Confusion over control of Chechen operation persists


FOR the 20 months since President Yeltsin sent troops to crush Chechnya's bid to secede from Russia, the question of who is in charge of the crisis has been unclear. This confusion over Moscow's biggest military operation since the Afghan war was illustrated again yesterday.

Just hours before a deadline set by the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya for an all out bombardment of its capital, Grozny, the Defence Minister, Gen Igor Rodionov, disowned the plan.

As Gen Rodionov spoke, his mentor in the Kremlin, the security chief, Gen Alexander Lebed, was heading for talks with Chechen rebel leaders and Russian warplanes had already started bombing.

In late 1994, the then defence minister, Gen Pavel Grachev, a strong advocate of the use of force against the rebels, told Mr Yeltsin he needed two hours and a regiment of paratroopers to crush them.

But Russia, faced with resolute guerrillas defending their own mountainous land, needed six months and many more regiments to take control of the bulk of Chechnya - a region of about a million people and half the size of Belgium.

The army, under Gen Grachev's defence ministry, dominated the initial stages of the operation launched on December 11th, 1994. However, heavy going subdued Gen Grachev's optimism. Once his forces had captured the ruins of Grozny in April he declared the "military stage" of the operation over and said his colleague, the then interior minister, Mr Viktor Yerin, would take charge of stamping out remaining pockets of resistance.

From that point on, the rival ministries, defence and interior, have had to struggle to co ordinate their actions - which many observers see as a factor in Russian setbacks in Chechnya.

When the separatists took Grozny back on August 6th, interior ministry officials complained that the army refused to help them. Defence ministry officials were quoted as saying their forces in Chechnya had been told not to interfere until they received a written request from the interior ministry.

There are no published official figures on troop numbers in the region. Mr Pavel Felgenhauer, military analyst for the newspaper Sevodnya, has estimated there are around 20,000 interior ministry troops, including police, and 19,000 defence ministry troops. Both ministries' forces have heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and helicopter gun ships. The defence ministry also has combat aircraft.

Against them, the rebels say, is a guerrilla force of less than 10,000.

Theoretically both sets of Russian troops report to the commander of the joint group of the federal forces in Chechnya, a position now occupied by Lieut Gen Vyacheslav Tikhomirov. He returned from holiday yesterday and appeared to approve of the ultimatum his deputy had issued on Monday.

There are no rules on who the commander of the joint group, nominated directly by the president, reports to. "He receives a few orders from the defence minister, a few orders from the interior minister, a few orders from Yeltsin and is free to choose which ones to carry out," one military expert said.

In theory Mr Yeltsin, who is supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, is in overall charge. But the 65 year old president has never claimed day to day control.

After the rebel attack on Grozny, Mr Yeltsin, out of the public eye for weeks and perhaps keen to be seen resolving the chain of command, gave his new security supremo, Gen Lebed, sweeping powers to end the crisis.

Quite how this is supposed to work remains unclear.

. The International Monetary Fund executive board agreed yesterday to release $330 million for Russia, saying the country's reform programme was on target and the money would no longer be held up.