of Chechnya."

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