Note by the Saker: as the Russian Airborne Forces are celebrating their 85th anniversary I decided to publish here an article written in the July-August edition of Military Review which describes this tragic but very important event.
by Sergeant Michael D. Wilmoth, US Army Reserve, and Lieutenant Colonel Peter G. Tsouras, US Army Reserve, Retired
In four days of desperate fighting, from 29 February to 3 March 2000, a large force of Chechen fighters wiped out a Russian paratroop company in the harsh defiles and ridges of the Argun Gorge in the mountains of southern Chechnya. Although the battle was a catastrophic tactical defeat for the Russian airborne force, the company’s stubborn defense to the last man and the concentration of Russian relief forces inflicted a strategic setback on the Chechens. The Russians stumbled into this catastrophe through poor unit leadership, but Russian blood and valor transformed it into victory.
Hatred to the Bone
In Fall 1999, the Second Chechen War began. The Russian Army sought to reimpose the Russian Federation’s authority in lawless, breakaway Chechnya. The Russians and Chechens’ shared 200-year history had been punctuated by convulsions of blood and cruelty. The First Chechen War, from 1994 to 1996, had ended in the Russian Army’s humiliation and left Russia with its highest loss of resources and professionalism since the Soviet Union’s demise. The loss of basic combat skills also had been horrific. This second round was the Russian Army’s opportunity to show that it had recovered something of its former ability.
Nothing expressed the depth of Russian-Chechen animosity more than the battle cries hurled back and forth across the firing lines during the siege of Groznyy. To the Chechen shouts of “Allah Akhbar!” the Russians would respond, “Christ is Risen!”
After Groznyy fell, Chechen forces regrouped in the rough, mountainous areas of southern Chechnya. By late February, a large Chechen force of from 1,600 and 2,500 fighters had concentrated in the town of Ulus-Kert, where the Abazolgul and Sharoargun rivers join.1 The area was one in which the Russians had not dared enter during the First Chechen War. This time, they did not hesitate to follow.
A Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) tactical group attacked Chechen forces at Ulus-Kert, forcing them southeast. One of the VDV tactical group’s regimental task forces, based on the 104th Guards Parachute Regiment (GPR) of the 76th Guards Airborne Division (GAD), was to block the gorge while the VDV tactical group encircled the Chechens.
Area of Operations
The small town of Ulus-Kert is surrounded by extremely steep, mountainous terrain. Approximately 6 kilometers south of the town and extending far to the southeast are the Dargenduk Mountains. A road leading generally south out of Ulus-Kert and up the northeastern edge of the Dargenduks crosses over a 1,410-meter hill, referred to as Hill 1410. Approximately 1.5 kilometers directly southeast of Ulus-Kert is Hill 705.6. Just about one-half kilometer south of Hill 705.6 is a narrow opening to a small gorge. Three and one-half kil-ometers southeast of Ulus-Kert, on the gorge’s easternmost side, is Hill 776. Hill 787 is only 1 kilometer farther south.
A road leading southeast from Ulus-Kert over Hill 705.6 turns south into the gorge. Another road intersects the first then leads to the western edge of the saddle between hills 776 and 787 where it divides into mountain paths crossing the saddle. Hill 787 is approximately 4.3 kilometers north of Hill 1410. At the time of the operation, the weather was foggy and cold, with snow on the ground.
The Chechens planned to escape advancing Russian forces by using the advantage of the mountainous terrain southeast of Ulus-Kert. After slipping through the passes, the fighters could seize the strategic population centers of Makhkety, Elistanzhi, Zaduli, Kirov-Yurt and Vedeno, which provided a west-to-east corridor in relatively low, flat terrain through which remaining Chechen forces could withdraw to Dagestan.2 From Dagestan, they could renew the struggle on more favorable terms.
The VDV tactical group’s mission was to counter the Chechen force’s objectives by blocking its escape through the mountains then encircling it so artillery and combat air support could be used. Engaging infantry soldiers in direct combat was to be kept to a minimum. The plan to encircle Chechen forces—a common Russian tactic—reflects the Russians’ desire to minimize casualties.
The First Chechen War had not been popular with the Russian populace because of the high death rate. Tension was also rife in the Russian command arrangement. Airborne forces felt they were being used as cannon fodder to reduce casualties among motorized infantry troops. Underlying this tension was the old rivalry between Russian airborne forces and ground forces. Historically, the VDV had been a separate service. Briefly in the late 1990s, it had been subordinated to ground forces. Newly appointed commander of Russian airborne forces Colonel General Georgiy Shpak had obtained a reversal of this decision and zealously guarded the VDV’s independence.
Shpak streamlined the organization and obtained new missions for it, primarily in peacekeeping operations. By the time operations around Ulus-Kert were under way, the grouping of airborne forces had been subordinated to Colonel General Gennadiy N. Troshev, Commander of the Eastern Grouping of Federal Forces, who reported directly to General of the Army Viktor Kazantsev, who commanded the Operations Group, Joint Grouping of Federal Forces, in the North Caucasus. The arrangement was not a happy one; airborne forces felt they were not being properly supported.3
The Battle Begins
The VDV tactical group was a task force based on divisional parachute regiments augmented with VDV command-level assets, such as reconnaissance subunits. The 104th GPR task force was assigned the mission of blocking Chechen escape routes east through the mountains. 104th GPR, like most Soviet/Russian parachute regiments, had three airborne battalions, an artillery battalion equipped with two S9, 120-millimeter, self-propelled guns and various support assets. Each airborne battalion had three airborne companies numbered sequentially one through nine, with the first, second and third companies composing the 1st Airborne Battalion and so on. Each 104th GPR company was augmented with reconnaissance and/or SPETSNAZ subunits from the VDV command to form company tactical groups.4
Hills 705.6, 776, 787 and 1410 were the main features of the net 104th GPR used to encircle the Chechen force. The VDV tactical group’s main body crossed the Sharoargun and Abazolgul rivers, pushing the Chechen force out of Ulus-Kert toward the southeast. 104th GPR’s 1st Company, 1st Airborne Battalion, still had not crossed either the Abazolgul or the Sharoargun. An unidentified 104th GPR company was on or near Hill 705.6. 4th Company and an unidentified 104th GPR airborne company, two VDV SPETS-NAZ groups and an elite Federal Security Service (FSB)—successor to the KGB—SPETSNAZ group, known as Vympel, were on Hill 1410. Present at 2d Airborne Battalion Headquarters on Hill 776 were Commander, 2d Airborne Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Niko-layevich Yevtyukhin, and Captain Viktor Romanov, the commander of an artillery battery of the regimental artillery battalion who was heading a forward observer team. 6th Company, commanded by Major Sergey Molodov, was en route to the saddle between Hills 776 and 787. 104th GPR was engaged in positioning companies to block escape routes over the mountains.
The Chechen force, retreating to the southeast of Ulus-Kert along a road leading over Hill 705.6 away from the main advancing body of the VDV tactical group, was looking for the first unguarded or weakly held way over the mountains. The 1,600 to 2,500 fighters wore winter camouflage and were well equipped with various small arms, grenade launchers and mortars. They were supported by a logistics train of hundreds of pack animals.
Day 1, 29 February 2000
Early on 29 February, a 104th GPR airborne company encountered a significant Chechen force on the road leading southeast out of Ulus-Kert. Russian paratroopers engaged the Chechen fighters for control of Hill 705.6. The Russian company, significantly stressed during the fight, gained control of the hill and pushed the Chechen force southeast into the small gorge below. The company was most likely heavily supported by artillery and helicopters, as was the usual Russian operation in this war.
The 104th GPR commander ordered 2d Airborne Battalion elements to block the saddle between hills 776 and 787, which was the next possible path over the mountains for the Chechens. The 2d Airborne Battalion headquarters was already in place on Hill 776. The 2d Airborne Battalion element was to be in place by 1400. In the early morning, 6th Company, including the third platoon, 4th Company, and two reconnaissance groups, probably from the regimental reconnaissance platoon, started on foot toward the saddle.5
6th Company, with the other elements, minus the company’s third platoon, arrived by late morning, ahead of schedule. The company commander established a linear defense in the saddle between the hills, fronted by a minefield facing west toward the gorge. The defense focused on the Chechen forces’ expected direction of escape. No access routes through the minefield were prepared nor were platoon positions sited to be mutually supportive.6 After establishing company positions, troops began their afternoon meal, leaving their positions and congregating in the open.7
The Chechen force clearly had a better grasp of the situation. The fighters had been listening to 104th GPR communications and used this advantage and good ground reconnaissance to locate 104th GPR subunits and to set ambushes. At 1230, a 6th Company reconnaissance patrol encountered approximately 20 fighters just outside company defensive positions. That the Chechens could approach that close without detection shows that the Russians had conducted no deep reconnaissance of the approaches to the saddle.
The Chechens, armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers and mortars, reacted quickly, seizing the initiative. The small force was probably followed by a combat element, which would have been consistent with Soviet-style reconnaissance doctrine that places great value on immediately seizing the initiative in any engagement by having a strong combat element close behind the advance reconnaissance element.8 Chechen reconnaissance elements also worked their way around the Russian position in the saddle and attacked from the rear where there were no defenses.9 With Chechens in the rear and no escape routes through their own minefield, 6th Company pulled back and dug in on Hill 776. Their retreat was so precipitous that they abandoned mess kits still full of food.10
Chechen fighters, laying down constant fire on 6th Company, received reinforcements as the main body arrived. The force encircled 6th Company and sent waves of fighters into the attack.11 By the end of the first day, 6th Company had suffered 31 dead—a 33 percent killed in action (KIA) rate.12 6th Company had barely survived three basic errors: failure to establish an all-around defense; failure to aggressively conduct reconnaisance of the enemy’s expected approach route, especially given the Chechen reputation for tactical skill, reconnaisance and working around the flanks; and failure to heed warnings about the Chechen force’s approach.13
For some reason, 6th Company did not anticipate with sufficient seriousness and energy the danger it had been assigned to forestall. It seems likely that weak command at the company level was compounded by a lack of timely supervision by the adjacent battalion headquarters.
Day 2, 1 March 2000
Early in the morning on Hill 1410, a reinforcement group of two VDV SPETSNAZ platoons, one Vympel SPETSNAZ group and two airborne companies departed on foot for the saddle. The group encountered several ambushes while traversing terrain as steep as 70 degrees. At approximately 0330, one VDV SPETSNAZ platoon broke through to Hill 787 but was forced to dig in because of stiff Chechen opposition.
The 1st Company was also sent to reinforce 6th Company. While attempting to cross the Abazolgul River northeast of Ulus-Kert, the unit encountered a Chechen ambush force of up to 60 men. Despite repeated attempts to fight through the Chechen ambush, the 1st Company was forced to dig in on the river’s bank. At 0300, during a brief lull, 2d Airborne Battalion deputy commander Major Aleksandr Dostovalov, with 4th Company’s third platoon, broke through to the encircled company. While relief forces were being held back by ambushes, waves of Chechen fighters continued to assault 6th Company on Hill 776.14 When Romanov’s legs were blown off by a mortar round, the battalion commander took over.
While some reports question the lack of artillery and combat air support, others indicate that both where present throughout the four-day engagement. In his report to defense minister Igor Sergeyev, Shpak states that 2d Airborne Battalion “was supported by a self-propelled artillery battalion of the 104th Parachute Regiment and by army aviation.”15 The presence of an artillery forward team with 6th Company, which included a battery commander, indicates that artillery support was at least adequate. While Shpak’s statement and other reports make it certain that VDV artillery was employed throughout the engagement, it is unclear how effective it was at reducing Chechen numbers. Also unanswered is whether additional artillery assets were employed to support 6th Company.
Press reports also cite use of “Grads”—122-millimeter BM-21 multiple-rocket launchers that VDV units do not have.16 Accounts of other engagements in the southern mountains show that the Russians employed available artillery from a number of units in coordination with army aviation helicopters. These accounts stress that artillery continued to fire when helicopters disappeared with daylight. Only one Russian helicopter in the Chechen theater had night capability. This supports Shpak’s statement that 6th Company received no aviation support at night. Helicopter support was further limited by foggy conditions during the fighting.17
The Chechens continued heavy attacks on Hill 776 from all directions throughout the early morning. Paratrooper officers showed an unhesitating willingness to sacrifice themselves, a trait the Germans had frequently noted in the grandfathers of the men on the hill. Dostovalov, already wounded, attacked a group of Chechens trying to carry off a wounded soldier and dispatched them with a grenade. Junior soldiers were equally valiant. After Private Aleksandr Lebedev ran out of ammunition, he threw himself and his last live grenade into a group of Chechens who had wanted him to surrender.
At approximately 0500, the Chechens breached 6th Company defenses. Cumulative casualties and odds of at least 10 to one were too much for the dwindling Russian force. As Chechens overran Hill 776, fighting became hand-to-hand, and Chechens began shooting wounded Russians. The already wounded battalion commander took over the radio from the wounded Romanov and called in artillery fire on his own position, shouting into the radio, “I call artillery on myself!”18 The Chechens suffered grievously from the artillery, and at 0610, communications with the battalion commander were lost.
As the second day of fighting closed, 6th Company counted another 26 paratroopers killed and many wounded. Counting the 31 men who had fallen the day before, 6th Company had suffered a KIA rate of almost two-thirds—57 out of 90 men.19 Chechen casualties also continued to mount. Repeated human-wave attacks are costly, especially when the defenders are supported by artillery and aviation.
The Chechens had been throwing themselves at Hill 776 to keep open a path for the rest of their force. This movement was interrupted by the arrival of the relief force from Hill 1410. Major Andrey Lobanov, commanding a 45th VDV Reconnaisance Regiment SPETSNAZ group, was with this force. He noted that hundreds of pack animals had already passed by. The Russians moved into the saddle and found 6th Company’s abandoned positions and soon encountered a large Chechen group. The Russians retreated to Hill 787 from which they could cover the saddle.
The Russians intercepted the Chechen commander’s desperate orders: “Do not engage in battle. Force your way forward.”20 With the remnants of 6th Company still holding out on Hill 776 and new Russian forces on neighboring Hill 787, the Chechen escape route was dangerously constricted. The Russians sent a reconnaissance platoon into the saddle to find a better position. Instead, it found an ambush by Arab volunteers, covering an attempt by the main Chechen convoy to escape. Having suffered five wounded, the Russians committed another company, hoping to stop the Chechen escape attempt.21
Day 3, 2 March 2000
Late in the morning, the 1st Company broke through Chechen forces and reached the battle area. However, it could not relieve 6th Company, which was still under close attack. One officer and 32 men were still alive. Deputy company commander Captain Roman Sokolov had arrived in Chechnya barely 13 days before. Wounded in the hand, he organized the survivors’ final defense. He placed the six most junior soldiers in the care of Sergeant Andrey Proshev and ordered them to escape. Then, as the Chechens pressed the attack, Sokolov called artillery fire down on his position as a desperate attempt to fend off the enemy. Another 16 paratroopers on Hill 776 were killed in the continuing fighting.22
Day 4, 3 March 2000
The struggle for control of Hills 776 and 787 ended on the fourth day of the fighting. The last 11 paratroopers on Hill 776 were killed.23 The relief force found Proshev’s small band of survivors.24 The surviving Chechens, who had not been able to escape over the saddle before the relief’s arrival, slipped back down into the gorge pursued by paratroopers and hunted by helicopters. The Russian pursuit took them about 5 kilometers east to the village of Selmentausen where a number of escaping Chechens had concentrated.
The Chechens won a Pyrrhic victory. Tarrying to bludgeon through 6th Company allowed VDV forces to fight through difficult terrain and Chechen ambushes to close off the main body’s escape. Most surviving Chechens were ultimately forced back into the gorge, where troops from 104th GPR took a number of prisoners.
While no 6th Company personnel surrendered or were taken prisoner, the four-day struggle resulted in the death of at least 84 VDV soldiers, including 13 officers. Even after losing its senior officers, 6th Company held its final positions against a much larger force.
Chechen casualties included approximately 400 dead. According to Krasnaya Zvezda, the official newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), this figure was based on radio-intercept data, intelligence reports, eyewitnesses, local residents and captured Chechens.25
The Arab volunteers fighting with the Chechens appeared, in particular, to have suffered severely. Heavy Arab casualties would not be unusual among particularly fanatical units, nor would it be unusual for the Chechens to have pushed the Arabs first into harm’s way. Lobanov counted 200 enemy dead on Hill 776 alone, along with 75 Russian paratroopers. Survivor Viktor Sokirko stated, “I took a notebook from the pocket of one of the gunmen with a roster of 100 people; the bullet had hit him right in his heart; it had gone through his Koran.”26
The bodies of the 84 fallen VDV troops were evacuated on foot, with combat aviation providing support. It was shaping up to be a bloody month for the Russian Army; it had a total of 156 dead—a higher KIA rate than during the grimmest comparable period in the storming of Groznyy.27
6th Company accomplished its mission. The Chechen force was blocked from escaping the encirclement. More important, Chechen commanders realized that they could not seize strategic population centers in the low terrain and would be forced to stay in the mountains. In the next few days, a number of Chechen fighters surrendered to the Russians. The day after the battle ended, a Chechen field commander surrendered with 73 men, including 30 wounded—the largest surrender to that date. Made up largely of Chechen teenagers, this band had actually escaped over the saddle before the relief arrived on 2 March. It surrendered on the outskirts of Selmentausen. The young men had had enough of war.28
The loss of 6th Company provoked an interservice exchange of recriminations. At a news conference, Shpak bluntly blamed the disaster on the Eastern Grouping of Forces’ commander, to whom the airborne troops had been subordinated. Shpak’s subordinates added their fire: “It all began back in Dagestan, when Kazantsev sent the airborne troops to their death and protected his own infantry.”29 They claimed airborne forces had been stretched too thin and “in isolation from the main forces. . . . [T]he grouping command treats the airborne troops as cannon fodder.”30
By the middle of March, cumulative airborne casualties gave ammunition for their charges. Shpak reported that 181 airborne soldiers had been killed and 395 wounded in Chechnya out of a force of about 5,100 men. The total Russian force in Chechnya had averaged about 100,000 and had lost 1,291 Defense Ministry troops and 617 Interior Ministry troops for a total of 1,908, suffering 3,190 and 2,107 wounded. Airborne forces had numbered five percent of the force and suffered 10 percent of the deaths.31
Shpak had a point. While the operational concept of blocking and trapping the Chechens was sound, the net was too weak. 104th GPR was forced to commit individual companies, which could not be easily reinforced, to oppose the breakthrough attempt of a lethal brigade-size unit. The airborne net should have been backed up with larger motorized rifle formations. Shpak’s complaints carried enough weight to have the Grouping of Airborne Forces transferred from Troshev’s command to the Joint Grouping of Federal Forces—the overall headquarters for operations in Chechnya.
Reconnaissance and Security
Kazantsev, former commander of the Grouping of Airborne Troops in Chechnya, accurately described the situation: “Such heavy losses could have been avoided. Reconnaissance must be carried out more carefully.”32 After walking over the battlefield, Lobanov, who fought forward with the relief, also said pointedly, “There is a continual question in my head: Why was there no information that such a horde of gunmen was breaking through?”33 Compounding this failure was the lackadaisical attitude toward the company’s security. 6th Company had blinded itself, allowing Chechens the priceless element of surprise. Had 6th Company been properly alerted and ready in proper defenses, it might have been able to hold off the Chechens successfully until relief arrived. One elemental failure cascaded into another, which might explain why the battalion commander suddenly emerged as the defense’s motivating force once the disaster unfolded.
However much the Russian official line emphasizes the heroism of 6th Company paratroopers, the results of the official inquiry ordered by President Vladmir Putin was professionally blunt. The force was accused of “slovenliness, laxity and unprofessionalism.”34 The force showed a glaring loss of basic tactical skills at the company level during the encounters. Such basic tactical considerations should have been uppermost in the company officers’ minds. Whether this was a local aberration or indicates pervasive problems throughout Russian Army elite forces, the VDV’s failure poses important questions about Russian capabilities. While the VDV performed credibly and often with distinction in the Second Chechen War, there have been enough blatant exceptions to conclude that even the VDV’s skills are no longer of a uniform high standard, despite Shpak’s reforms.
Pride of Corps
On the positive side, 6th Company recovered and fought well against enormous odds once it moved to Hill 776 under the effective leadership of the battalion commander and his deputy. Other Russian airborne and SPETSNAZ forces in the area, responding to reinforce 6th Company, fought their way into the area and eventually stopped the Chechen breakout. All this occurred in enormously difficult terrain and weather conditions and against tenacious Chechen resistance. Because the Chechens are notoriously atrocity-****e, especially toward members of the more elite Russian military organizations, fighting to the death makes a necessity.