Demoralized and underpaid, the Russian army is facing in the rebellious Chechnya region its stiffest test of professionalism and morale since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it is failing the test, Western diplomats and Russian military analysts say.
Its officers are rebelling in the face of an increasingly vicious war against other Russians. Its solders are dispirited and disorganized, badly fed and cold, without any clear idea of why they should be fighting the Chechens.The army's heavy armor has little strategic value in Chechnya, its movements have been sluggish against little resistance, and its jets are almost haphazardly bombing a nearly defenseless city.
A result is a public-relations fiasco so bad that even President Boris Yeltsin's supporters in the West, who have regarded Chech-nya from the start as an internal affair, have started to complain. The sense of confusion about Moscow's methods is shared by Russians, too.
"It's hard to call this a strategy," said Sergei Yushenkov, the chairman of parliament's defense committee. "It is the barbaric destruction of the city of Grozny and its inhabitants."
Military officials keep saying the army has a plan to use laser-guided bombs and special forces to infiltrate Grozny, the Chechens' capital, and "decapitate" its leadership, including President Dzhokhar Dudayev.
There is already a growing and abiding new hatred for Russian power in the North Caucasus, which hoped that the post-Soviet world would be a different one.
There is already, in the Russian press, criticism of the military and its leadership that is reminiscent of the American media toward the end of the Vietnam War. And there is already, in the new Russian military, a sense of shame over Chechnya that will probably further poison attitudes toward Yeltsin, democratic and economic reforms, and all politicians generally.
No matter what happens in Chechnya now, whether Grozny is taken Sunday night or Monday or not taken at all, the Russian army will face a severe period of rebuilding not unlike the American Army's after the professional humiliation of Vietnam.
Then, American officers said, it was difficult to attract young people of sufficient quality into the army, let alone feel much pride in a military career. The American military responded with much better recruitment and advertising techniques, and most important, with higher pay and better benefits.
But if there is one persistent fact of Russian political life, it is the scarcity of money for any social need in a tight federal budget, and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev has already warned of the political consequences of continuing to starve the army of funds for training, housing and modern equipment.
Speaking to parliament last month, Grachev said an impatient and impoverished Russian military was losing its ability to defend the Motherland.
Young officers are leaving in large numbers, he said. Pilots are not flying because of budget cuts in fuel and maintenance, and ships are stuck in port.
Nearly 200,000 officers and their families are without decent housing. Military units engage in trade or rent themselves as labor to supplement their pay.
"We must frankly ask ourselves the question - do we need an army?" he said. "If so, it is a sin to keep it in poverty and half-starved."
"Not a single other army in the world is in such a catastrophic state," Grachev said. "I ask you to take this as a warning."
The military's performance in Chechnya is a testament to Gra-chev's concerns. Despite his efforts to reorganize the army and give it a new mission in a post-Cold-War world, there has not been the money to develop the light, mobile striking units the new military doctrine calls for, and which could have been so effective in Chech-nya.
But the rot was evident long before Chechnya, which will only deepen it. "If anyone still had any doubts," said Pavel Felgengauer, the military analyst for the newspaper Sevodnya, "the war in Chechnya has certainly shown the low levels of military readiness and morale of the Russian army."
Draft evasion remains rampant; there are too many generals running nearly empty units; patriotism is out of fashion; vicious hazing of recruits, especially of those from the Caucasus, frightens young men and their parents; high-ranking generals speak with contempt of Yeltsin and Grachev.
The vaunted military-industrial complex that supported the army, even if the quality of the science was overrated, has now largely turned, as a matter of state policy, toward making civilian products or selling its hardware overseas, for dollars.
From the height of Soviet power with five million men under arms, including border troops, and an almost unlimited budget, the Russian army is now believed to be a hollow force of only 1.4 million or fewer, and without enough money to care for them properly.