Russia’s Forever War: Chechnya
The 20th century witnessed assorted struggles against imperialism worldwide. Perhaps no latter-day war of independence, however, was fraught with as much bitterness, desperation and resolve as that of Chechnya in its David and Goliath struggle against Russia.
Russia painted the 1994–96 First Chechen War as essentially a Christian vs. Muslim conflict. However, the war was—at least at its outset—a fight for survival and self-determination. Pitted against superior numbers, ordnance and airpower, Chechnya fought a bloody two-year guerrilla war and emerged as the autonomous Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. From then on autonomy was its to lose.
Chechnya sits on the northern flank of the Greater Caucasus, the roughly 700-mile mountain range that stretches east to west from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, forming a natural frontier between Europe and Asia. It is hemmed in by Georgia to the south, Russia to the north and the fellow Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia to the east and west, respectively. Its population comprises largely ethnic Chechens, as well as Russians, Ingush and other ethnic groups. Islam is the predominant religion, while most Russians practice Orthodox Christianity. The clan-based Chechens—or Nokhchiy, as they refer to themselves—are among the oldest indigenous ethnic groups in the region.
The 1994 Russian invasion of Chechnya was nothing new. In his comprehensive volume Russia Confronts Chechnya historian John B. Dunlop traces the history of Russo-Chechen hostilities to Peter the Great’s 1722 incursion into the Caucasus. Six decades later Chechens staged an unsuccessful revolt against the forces of Catherine the Great. Annexed in the 1870s after a bitter, decades-long resistance, Chechnya failed repeatedly in its attempts to regain its sovereignty in the years following the dissolution of the Russian empire. By then Chechen hatred for Russia had long been ingrained in its populace, and things would only get worse.
The wars of the 1990s were not Chechnya’s first attempt to throw off the Russian yoke. After Peter the Great’s 1722 incursion into the Caucasus the Chechens staged a number of unsuccessful revolts. Here Imam Shamil surrenders to imperial officers in 1859. (Album (Alamy Stock Photo))
In 1944, eight years after the Soviet government arbitrarily merged Chechnya and Ingushetia into the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, Joseph Stalin falsely accused the Chechens and Ingush of being in collusion with the Nazis. In fact, by that late stage of World War II tens of thousands of Chechens and Ingush were fighting in the Red Army against the Germans. Nonetheless, Stalin ordered the forced removal of both ethnic populations from their ancestral homeland to Central Asia.
Dubbed Operation Lentil, the mass deportation began on February 23. Nearly a half million Chechen men, women and children—and some 90,000 Ingush—were crammed into freight cars and shipped up to 2,000 miles east. Scores died en route, the trains stopping only occasionally to allow hasty burials in the snow. While Russian sources estimate up to one-third of the deportees died during the subsequent 13 years of exile, Chechen sources claim closer to half of them perished from illness, starvation, exposure and other causes. Not until 1957, five years after Stalin’s death, did the Soviets allow them to return home. Exactly 60 years after the diaspora the European Parliament labelled the mass deportation an act of genocide.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union the rebranded Russian Federation was much depleted, both economically and militarily. Though newly elected President Boris Yeltsin worked feverishly to curb any nationalistic aspirations among Russia’s federal subjects, by year’s end Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia would all declare their independence. Yeltsin feared others might follow suit.
Chechnya did precisely that. On September 6 Chechen militants led by charismatic former Soviet air force general Dzhokhar Dudayev staged a coup, ousting the Soviet-aligned Checheno-Ingush government, declaring the independence of a Chechen republic and calling for free elections. Dudayev was handily elected president, and the newly sovereign nation named itself the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the traditional Turkic name for the region). Unsurprisingly, Yeltsin dismissed the election results, declared a state of emergency and sent a regiment-sized paramilitary force to Grozny, the Chechen capital. Surrounded by a superior force of Chechens, the Russians returned home.
In March 1992 Yeltsin presented a Treaty of Federation to the region’s 20 ethnic republics. Eighteen signed. Chechnya refused, reaffirming its status as an independent state, and creating a new flag and national anthem. Things did not go well, however, for between 1991 and ’94 Chechnya erupted internally in what amounted to an undeclared civil war. Organized crime flourished, and violent confrontations broke out between Chechens and non-Chechens (mainly ethnic Russians), and between pro- and anti-Dudayev factions. Tens of thousands of non-Chechensfled the country, while the largely northern-based opposition formed its own coalition and militarized. After two failed attempts to violently remove him from power, Dudayev suspended Parliament and declared one-man rule.
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The goal of those opposing Dudayev was to restructure the government into a provisional council, and they sought help from Moscow. That was just the opening Yeltsin needed. When the opposition mobilized against Dudayev in August 1994, Yeltsin secretly supplied them with arms, troops and funds. He also directed unmarked Russian planes to bomb Grozny. Emboldened by Russian support, the opposition twice attacked the city and was twice repelled. In the process Dudayev’s national guard forces captured several dozen Russian soldiers, civilian combatants and agents and paraded them before television cameras.
With Russia openly involved, Yeltsin issued an ultimatum in late November, ordering all warring factions to disarm and surrender. Dudayev refused, and Russia immediately resumed the heavy bombing of Grozny and various Chechen military targets. On December 6 Dudayev and Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev announced their agreement to mutually stand down. Assurances notwithstanding, five days later some 40,000 Russian troops invaded Chechnya, supported by tanks, jets and helicopter gunships.
Yeltsin’s professed justification for the invasion was to “disarm illegal armed formations” in order to “establish constitutional order in Chechnya and to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia.” Grachev was less eloquent, brusquely announcing that a single Russian airborne regiment would defeat Dudayev within hours. It would be, he stated, “a bloodless blitzkrieg that would last no longer than December 20.” Grachev would be proven wrong on all counts. The Russian incursion would unite a seemingly impossibly divided country in a war that would grind on for the next 21 months, leave a trail of devastation and take a stunning toll of civilian lives.
On Dec. 11, 1994, Yeltsin set in motion a three-pronged attack on Grozny. The invasion suffered a temporary setback when high-ranking members of both the Russian military and the government—including the deputy commander of Russian ground forces, Yeltsin’s adviser on ethnic affairs and the deputy minister of defense—resigned in protest.
Although Russian forces almost immediately neutralized the tiny Chechen air force, Yeltsin’s expectations that Dudayev would quickly capitulate were soon dashed, largely due to issues within the invasion force itself, which Russian security affairs expert Mark Galeotti described as a “war machine whose gears were rusty, whose levers were broken and whose fuel was sorely lacking.” Progress was slow. From the beginning, morale among the Russian troops, many of them green recruits, was low. Entire units, all of which were understrength, ignored orders to advance and in some instances sabotaged their own equipment. More than 800 soldiers and officers refused to participate, 83 of whom were convicted in subsequent courts-martial. The rest were discharged. One of Russia’s highest ranking military officers, Lt. Gen. Lev Rokhlin, would later refuse the decoration and title of Hero of the Russian Federation for his role in the conflict.
A Russian unit’s lead T-72 tanks—one mounted with a mine-clearing system—pause during the initial advance on the Chechen capital in December 1994. (Ivan Shlamov/AFP (Getty Images))
As mobile units of Chechen fighters hindered the enemy incursion, Russian tactics expanded to include indiscriminate carpet-bombing and rocket and artillery barrages that killed countless civilians. After seizing the airfield outside Grozny on December 29, the Russians staged a New Year’s Eve attack on the city itself, as Chechens worked feverishly to prepare bunkers and establish fighting positions. In the subsequent weekslong battle Russian shelling killed thousands of noncombatants, most of whom, ironically, were ethnic Russians. According to author and Islamic history professor Bryan Glyn Williams, it was the heaviest bombardment campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden a half century earlier, though Russia would rain similar destruction from the air during its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
In addition to thousands of ground troops, the combined attack on Grozny involved air strikes, armored thrusts and artillery barrages. The Russian commanders had not reckoned on the fierce street-by-street resistance of the Chechens, who initially drove enemy troops out of the city center at a tremendous cost in both men and materiel. British journalist Anatol Lieven reported, “Russian troops, when confronted with heavily armed and determined Chechens, have simply stood aside—something I saw with my own eyes.” Upward of 1,000 Russian soldiers died in the initial New Year’s Eve assault alone, while hundreds more were killed, wounded or captured over the following two days and nights.
Finally, on Jan. 18, 1995, despite sustaining heavy casualties, the Russians captured the bombed-out ruins that had been the presidential palace and announced control of the city. The fighting elsewhere in Grozny, however, continued into early March before the outnumbered and outgunned Chechen fighters withdrew. During those five weeks between 25,000 and 30,000 civilians perished, an estimated 5,000 of them children.
By then Russians had expressed increasing disapproval of the war, with as prominent a figure as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev labeling the invasion “a disgraceful bloody adventure.” Other world leaders concurred, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl deeming it “sheer madness.”
Meanwhile, Russian forces expanded south to attack cities and villages deep in Chechnya’s mountain region. The number of civilian casualties climbed, and allegations of outrages perpetrated against noncombatants leaked out, with accounts of looting, rape, torture and mass murder attributed to Russian ground troops. Soldiers prevented citizens from fleeing war zones and withheld access to humanitarian organizations. Journalists were harassed, and nearly two dozen were killed during the conflict. In early April Russian troops, reportedly under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, slaughtered more than 100 citizens without provocation in the town of Samashki. Such acts, while both horrific and predictive of future Russian behavior, galvanized Chechen resistance.
Not that Chechen fighters were averse to equally brutal tactics. Chechen fighters later acknowledged the summary executions of captured Russian pilots and the kidnappings and arbitrary killings of civilian hostages and suspected collaborators throughout the war.
Almost from the beginning the Chechens were fighting largely as an unconventional force. Although a number of Dudayev’s military commanders had fought in Afghanistan, Abkhazia and Azerbaijan, as the war progressed more and more volunteer militia and guerrilla units formed, peopled in part by women and even child soldiers. Thousands of largely Muslim foreign volunteers—including Caucasians, Dagestanis, Georgians, Ingush, Arabs, Turks and Ukrainians—provided further military assistance. In separate incidents intended to publicize the crisis, Chechen sympathizers commandeered a Turkish ferry carrying more than 100 Russian passengers and hijacked a Cypriot passenger jet. Although no one was killed, both events made international headlines.
By mid-June 1995, as Russia’s incursions into the southern mountain strongholds continued to take an awful toll, Chechen tactics and objectives underwent a radical change. Influential members of the Chechen military command began to frame the struggle more as an Islamic religious conflict than one bent on national independence. Prominent Chechen separatist and avowed terrorist Shamil Basayev, whose wife, child and other family members had recently been killed in a Russian air raid, called for global jihad (Islamic holy war), while fellow commander and al-Qaida field officer Ibn al-Khattab pursued a close relationship with Osama bin Laden. Other Chechens were undergoing military training at bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan. Their focus was on establishing what researcher Gordon M. Hahn, an expert on global jihad, refers to as “an expansive Southern Eurasian caliphate.”
The Russian propaganda mill took full advantage of the Chechens’ turn toward religion as their prime motivation, stressing its nation’s mission to neutralize the enemy threat to Christianity. Each side effectively demonized the other, using as their rationale the centuries-old conflict between practitioners of two irreconcilable faiths.
As part of their new strategy Chechens engaged in hostage-taking. On June 14 trucks carrying some 200 heavily armed separatists led by Basayev crossed into Russia and traveled 85 miles to the city of Budyonnovsk. There they seized several public buildings, took upward of 1,500 hostages (including some 150 children) and holed up in the city’s largest hospital, en route shooting dozens of civilians who refused to cooperate. Basayev demanded a cease-fire in Chechnya and the initiation of peace negotiations. Three days into the siege Russian special forces made several unsuccessful attempts to storm the hospital, leaving scores of hostages dead.
On June 18 Basayev, in discussions with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that were broadcast live on Russian television, negotiated the release of the remaining hostages in exchange for a cessation of bombings and combat operations, the appointment of a delegation to negotiate peace terms, and his and his men’s safe conduct back to Chechnya. The prime minister agreed, and Basayev returned home a national hero. Incredibly, despite the deaths of upward of 130 Russian civilians and wounding of several hundred others, the attack did in fact bring about a brief cease-fire. The Budyonnovsk hostage crisis marked what analyst Dianne L. Sumner called “the beginning of a successful campaign of terrorism by Chechen combatants that had a decisive impact on the outcome of the war.”
By then both Russians and Chechens were engaging in what the world perceived as terrorist acts. The internationally accepted rules of war no longer applied, and—as in all wars—it was the civilian population that suffered most.
Clad in snow camouflage, Chechens sprint between buildings in Grozny in January 1995 while under fire by a Russian sniper. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP (Getty))
It was not unusual for the often-grisly events of the day to appear on the world’s evening news programs. Television played a major role in the conflict, not only in raising global awareness of what was occurring in Chechnya, but also in bringing about the ultimate cessation of hostilities. Daily broadcasts brought uncensored images of the carnage into Russian homes, increasing opposition to the war and causing Yeltsin’s popularity to plummet. Many who had initially supported the invasion saw it as a no-win situation. Meanwhile, the unprecedented devastation of Chechen cities, towns and villages, and the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, had succeeded in driving an increasing number of Chechen oppositionists into Dudayev’s camp.
Yeltsin remained concerned that peace without victory in Chechnya would send the wrong message to the federation, inspiring other member countries to secede. He continued his offensive, but it went badly. On March 6, 1996, 2,000 Chechens staged a three-day raid against Russian-occupied Grozny, seizing munitions and supplies. Elsewhere, they continually attacked Russian troops and armored columns, taking a significant toll in lives and equipment.
On April 21 a Russian guided-missile strike killed Dudayev, but the separatists quickly appointed an acting president, and the Chechen resistance continued. On May 28, in a clearly political ploy, Yeltsin announced a cease- fire and prematurely declared victory, but the Chechens fought on. On August 6, three days before Yeltsin’s second presidential inauguration, more than 1,500 Chechen fighters staged another surprise attack on Grozny. Despite being outnumbered 8-to-1, the Chechens took back the city within days, killing up to 1,000 Russians and capturing thousands more.
Finally, on August 31 Russian national security adviser Alexander Lebed and Chechen military chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov co-drafted and signed the Khasavyurt Accord, which called for a mutual military withdrawal from Grozny and the withdrawal of all Russian forces in Chechnya by December 31. Representatives of the respective governments signed further agreements over the next few months, and at Moscow’s Kremlin on May 12, 1997, Yeltsin and newly elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov co-signed a treaty acknowledging Chechen autonomy. As Russian affairs expert Galeotti noted, “A mix of brilliant guerrilla warfare and ruthless terrorism was able to humble Russia’s decaying remnants of the Soviet war machine.”
Because the Chechens had fought “as a loose network of cells consisting of clan-based fighters led by semi-independent commanders,” as one group of analysts put it, it is impossible to precisely calculate the number of Chechen fighters killed between December 1994 and late August 1996. Although Russia claimed to have killed as many as 15,000 Chechen fighters, author Tony Wood, an authority on Chechnya, puts the number at around 4,000.
As for the number of Russian soldiers killed during the two-year invasion, Russia declared that fewer than 4,000 died in the fighting—a figure that cannot be trusted, author Robert Seely insists, because “at no point in the campaign did…[anyone] on the Russian side of the conflict show the slightest respect for accuracy of information.”
this article first appeared in Military History magazine
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Suffering the greatest number of casualties by far were civilians. According to estimates from both sides, anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 noncombatants died during the fighting, victims of cluster bombs, rocket attacks, indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate acts of savagery. The number of injured may well have reached a quarter million.
Worse was to come. Almost immediately after the fighting ended, Chechnya again descended into internal chaos. The country was rife with banditry, corruption and crushing unemployment amid power struggles among the many warlords, politicians and religious zealots, with Maskhadov virtually powerless to exert meaningful control. In the fall of 1999 a joint force of Chechen, Arab, Turk and Dagestani Islamic militants led by Basayev and al-Khattab invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in support of its Muslim separatists. Once entrenched, noted a study in the Harvard International _ _Review , they “declared a jihadist separatist movement to cleanse the region of ‘unbelievers.’”
Around the same time someone detonated explosives that destroyed apartment blocks in three Russian cities, killing some 300 residents and injuring more than 1,000. Though he lacked proof, then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately blamed the bombings on Chechen extremists. Others suggested Putin himself orchestrated the attacks, to further justify another invasion of Chechnya and to garner popular support while paving his way to the presidency.
In 1999, using the Dagestan invasion and domestic apartment bombings as a pretext, Russia again invaded Chechnya, and its much better-trained and -equipped forces quickly prevailed. During the course of the combat phase Putin ordered the unrestricted bombardment of Grozny. It was reduced to what the United Nations described as “the most destroyed city on earth,” and upward of 5,000 civilians were killed. Putin lavished expansive praise on his troops, stating they had “fulfilled their task to the end.”
In the wake of the wars Vladimir Putin speaks with Russian-installed Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. (Alexey Nikolsky/RIA NOVOSTI/AFP (Getty Images))
Since back in Russia’s fold, Chechnya operates under Russian law and is governed by Chechen-born, Putin-appointed president, Ramzan Kadyrov. A despot known for widespread human rights violations, he maintains a personal paramilitary bodyguard that numbers in the hundreds. According to Reuters, in late February 2022 Kadyrov sent them to fight in support of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ron Soodalter is a frequent contributor to HistoryNet publications. For further reading he recommends Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict , by John B. Dunlop; Russia’s Wars in Chechnya, 1994–2009 , by Mark Galeotti; and A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya , by Anna Politkovskaya.