'It turned into a complete disaster': the bloodiest battle of modern Russia took place on New Year's eve
Lieutenant Oleg Mochalin wasn’t planning on having a military career, nor did he ever think of going to war. An ordinary guy from the Karelian countryside, near Finland and known for its lush woods, he obtained a university degree and a job as an engineer, and was soon to be married.
The only other thing he had to do was complete his army service. Back in those days, the government required all male university graduates to serve two years as low-ranking military officers. So Mochalin was assigned to a motorized rifle regiment based near Samara. In December 1994, the regiment was sent to Chechnya.
Around that time, word spread that things were bad in the republic; that General Dudayev had started an uprising and declared independence. Nonetheless, everyone was pretty sure that the Russian Army’s intervention would put an end to it all fairly quickly. Mochalin did not even write to his parents as he didn’t think it was worth the trouble. He did inform his fiancée, though. In early January, she received a letter from him saying he was going to the rebelling republic. By the time she got it, he'd been dead for several days.
The 23-year-old lieutenant was one of the thousands of Russians and Chechens killed between December 1994 and March 1995 in the prolonged Battle of Grozny. For several months, the Caucasus became the theatre for a siege that proved to be the bloodiest among all the armed conflicts to have occurred on the former USSR’s territories to date. It literally wiped a city of half a million off the face of the Earth.
Small Place, Big Problem
Chechnya is a small republic in the North Caucasus that measures 150 kilometers from north to south and 100 kilometers from east to west. It became part of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, following a prolonged bloody war in the Caucasus. Chechnya wasn’t Russia’s end game in that conflict, but the empire needed to ensure safe transit to its new subjects, Georgia and Armenia. In order to achieve that goal, the Tsar established control over the poor mountainous area north of the Greater Caucasus Range. By the 1860s, the Chechen clans had mostly capitulated, but uprisings continued to occur. Over the centuries, Chechen society had evolved into a peculiar egalitarian network with no aristocracy and a knack for carrying out the hit-and-run raids they used as their main tactics to ensure survival.
The fortress called Groznaya (an adjective that means ‘fearsome’) was built as part of the campaign to contain the resistance. With time, it grew to become the city of Grozny. The development of Chechnya’s oil deposits in the last decade of the 19th century gave a huge impetus to the city’s evolution into a local administrative and economic center. After the October Revolution, the developing republic became part of the young Soviet Union.
Things changed dramatically in 1944, when Stalin had the Chechens and the nearby Ingush deported from their homeland to Central Asia as retribution for alleged collaboration with German Nazi troops on the Eastern Front of World War II. In exile, Chechen society became ever more conservative and rigid. The spirit of development and modernization was nipped in the bud. In the mid-1950s, the Chechens were allowed to come back home, where they found themselves in a changed situation. Many Russians had come to work in Grozny and other cities to keep local businesses running in their absence. Also, historically, the northern part of Chechnya was home to many descendants of the Cossacks who settled there back in the 16th century. The tensions between the Russians and the Chechens became more pronounced than ever. Nonetheless, right until the collapse of the USSR, Grozny was a multi-ethnic city: Russians constituted about half of the population, and there were also fairly large Ukrainian and Armenian communities.
Chechnya reacted to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 much in the same way as other former Soviet republics. Nationalists led by Soviet General Dzhokhar Dudayev (the only Chechen holding this rank at the time) seized power. Dudayev, a person of extremely nationalistic views and great ambition, was a talented politician and public speaker. Chechnya declared independence under his leadership. However, it failed to become a fully functional state, since Dudayev’s claim to power was challenged by a number of local warlords including Shamil Basayev, notorious for his passenger plane hijacking in 1991, and Ruslan Gelayev.
On top of that, a significant part of the population did not want independence from Russia. By 1993, a de facto civil war was raging in Chechnya, with Russia giving its unspoken support to Dudayev’s opponents. The struggle lasted for about a year, resulting in a stalemate: the opposition couldn’t defeat Dudayev’s forces and vice versa, while the Kremlin wasn’t able to reach a compromise with Dudayev in talks.
Chechnya was becoming a big problem for Russia. The anarchy and simmering conflict gave rise to criminality, while the republic’s legal businesses were crumbling to pieces. People were fleeing. At first, it was mainly Russians, but they were later joined by a considerable number of Chechens. The Russian community got the short end of the stick: unprotected by the Chechen clans, they became fair game. Many were robbed and killed; women were raped. Grozny was basically ruled by gangs that saw Russians as easy prey, since taking their property, money, or even lives came vendetta-free.
Dudayev’s regime supported itself with a range of criminal activities, including illegal oil trading, arms trafficking, train robberies and bank fraud schemes, to name a few. Kidnapping for ransom was a booming business. Chechnya became a safe haven for criminals from elsewhere in Russia. On top of that, local jails opened their doors, releasing some hardcore criminals back into society.
With the situation out of control, Moscow tried to stabilize Chechnya by running a covert operation. In November 1994, the opposition tried to take over the city, reinforced by tanks manned with the Russian Army soldiers recruited for the undercover mission. The attempt failed miserably: The opposition troops proved to be ineffective in combat, and the tanks were taken out by grenade launchers. About 20 Russian soldiers were taken prisoner and shown on TV, sending both the Russian media and public into shock.
The then-president, Boris Yeltsin, declared a military campaign against Chechnya. This crucial decision proved too rash and emotional. Overall, the Russian government’s main problem in dealing with the region in the 1990s was disastrous, driven by the desire to get things done ASAP. It wasn’t so much about cracking down on separatists: when the USSR collapsed in 1991, there was barely any military response to former Soviet states declaring independence one by one. In fact, Yeltsin publicly supported it, famously urging the republics to “take as much sovereignty as they can swallow.” Nonetheless, the government was particularly fixated on solving the Chechen crisis. And fast.
The Russian Armed Forces were poorly prepared for a big military campaign at the time. Due to the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Army was deteriorating. Officers resigned en masse, unhappy with their miserly salary and constant delays in getting their paychecks. Many bases stopped military training of new recruits altogether. The army was heavily understaffed, while soldiers, instead of learning the art of war, were often busy with fatigue duties and trying to maintain the huge Soviet-era military arsenals.
On top of that, the Grozny campaign was launched in such a hurry that the troops had no time to prepare or gather intelligence. On December 11, 1994, Russian troops entered Chechnya. Dudayev’s fighters were mostly located in Grozny, but on the way there, Russia’s assault force met considerable resistance and suffered multiple attacks, which effectively delayed its arrival to the city by two weeks.
The decision to finally launch an assault on Grozny was made in late December 1994. The hastily prepared offensive plan basically boiled down to entering the city from different directions and intimidating the enemy with massive numbers and heavy machinery. While it all looked good on paper, many of the battalions were in fact just about 150-200 men strong. There were also too many new inexperienced recruits. A total of about 5,000 Russian troops took part in the first wave of the assault. Dudayev had a slight numerical advantage in Grozny: All of the Chechen fighters were light infantry, and they were very good at maneuver warfare.
Most Russian officers on the ground didn’t get any maps of the area. Even the top commanders saw some aerial photos of the terrain just before the operation. Commanding the Joint Assault Force was General Anatoly Kvashnin, who had been appointed to the job mere days before the operation. Kvashnin had neither participated in action nor commanded troops in the field until then.
Dudayev’s men, on the other hand, had been preparing for real combat. They had no strict chain of command typical of European armies, but they were a formidable opponent nevertheless. The fighters were divided into small combat groups assigned to different areas to cover. They had plenty of anti-tank grenade launchers, and their strategy was to carry out quick hits and retreat, always staying on the move. The Chechen militants aimed to engage Russian troops in close combat, making it impossible for Russia to use artillery or aircraft support for fear of fratricide.
New Year’s Eve Assault
On the morning of December 31, Russian Army units approached Grozny from four different directions.
The offensive went pretty well for Group North-East, commanded by General Lev Rokhlin. He was a leader known for his ability to override incoming orders when he saw they no longer served the situation on the ground or were against common sense. He made his own tactical decisions this time, too. Rokhlin ordered his troops to avoid broad streets, reasoning that they were likely to be used for ambush or booby-traps. His units advanced maneuvering through backyards, around residential buildings and via a cemetery, and went on to gain control over some central parts of the city. Rokhlin also had some checkpoints set up in the rear of his advancing units to secure communications. It wasn’t what his group was ordered to do. However, by the end of the day, Group North-East turned out to be the only one that managed to secure a stable foothold in Grozny, near the canning factory and the city hospital.
In the meantime, other groups were not doing so well. Group East, under the command of Major General Nikolay Staskov, had to advance without artillery backup. The reason was hard to argue with – the newly recruited 18-year-old gunners did not know how to operate the weapons. As a result, the group came under enemy fire at once. It was all very much reminiscent of the 1993 assault by American rangers in Mogadishu, only this time there were tanks and IFVs instead of Humvees. The group’s armored columns advanced slowly, taking fire from all directions, and made it to the central parts of the city by the end of the day. The night was quiet, but early in the morning Group East was hit by friendly fire. The effect was devastating. With over 50 troops killed and wounded, the group had to retreat.
Meanwhile, the paratroopers and motorized infantry units of Group West were engaged in severe fighting in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Grozny. Overall, there were no catastrophic developments on this front; however, it became clear that the initial plan to capture Grozny with armored columns was failing. The order to stay away from backyards and residential blocks was dismissed on the ground as inadequate, and heavy fighting erupted on the outskirts of Grozny, involving all types of weapons, including tanks and heavy artillery. This was unexpected and caught local residents by surprise.
Although the city had already seen some air strikes, people had been reluctant to leave their homes. None of them ever thought that street fighting was a real prospect. The Russian Ministry of Emergencies’ rescue units in Grozny were understaffed and short of vehicles and resources to be able to run a major evacuation operation. On the other hand, Dudayev’s forces actually tried to keep the population from fleeing by telling people that those who dared abandon their homes would be exiled to Siberia.
But the main drama of December 31, 1994 and January 1, 1995 unfolded on the Northern Front of the operation that involved the Group North consisting of the 131st Maykop Brigade and the 81st Samara Motor-Rifle Regiment. These units were engaged in brutal and deadly fighting for two days and nights.
The initial plan for the Maykop Brigade and the Samara Regiment did not call for any catastrophe. However, the Joint Force Command lacked a good grip on the unfolding events and ended up issuing one too many inconsistent orders. As a result, the 81st Regiment was ordered to advance on the presidential palace that was the main seat of Dudayev’s government at the time, while the 131st Brigade received instructions to move toward the railway station.
The group started suffering losses as soon as it entered the city. Militants followed the Russian formations closely, shelling them from the roofs, attics and back alleys. The Russian troops were ordered not to enter backyards or residential areas and to open fire only in retaliation against enemy attacks. Therefore, all they could do was just keep moving through the city, taking the hits. Surviving video footage shows Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) trying to drive at full speed past the armed Chechens targeting them.
Many of the combat vehicles were damaged. This was exactly how Lieutenant Oleg Mochalin was taken prisoner – he was wounded in a shoot-out with the Chechen militants, and his IFV was burned. Later, during the interrogation, he carried himself with pride and dignity. When accused of cowardice, he said he was only taken prisoner after he had used up all his IFV ammunition. Enraged, the Chechen militant commander took Mochalin out of the interrogation room. A few days later, his body was evacuated from Grozny.
When at last of the 131st Maykop Brigade’s battalions commanded by Colonel Savin reached the railway station, the 81st Samara Motor-Rifle Regiment was engaged in an intense battle near the Presidential Palace. The assault force had a critical shortage of infantry. Even when the opportunity presented itself to engage and eliminate Chechen militants, there were not enough troops available to do it. Another problem was that there were too many new recruits in the assault force who didn’t know how to fight, so the more experienced servicemen had to pick up the slack. Tanks and IFVs were easy targets. “I couldn’t spot any targets. And whenever I did, they were out of my reach. I had a tank, not an anti-aircraft gun,” recounted one of the tank operators who survived the battle. The Samara Regiment’s commander was one of the first to be severely wounded. His forces were taking fire from all sides and desperately trying to maneuver through the streets, firing back in all directions.
Meanwhile, the 131st Maykop Brigade took over the railway station. All the vehicles and guns were parked right in front of it. When night fell, the Chechens attacked the brigade firing from the residential buildings near the station and from behind the parked trains. Very soon the Maykop Brigade fighters realized they were surrounded by the enemy. General Kvashnin, who was in charge of the entire assault operation, still believed that the offensive was going well, but no one in the battlefield would agree. An attempt was made to get the wounded soldiers out of the railway station in an IFV, but the evacuation vehicle was shot up too. The militants were sending more and more units to the railway station. Colonel Savin was wounded, but remained in command.
The night made it clear that the 131st Maykop Brigade was in grave danger. It was surrounded by the enemy and was too far from all other Joint Force groups. Meanwhile, the 81st Samara Motor-Rifle Regiment fighting for access to the Presidential Palace also needed help, and so did a number of other units that had been cut off from the assault groups and surrounded by militants in various parts of Grozny. Any attempts to break through to the Maykop Brigade’s location were met with fierce resistance. Militants kept launching grenades from roofs and balconies, ambushing the Russian troops, and using sniper fire. The reinforcements got stuck in heavy fighting on their way, suffered losses, and were unable to reach the encircled troops. Only the Samara Regiment actually got the much-needed support from a reinforcement unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Igor Stankevich, who managed to approach the regiment’s several isolated units in the city center and organized their retreat.
Meanwhile, fighting continued at the railway station. By the night of January 1, Colonel Savin realized that no reinforcements were coming to help and made a decision to try and save his troops on his own. They were low on ammunition. Many soldiers were wounded and needed medical assistance. The Maykop Brigade reorganized itself into smaller groups and tried to break through the enemy line. Many managed to escape on foot. However, the combat vehicles carrying the wounded were easy targets, so the losses grew. It was basically a bloodbath, in which Colonel Savin was killed too. He was hit by a hand grenade fragment when assaulting a militant fire position.
Fighting in the City Center
The New Year’s Eve assault operation turned into a complete disaster. Over a couple of days, around 500 Russian troops were killed. The losses among civilians and Chechen militants were harder measure. However, the battle was far from over.
New commanders were appointed to Group East and Group West, and most of the forces operating in the city were placed under the command of General Rokhlin, whose group was the only one that had done well so far in Grozny. Reinforcements were brought in: Over 400 fresh troops from the 45th Special Purpose Regiment of the Russian Airborne Troops and the antiterrorist units of the Federal Security Service (FSB). These were excellent fighters that were fit for special ops rather than for assault, but the Russian Army didn’t have enough well-trained infantry to send in. Reinforcements also included a motor-rifle brigade and a number of Marine battalions (formally they were considered Marines, but in reality it was a mix of Marines and crew members not trained for battle). General Rokhlin’s first orders included evacuating the surviving fighters of the 131st Maykop Brigade and the 81st Samara Motor-Rifle Regiment from the city.
A new stage of the assault started with a new enemy maneuver. The Chechen militants tried to cut off the communications between all Russian assault units and the main force by using infiltration tactics, sending small groups into the rear areas of the Russian troops. The 45th Russian Airborne Troops Regiment and the FSB antiterrorist units were tasked with eliminating this threat. These special ops fighters were trained to fight in the dark and were equipped for night combat, which gave them a clear advantage over the Chechen militants. The operation lasted a couple of nights. As a result, the Russian troops secured Grozny’s northern districts and started to advance toward the city center.
This time no one had any illusions about a quick and easy win. The troops advanced very slowly, using fire and movement tactics. It was a stark contrast with the initial failed attempt to just enter the city and advance unobstructed. A good example of how the battle went was an operation to secure the Grozny Oil and Gas Institute high-rise. It took the assault forces one whole night. First, the 45th Regiment’s snipers eliminated all the enemy fire positions inside the building, then the tanks opened fire to cover for an assault group that entered the building through a breach in its back wall. Securing positions on the building’s top floors, Russian troops used gunfire and artillery support to drive the enemy out of the area.
The vanguard troops of the 137th Regiment advancing from the west retook the train station. The enemy applied its usual tactics and tried to cut off the assault formation from the main force offering them a chance to surrender. However, the Russian troops rejected the option to surrender as “unacceptable and uncalled for,” as human rights advocate Alexander Cherkasov, who took part in the talks, put it.
Since the Russian Army was in bad shape for years prior to the battle, Grozny became a polygon for the “survival of the fittest.” Only the strongest and most enduring survived. The unbending will to fight and survive helped many compensate for the lack of skills and proper equipment. The Joint Force was bleeding but proved capable of advancing and persevering despite the heavy losses.
The Russian forces were advancing toward the Presidential Palace. It played no significant role in the city defenses, but was a recognized symbol of the republic and a seat of the Chechen government. It was also used as a command center and a warehouse. The Chechens used a lot of fighters to defend it, so the Russian command was right to reason that taking the palace would both have symbolic significance and exhaust the enemy.
Dudayev’s units were mostly good for maneuver warfare and were not very fit for defending large buildings, so their losses grew. Reports had it that the Chechens mostly operated in groups of five. Across the battle, there were many reports of five enemy fighters defending each position at a time. As the battle progressed, the Russian troops resorted to brutally effective measures to clear the enemy from the terrain. Before entering any building or room, they tossed grenades inside. Every now and then, they would discover five bodies. “I have 18 soldiers in my platoon, and I am responsible for their lives. I cannot be responsible for the lives of anyone else on this planet,” recalled a sergeant who took command of a platoon after his commanding officer was killed.
The Chechens continued their attempts to infiltrate the Russian Army’s rear, often via the sewers. Fighting infiltrators was especially difficult, because they wore civil clothes and pretended to be innocent civilians when cornered. One officer recalled he had once let a group of “civilians” go only to find their abandoned guns in the building a few minutes later.
At the end of the day, the Army had far more resources and heavy weapons. On January 13, 1995, the Marines stormed the Council of Ministers and went on to assault the Presidential Palace. This time, Dudayev’s fighters were at a disadvantage, as fire and movement tactics didn’t work well in such a setting. Artillery and aviation strikes kept hitting the target. On January 19, the Marines entered the palace only to find that it was abandoned: only a handful of fighters stayed to cover the retreat. Russian Army and Navy flags were raised over the building. The search for IEDs and stray fighters hiding inside continued for a long time after that.
The fall of Dudayev’s palace symbolized the turning point of the battle.
The Fall of Grozny
After the palace was taken, the battle began to simmer down. The troops slowly made their way through Grozny, while the Chechen forces crossed the Sunzha River to retreat to the southern parts of the city. Intense fighting broke out in Minutka Square in the city’s southeastern area and lasted for days.
Only in early February, the Joint Force managed to complete a maneuver to secure positions to the south in the enemy’s rear. Two motorized regiments (heavily understaffed, again) managed to maneuver around the eastern suburbs and secure some heights in Grozny’s southern quarters. That helped reduce the resistance dramatically. By mid-February, a ceasefire was negotiated to exchange prisoners and evacuate hundreds of dead bodies. It also gave a break to the civilians who got caught up in the war zone.
The evacuation progressed slowly, since evacuation vehicles often took fire. Dudayev’s fighters shot at everything that moved and declared a witch-hunt for Russian “spies.” Many Russians were executed by the fighters as without a trial or formal charges. Rumors have it that one man realized only too late that he was being taken from home to be murdered and only managed to wound his executioner with a knife before the latter shot him.
Marauders raged in the city. One elderly couple managed to protect their belongings by painting the warning “beware of mines” on the garage where they locked up their things. As it turned out, nobody thought it was worth the risk to check it out. For the civilians who remained in the city, even mundane tasks such as getting water, food or news involved deadly risks. The ruined buildings on every street were full of danger.
A teenager who survived the Battle of Grozny recalled later how he had to give up the idea of using fire to warm himself up in his hiding place because it drew attention and gunfire. To survive, he had to kill and eat stray pets. He barely survived when the Russian Army took over the building where he was hiding. To clear it from possible enemy presence, soldiers threw grenades into the rooms before entering. His life was saved by a captain named Viktor who heard his calls for help.
By early March, all Chechen fighters left the city, including the group commanded by Shamil Basayev, the soon-to-be number one terrorist in the Caucasus. The Russian Army took control of the city.
The Unfinished War
The Battle of Grozny came at the price of enormous loss of human life. A lot of the casualties were undocumented, so the real figures are still subject to discussion. The Russian Army archives say 1,356 died in combat, and a few dozen in captivity. It’s hard to account for the losses sustained by Dudayev’s forces since they didn’t keep proper records, but it is estimated the Chechens lost at least as many lives as the Joint Force. There were no proper logs of civilian casualties, and this is a disputed subject even today. In the 2000s, after Russia had secured its control over Chechnya, an exhumation operation revealed over 800 dead bodies that were buried in mass graves during the battle.
Various analysts produce different numbers based on all sorts of calculations – ranging from 5,000 to as many as 25,000 people – but 800 remains the only solid estimate based on the number of dead bodies actually discovered. And even if that is true, the Battle of Grozny still counts as one of the most devastating in contemporary history. A lot of people had fled the city. The population shrank by a quarter. The once thriving Russian community that used to constitute over half of the local population exists no more.
Grozny was left in ruins. There were more battles between Chechen separatists and Russia yet to follow, as well as a peace deal that looked more like capitulation, terrorist attacks in Moscow, the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis, and thousands of lives lost.
Read more about the Chechen Wars in upcoming RT features.