Russian air attacks on Chechnya seem to have failed.

Simon Elliott/LONDON Alexander Velovich/MOSCOW

Russian president Boris Yeltsin's 4 January decree to end the bombing of Grozny, the capital of break-away republic Chechnya, brought to an end, however temporarily, what appears to have been a singularly unsuccessful operation.

The air offensive, involving Russian air force and army-aviation forces in support of a land offensive to recapture the republic, is the first such Russian venture to be conducted under the full glare of media attention, both at home and abroad. It is this publicity which has contributed to Yeltsin's decision to pull back.

Assessing the failure of the operation so far, Russian politicians have expressed concern at the apparent inability of the air force to display the same levels of accuracy and proficiency demonstrated by the Allied forces in air-to-ground operations during the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Defence officials in the West have also expressed surprise that greater use has not been made of precision-guided munitions, particularly as many of the targets were local pockets of resistance in built-up areas. Russian commanders, led by defence minister Pavel Grachev, have countered such accusations by saying that, in a bid to minimise civilian casualties, the full power of the air force was not used.

Air operations in the Chechen conflict began in November 1994, when Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, claimed to belong to the Russian-backed opposition to Chechnya's president Dzhokhar Dudayev, attacked Grozny Airport, where a Tupolev Tu-134 civilian airliner was destroyed.

Direct action by Russia to take control of the republic began at the end of November. On 29 and 30 November, six Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot close-support aircraft, from Mozdok air base in the neighbouring republic of Northern Osetia, carried out an attack on Grozny Airport and the military airbase at Khankaly, east of Grozny. Rockets and iron bombs were used to destroy four Tu-134s at the airport, while up to 12 Aero L-29 Delfin and L-39 Albatros armed jet trainers of the self-proclaimed Chechen air force were destroyed at the air base. The Russian military denied that the attacks had occurred.

Early in December, Antonov An-124 Ruslans and Ilyushin Il-76 Candid heavy transports were used to begin a massive airlift, carrying troops to air bases at Mozdok, Beslan and Vladikavkaz. Antonov An-12 Cub turboprop transports and Mil Mi-26 Halo heavy-lift helicopters also took part in the deployment.

Army Aviation Mi-24s have supported the Russian ground-offensive into Chechnya since it began on 10 December. Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopters from the North Caucasus military district have also conducted escort and reconnaissance missions, being supported in the latter role by Sukhoi Su-17M Fitters.

On 14 December, five Su-25s bombed Grozny itself. Russian authorities claim that the raid was aimed at Chechen firing positions and was intended to be carried out with "pin-point" accuracy, but it appears that unguided bombs and rockets were used, which hit apartment buildings causing civilian casualties. It is now becoming apparent that, in some cases, Russian aircraft such as the Su-25 were being used to drop unguided ordnance from above cloud cover, using inertial navigation alone.


Despite Yeltsin's announcement on 27 December that he had ordered an exclusion of "...attacks which may result in casualties among the civilian population of Grozny", six attacks on the city were made the following night. The media coverage of damage to residential areas from these raids probably resulted in a decision to cut back air-to-ground operations, but this led to army commanders complaining that a large-scale ground assault on Grozny on 1 January suffered from lack of air support. As a result, Sukhoi Su-24 Fencers, with targeting systems more capable of minimising collateral damage, appeared over Grozny two days later. By this time, however, reports indicated that the centre of Grozny was already in ruins.

Russian air-defence forces have also been in operation over Chechnya. To stop supplies, weapons and Muslim volunteers being flown into the republic, between two and six Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker interceptors have been used for 24h combat air patrols over Chechnya since 21 December.

It is unclear how successful Chechen anti-aircraft operations have been. Russia acknowledges that Chechen resistance forces shot down a Mi-8 with 12.7mm or 14.5mm heavy- machine-gun fire, killing two crewmembers and badly injuring the pilot, the latter managing to land the helicopter on a highway. A second Mi-8, this time an air ambulance, was shot down on a medical-evacuation mission on 20 December. The helicopter, which was escorted by two Mi-24s, had just picked up an injured special-forces company commander. One crewmember and two military doctors were killed in the crash, with two crewmembers being injured. Russia denies reports that a third Mi-8 has been shot down.

The Chechen Government also claims that three Russian fighters have been shot down with Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Although there is no evidence for such a claim, the US-manufactured missiles could have been obtained from stocks of Stingers supplied originally to Afghanistan. Officials in Grozny have also reported that a large supply of SA-7 Strela surface-to-air missiles has arrived in Chechnya.

It remains to be seen whether the cessation of air activity holds. Vladimir Stepashin, chief of the Russian FSK Counter-Intelligence Service, says that retreating Chechen armoured vehicles were attacked and vehicles destroyed on 3 January. It is likely that such missions will continue.

Source: Flight International