June 17th 2009 · Prague Watchdog / German Sadulayev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Soldiers of failure

Soldiers of failure

By German Sadulayev, special to Prague Watchdog

St Petersburg

Last year the Moscow-based Russian Newsweek journalist Orkhan Dzhemal published a book entitled The War. A Five Day Chronicle about the conflict in South Ossetia which broke out last August.  After reading the book, it finally became clear to me that our television had blatantly lied to us, as always –  above all about who started the fighting. While there were provocations on both sides,  it was the Ossetians who on August 6 attacked the positions of the Georgian special forces near the Georgian village of Nuli. On August 7, Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili said that he did not support the use of force to resolve the problem of South Ossetia.  At 11pm the Georgian assault began.

At the time there were no Russian troops in South Ossetia. The South Ossetian leadership, which until recently had been so bold and quarrelsome, now behaved in a most unsightly manner. Instead of leading the defence of his capital city Tskhinvali, President Eduard Kokoity and his war minister fled to Dzhava, away from danger. Only the head of the Security Council, former Russian Colonel Anatoly Barankevich, remained in the city and tried to organize the resistance. In this he failed, so he simply picked up a grenade launcher and went out into the street. He it was who hit the first Georgian tank, an event later shown on every channel.

The Russian forces did not show their best form, either. Their commander, General Kulakhmetov, took no action, his hands tied by a lack of orders from Moscow. Many of the officers panicked. Soldiers died for nothing. 

The Chechens, on the other hand, had been well taught. In the military operations, the Vostok battalion played almost the most important role. I would stress that all of these conclusions are ones that emerge from Orkhan Dzhemal’s book. I myself don’t know enough to be able to make an independent judgment.

Dzhemal says that the Chechens acted with professionalism. And some even flaunted their chivalry – they treated the enemy with dignity, set their prisoners free, did not touch civilians, left money for the food they took. The results of their participation in the fighting were really impressive.

The Georgians also fought with skill and bravery. Their defeat occurred largely because a strategic error made by the Georgian command led to the regular Georgian fighting units being blocked off right from the outset, while the forces spearheading the attack were young military reservists who had only been issued their weapons the day before. 

War is not for the young. War is for soldiers..

Whatever we think of their political views, the mature and experienced fighters of the Vostok battalion conducted themselves appropriately in the war. They displayed a controlled anger. They applied a standard use of force. They threw themselves into the fighting with fury, were brave and ruthless in the face of  the enemy, and after the conflict was over they showed a humane attitude towards both the enemy and the people.

Quite a different sort of behaviour could be seen in the Ossetian militias whose fighters fled in panic from the regular Georgian troops, but on entering Georgian villages burned down the houses of civilians and jeered at their prisoners.

And the point is not that one group were Chechens and the other Ossetians, but that war is a matter for professional soldiers, men with strong psyches who have been trained for the conditions of warfare. A man who is untrained will not behave appropriately. He will be a coward when he needs to be brave and cruel, and an executioner when he needs to be calm and merciful – even when he is young.

But that would have been quite a different army, not like the Russian one. It would have been more akin to the Vostok battalion. Orkhan Dzhemal notes its high level of discipline, inconceivable in other units of the Russian army, where swearing, hazing and insults are the order of the day. That discipline was based solely on the personal authority of the battalion’s commander, an authority he had to prove in battle.

I don’t idealize the Vostok fighters as the book’s author does. Their commander, Sulim Yamadayev, was a highly controversial figure. They were involved in dubious enterprises like the fight at the  Samson meat plant in St Petersburg in 2006. And above all  their actions towards their own fellow countrymen in Chechnya show them as far from knights in shining armour. But until their disbandment last year they were a unit with superior fighting capacity. And the “thanks” they received from the Russian leadership for their loyal service to Russia says it all. 


(Translation by DM)




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