First Chechen War

From New World Encyclopedia
North Caucasus region

The First Chechen War also known as the War in Chechnya was fought between Russia and Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 and resulted in Chechnya's de facto independence from Russia as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. After the initial campaign of 1994–1995, culminating in the devastating Battle of Grozny, Russian federal forces attempted to control the mountainous area of Chechnya but were repulsed by Chechen guerrilla warfare and raids on the flatlands in spite of Russia's overwhelming manpower, weaponry, and air support. The resulting widespread demoralization of federal forces, and the almost universal opposition of the Russian public to the brutal conflict, led Boris Yeltsin's government to declare a ceasefire in 1996 and sign a peace treaty a year later. The war was characterized by disregard for human life, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. Various figures estimate the number of civilian deaths between fifty and a hundred thousand, and over two hundred thousand injured. More than five hundred thousand persons were displaced by the conflict as cities and villages across the republic were left in ruins.

What began as an secular, anti-colonial independence struggle was increasingly seen as a civilizational and religious clash. Some Chechens, the majority of whom are Muslim, began to describe Russia as anti-Islamic. At about the same time, some Russians also represented the struggle as a revival of ancient Christian-Muslim animosity and rivalry. Chechens were joined in their resistance by volunteers from elsewhere in the Muslim world. In 1999, dissatisfied with the compromise of 1996, some Chechens resumed hostile actions, leading to Russia's re-occupation of Chechnya and suspension of autonomy. Violence has spiraled, leading to more violence. Russia now regards Chechen resistance as terrorism and their response as counter-terrorism, not as counter insurgency. This obscures that at root the conflict is about sovereignty and self-determination. Chechens have never reconciled themselves to Russian rule, and want to govern themselves. The international community has not intervened; Russia says that the conflict is a domestic matter and can veto any United Nations' initiative. This tragic and unresolved situation underscores the need for diplomatic and non-violent resolution of internal and external conflict. The ease with which conventions on the conduct of war have been violated with impunity suggests that trying to ameliorate war instead of abolishing war is misguided.

Origins of the war in Chechnya

Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter downed by Chechen rebels near Grozny, December 1994

The Chechen of the Caucasian mountains were a clan-based people, mainly pagan and Christian until Sufi teachers began to convert them to Islam in the fifteenth century. The region was historically a buffer zone between Russia to the North and Turkey to the South. Relations with Turkey improved following conversion of the majority of the population to Islam but conflict with Russia continued, especially with the Cossacks who settled in the area.

Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union

Cossacks had lived in lowland Chechnya (Terek) since the sixteenth century. Russia first invaded the Chechen highlands during the reign of Catherine the Great, in the early eighteenth century. After a series of fierce battles, Russia defeated Chechnya and annexed it in the 1870s. Chechnya's subsequent attempts at gaining independence after the fall of the Russian Empire failed. In 1922 Chechnya was incorporated into Bolshevist Russia and later into the Soviet Union (USSR). Leo Tolstoy was stationed in Chechnya, where he set his novel Hadji Murat about the "pacification" process, which he depicted as immoral, describing Russian atrocities against the Chechens, ending with one character asking whether, since Russians had "dispensed with the laws of war, were they in fact nothing more than bandits.[1] The population of the region was reduced by half as a result of the campaigns of the nineteenth century.

In 1936, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1944, on the orders of NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria, more than 1 million Chechens, Ingushes, and other North Caucasian peoples were deported to Siberia and Central Asia, officially as punishment for alleged collaboration with the invading Nazi Germany. Stalin's policy made the state of Chechnya a non-entity. Eventually, Soviet first secretary Nikita Khrushchev granted the Chechen and Ingush peoples permission to return to their homeland and restored the republic in 1957.

The collapse of the Soviet Union

Russia became an independent nation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. While Russia was widely accepted as the successor state to the USSR, it lost most of its military and economic power. While ethnic Russians made up more than 70 percent of the population of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, significant ethnic and religious differences posed a threat of political disintegration in some regions. In the Soviet period, some of Russia's approximately 100 nationalities were granted ethnic enclaves that had various formal federal rights attached. Relations of these entities with the federal government and demands for autonomy erupted into a major political issue in the early 1990s. While such former satellite republics as Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Armenia among others became sovereign, independent states, Russia was reluctant to see its size diminish even more. In the case of Chechnya, Russia did not wish to lose control and the fact that Chechniya could not point to an earlier existence as a strong, unified political entity enabled Russia to deny its nationalist aspirations. It was a region, nor a nation.

President Boris Yeltsin incorporated Chechen autonomy demands into his 1990 election campaign by claiming that their resolution was a high priority. There was an urgent need for a law to clearly define the powers of each federal subject. Such a law was passed on March 31, 1992, when Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, then chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet and an ethnic Chechen himself, signed the Federation Treaty bilaterally with 86 out of 88 federal subjects. In almost all cases, demands for greater autonomy or independence were satisfied by concessions of regional autonomy and tax privileges. The treaty outlined three basic types of federal subjects and the powers that were reserved for local and federal government.

The only federal subjects which did not sign the treaty were Chechnya and Tatarstan. Eventually, in the spring of 1994, President Yeltsin signed a special political accord with Mintimer Şäymiev, the president of Tatarstan, granting many of its demands for greater autonomy for the republic within Russia. Thus, Chechnya remained the only federal subject which did not sign the treaty. Neither Yeltsin nor the Chechen government attempted any serious negotiations and the situation would deteriorate into a full-scale conflict.

Chechen declaration of independence

Chechnya (red) and the Russian Federation

Meanwhile, on September 6, 1991, militants of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (NCChP) party, created by former Soviet general Dzhokhar Dudayev, stormed a session of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR Supreme Soviet with the aim of asserting independence. They killed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union chief for Grozny through defenestration, brutalized several other party members, and effectively dissolved the government of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union.

In the following month Dudayev won overwhelming popular support to oust the interim central government-supported administration. He was made president and declared independence from the USSR. In November 1991, President Yeltsin dispatched troops to Grozny, but they were forced to withdraw when Dudayev's forces prevented them from leaving the airport. After Chechnya had made its initial declaration of sovereignty, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic split in two in June 1992 amidst the Ingush armed conflict with the other Russian republic of North Ossetia. The Republic of Ingushetia then joined the Russian Federation, while Chechnya declared full independence in 1993 as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

Internal conflict in Chechnya

From 1991 to 1994, tens of thousands of people of non-Chechen ethnicity, mostly Russians, left the republic amidst reports of violence against the non-Chechen population. Chechen industry began to fail as a result of many Russian engineers and workers leaving or being expelled from the republic. During the undeclared Chechen civil war, factions both sympathetic and opposed to Dudayev fought for power, sometimes in pitched battles with the use of heavy weapons.

Dudayev's supporters pray in front of the Presidential Palace in Grozny, 1992

In March 1992, the opposition attempted a coup d'état, but their attempt was crushed by force. A month later, Dudayev introduced direct presidential rule, and in June 1993, dissolved the parliament to avoid a referendum on a vote of non-confidence. Federal forces dispatched to the Ossetian-Ingush conflict were ordered to move to the Chechen border in late October 1992, and Dudayev, who perceived this as "an act of aggression" against the Chechen Republic, declared a state of emergency and threatened general mobilization if the Russian troops did not withdraw from the Chechen border.[2] After staging another coup attempt in December 1993, the opposition organized a Provisional Council as a potential alternative government for Chechnya, calling on Moscow for assistance.

In August 1994, when the coalition of the opposition factions, based in the north of Chechnya, launched an armed campaign to remove Dudayev's government, Moscow clandestinely supplied rebel forces with financial support, military equipment, and mercenaries. Russia suspended all civilian flights to Grozny while the air defense aviation and border troops set up a military blockade of the republic. On October 30, 1994, unmarked Russian aircraft began bombing the capital Grozny. The opposition forces, who were joined by Russian troops, launched a clandestine but badly organized assault on Grozny in mid-October 1994. It was followed by a second, larger attack on November 26–27, 1994. Dudayev's National Guard forces repelled the attacks. In a major embarrassment for the Kremlin, they also succeeded in capturing some 20 Russian Army regulars and about 50 other Russian citizens secretly hired by the Russian FSK state security organization.[3]

On November 29, President Boris Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all warring factions in Chechnya ordering them to disarm and surrender. When the government in Grozny refused, President Yeltsin ordered an attack to restore "constitutional order." By December 1, Russian forces were carrying out heavy aerial bombardments of Chechnya, targeting both military sites and the capital Grozny.

On December 11, 1994, five days after Dudayev and Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev of Russia had agreed to avoid the further use of force, Russian forces entered Chechnya in order to "establish constitutional order in Chechnya and to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia."[4] Grachev boasted he could topple Dudayev in a couple of hours with a single airborne regiment, and proclaimed that it will be "a bloodless blitzkrieg, that would not last any longer than December 20."[5]

The Russian war in Chechnya

Initial stages

On December 11, 1994 Russian forces launched a three-pronged ground attack towards Grozny. The main attack was temporarily halted by deputy commander of the Russian Ground Forces, Colonel-General Eduard Vorobyov, who then resigned in protest, stating that the invasion was "criminal in both conception and execution."[6] Many in the Russian military and government opposed the war as well. Yeltsin's adviser on nationality affairs, Emil Pain, and Russia's Deputy Minister of Defense, Colonel-General Boris Gromov (esteemed commander of the Soviet-Afghan War), also resigned in protest of the invasion, announcing on Television that he would "cooperate with groups active in keeping young people from being drafted and sent to Chechnya."[7] More than 800 professional soldiers and officers refused to take part in the operation; of these, 83 were convicted by military courts, and the rest were discharged. Later, Lieutenant-General Lev Rokhlin refused to be decorated as the Hero of Russia for his part in the war.[8]

The Chechen Air Force was destroyed in the first few hours of the war, while around 500 people took advantage of the mid-December amnesty declared by Yeltsin for members of Dzhokhar Dudayev's armed groups. Nevertheless, Boris Yeltsin cabinet's expectations of a quick surgical strike, quickly followed by Chechen capitulation, were horribly misguided, and Russia soon found itself in a quagmire. The morale of the troops was low from the beginning, for they were poorly prepared and did not understand why they were sent into battle. Some Russian units resisted the order to advance, and in some cases the troops sabotaged their own equipment. In Ingushetia, civilian protesters stopped the western column and set 30 military vehicles on fire, while about 70 conscripts deserted their units. Advance of the western column was halted by the unexpected Chechen resistance at Dolinskoye. A group of 50 Russian paratroopers surrendered to the local militia, after being deployed by helicopters behind enemy lines and then abandoned.

Yeltsin ordered the former Soviet Army to show restraint, but it was neither prepared nor trained for this. Civilian losses quickly mounted, alienating the Chechen population and raising hostility to the federal forces even among those who initially supported the attempts to unseat Dudayev. Other problems occurred as Yeltsin sent in freshly trained conscripts from neighboring regions rather than regular soldiers. Highly mobile units of Chechen fighters caused severe losses to Russia's ill-prepared, demoralized troops. The federal military command then resorted to the carpet bombing tactics and indiscriminate rocket artillery barrages, causing enormous casualties among the Chechen and Russian civilian population. By mid-January 1995, Russian bombing and artillery had killed or injured thousands of civilians.[9]

With the Russians closing in on the capital, Chechens started to prepare bunkers and set up fighting positions in Grozny. On December 29, in a rare instance of a Russian outright victory, the Russian airborne forces seized the military airfield next to Grozny and repelled a Chechen armored counterattack in the battle of Khankala. The next objective was the city itself.

Battle for Grozny

A Chechen fighter near the burned-out ruins of the Presidential Palace in Grozny, January 1995

When Russians attacked the Chechen capital of Grozny from December 1994 to January 1995, thousands of civilians died from a week-long series of air raids and artillery bombardment of the sealed-off city in the heaviest bombing campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden.[10] After armored assaults failed, the Russian military set out to pulverize the city into submission. Russian aircraft bombarded Grozny while armored forces and artillery hammered the city from the ground. The Russian assault fell mainly on Grozny's civilians, mostly ethnic Russians, as separatist forces operated from buildings filled with Russian civilians as human shields.

The initial attack ended with a major rout of the attacking forces and led to heavy Russian casualties and nearly a complete breakdown of morale. An estimated 1000 to 2000 federal soldiers died in the disastrous New Year's Eve assault. All units of the 131st 'Maikop' Motor Rifle Brigade sent into the city, numbering more than 1,000 men, were destroyed during the 60-hour fight in the area of the Grozny's central railway station, leaving only about 230 survivors (1/3 of them captured). Several other Russian armored columns each lost hundreds of men during the first two days and nights of the siege.[11]

Despite the early Chechen defeat of the New Year assault and many further casualties, Grozny was eventually conquered by Russian forces amidst bitter urban warfare. On January 7, 1995, Russia's Major-General Viktor Vorobyov was killed by mortar fire, becoming the first on a long list of generals to be killed in Chechnya. On January 19, despite heavy casualties, Russian forces seized the ruins of the presidential palace, which had been heavily contested for more than three weeks as Chechens finally abandoned their positions in the destroyed downtown area. The battle for the southern part of the city continued until the official end on March 6, 1995.

By Sergey Kovalev's estimates, about 27,000 civilians died in the first five weeks of fighting. Dmitri Volkogonov, the late Russian historian and general, said the Russian military's bombardment of Grozny killed around 35,000 civilians, including 5,000 children, and that the vast majority of those killed were ethnic Russians. While military casualties are not known, the Russian side admitted to having lost nearly 2,000 killed or missing.[3] International monitors from the OSCE described the scenes as nothing short of an "unimaginable catastrophe," while former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called the war a "disgraceful, bloody adventure," and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl described the events as "sheer madness."[12]

Continued Russian offensive

In the southern mountains, the Russians launched an offensive along the entire front on April 15, 1995, advancing in columns comprised of 200–300 vehicles. The Chechens defended the city of Argun, moving their military headquarters first to completely surrounded Shali, then shortly after to Serzhen-Yurt as they were forced into the mountains, and finally to Shamil Basayev's stronghold of Vedeno. The second-largest city of Gudermes was surrendered without a fight, but the village of Shatoy was defended by the men of Ruslan Gelayev. Eventually, the Chechen Command withdrew from the area of Vedeno to the Chechen opposition-aligned village of Dargo, and from there to Benoy.[13]

Between January and June 1995, when the Russian forces conquered most of the republic in the conventional campaign, their losses in Chechnya were approximately 2,800 killed, 10,000 wounded, and over 500 missing or captured, according to an estimate cited in a U.S. Army report.[14] The dominant Russian strategy was to use heavy artillery and air strikes throughout the campaign, leading some Western and Chechen sources to call the air strikes deliberate terror bombing on the part of Russia.

Ironically, due to the fact that ethnic Chechens in Grozny were able to seek refuge among their respective teips in the surrounding villages of the countryside, a high proportion of initial civilian casualties were inflicted against ethnic Russians who were unable to procure viable escape routes. The villages, however, were also targeted even from the early on; the Russian cluster bombs, for example, killed at least 55 civilians during the January 3, 1995 Shali cluster bomb attack.

It was widely alleged that Russian troops, especially those belonging to the MVD, committed numerous, and in part systematic acts of torture and summary executions on rebel sympathizers; they were often linked to zachistka (cleansing) raids, affecting entire town districts and villages that harbored boyeviki, the rebel fighters. In the lowland border village of Samashki, from April 7 to April 8, 1995, Russian forces killed at least 103 civilians, while several hundred more were beaten or otherwise tortured.[15] Humanitarian and aid groups chronicled persistent patterns of Russian soldiers killing civilians, raping, and looting civilians at random, often in disregard of their nationality. Some Chechens infiltrated already pacified places hiding in crowds of returning fugitives, dressed as civilians and attacked from the inside, disguising as journalists or Red Cross workers.[16]

Hostages released from during the Buddyonovsk crisis in June 1995, which was a major turning point in the war
A teenage fighter in Chechnya

As the war went on, separatists resorted to large hostage takings, attempting to influence the Russian public and Russian leadership. In June 1995 Rebels led by Shamil Basayev took more than 1,500 people hostage in southern Russia which became known as the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis where about 120 civilians died. The Budyonnovsk raid enforced a temporary stop in Russian military operations, allowing the Chechens the time to regroup in the time of their greatest crisis and prepare for the national guerrilla campaign.

The full-scale Russian attack led many of Dudayev's opponents to side with his forces, and thousands of volunteers to swell the ranks of mobile guerrilla units. Many others formed local self-defense militia units to defend their settlements in the case of the federal offensive action, numbering officially 5,000–6,000 badly-equipped men in late 1995. Altogether, Chechens fielded some 10,000–12,000 full-time and reserve fighters at a time, according to the Chechen command. According to the UN report, the Chechen separatist forces included a large number of child soldiers, some as young as 11 (including females).[17]

In addition to the continued conventional fighting, the separatists resorted to guerrilla tactics, such as setting booby traps and mining roads in the enemy territory. They also effectively exploited a combination of mines and ambushes. The successful use of improvised explosive devices was particularly noteworthy.

Human rights organizations accused Russian forces of engaging in indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force whenever encountering resistance, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. For example, during the December 1995 rebel raid on Gudermes, Russian forces pounded parts of the town with heavy artillery and rockets, killing at least 267 civilians. They also prevented civilians from evacuating from areas of imminent danger, and prevented humanitarian organizations from assisting civilians in need. Separatist fighters, in turn, kidnapped or killed Chechens considered to be collaborators and mistreated civilian captives and federal prisoners of war, especially pilots. Both rebel and federal sides of the conflict kidnapped hostages for ransom and used human shields for cover during the fighting and movement of troops. In one incident, a group of surrounded Russian troops took approximately 500 civilian hostages at the Grozny's 9th Municipal Hospital[18]. Russian forces committed violations of international humanitarian law and human rights on a much larger scale than Chechen separatists, though both sides in the conflict used torture and mistreated prisoners of war. Chechen militants executed members of the Russian forces and repeatedly seized civilian hostages. The violations by the members of the Russian forces were usually tolerated and not punished even when investigated, with the example story of Colonel Vladimir Glebov. Accused of war crimes, he was nonetheless decorated; no action was taken and he was allowed to retire.

Television and newspaper accounts widely reported largely uncensored images of the carnage to the Russian public. As a result, the Russian media coverage partially precipitated a loss of public confidence in the government and a steep decline in president Yeltsin's popularity. Chechnya was one of the heaviest burdens on Yeltsin's 1996 presidential election campaign. In addition, the protracted war in Chechnya, especially many reports of extreme violence against civilians, ignited fear and contempt of Russia among other ethnic groups in the federation.

In the fall of 1995, the Russian commander in Chechnya, Lieutenant-General Anatoliy Romanov, was critically injured and paralyzed in a bomb blast in Grozny. Suspicion of responsibility for the attack fell on rogue elements of the Russian military, as the attack destroyed hopes for a permanent ceasefire based on the developing trust between Romanov and General Aslan Maskhadov, Chief of Staff of the Chechen forces and former Soviet Colonel. In August, the two personally went to southern Chechnya in an effort to convince the local commanders to release Russian prisoners, while the Russian command spread word through the media that some Chechen field commanders had announced that they would no longer obey Maskhadov. In February 1996 the Russian forces in Grozny opened fire on the massive pro-independence peace march involving tens of thousands of people, killing a number of demonstrators.[19]

Spread of the war: Islamization and Chistianization

Chechen irregular fighter with a Borz

By 1995, Chechen commander Shamil Salmanovich Basayev was using the language of Jihad against Russia, which attracted volunteers from across the Muslim world. By one estimate, in all up to 5,000 non-Chechens served as foreign volunteers; they were mostly Caucasian and included possibly 1,500 Dagestanis, 1,000 Georgians and Abkhazians, 500 Ingushes and 200 Azeris, as well as 300 Turks, 400 Slavs from Baltic states and Ukraine, and more than 100 Arabs and Iranians. The volunteers included a number of ethnic Russians, which included citizens of Moscow. On March 6, 1996, a Cypriot passenger jet flying toward Germany was hijacked by Chechen sympathizers to publicize the Chechen cause; as was a Turkish passenger ship carrying 200 Russian passengers on January 9, 1996 (these incidents, perpetrated by the Turkish gunmen, were resolved without fatalities). Hughes argues that what began as a separatist, nationalist struggle with little if any specific religious aspects increasingly became radicalized as a Islamist struggle.[20] Some of the volunteers had trained at Osama bin Laden's camp in Afghanistan. One such jihadist, known as ibn al-Khattab, enjoyed a close relationship with bin Laden. He joined Basayev in 1995. With his military "training and probably also his links to Islamic funding, he was appointed to important military command and training posts."[21] At the outset of the war, most Chechens were "Muslim mostly in name".[22] When the international community failed to support the Chechen cause, the Chechens turned to their fellow-Muslim for help. At the same time, Muslims elsewhere, especially in Bosnia, saw themselves abandoned by the world order and under threat of annihilation. Given what some represented as an attack on the Muslim world itself, Islam could be used to mobilize support for the war. Khattab and other also set about imparting "a more radical version of Islam to Chechen commanders."[22] This replaced the goal of a democratic, independent state with what has been described as a "an expansive Southern Eurasian caliphate."[23] The international community's reluctance to intervene in the Balkans is less understandable, though, than with respect to Chechnya. As a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, apart from claiming that the issue was domestic and thus out of bounds, Russia could veto any resolution. What has attracted less publicity is the Christianization of the conflict from the Russian perspective. Huntington commented that "In the early 1990s as the Orthodox religion and the Orthodox Church again became central elements in Russian national identity … the Russians found it in their interest to define the war … with Chechnya as" part "of a broader clash going back centuries between the Orthodox faith and Islam, with its local opponents now committed to Islamic fundamentalism and jihad …"[24] both sides are guilty of demonizing the other and of resurrecting "the devils of the past" in the present; "Mass murder, torture, rape and the brutal expulsion of civilians are all justifiable as communal hate deeds on communal hate."[24]

Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya spawned a new form of separatist activity in the Russian Federation. Resistance to the conscription of men from minority ethnic groups to fight in Chechnya was widespread among other republics, many of which passed laws and decrees on the subject. For example, the government of Chuvashia passed a decree providing legal protection to soldiers from the republic who refused to participate in the Chechnya war and imposed limits on the use of the Russian army in ethnic or regional conflicts within Russia. Some regional and local legislative bodies called for a prohibition on the use of draftees in quelling internal uprisings; others demanded a total ban on the use of the armed forces in quelling domestic conflicts.

Limited fighting occurred in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia in 1995, mostly when Russian commanders sent troops over the border in pursuit of Chechen fighters. Although all sides generally observed the distinction between the two peoples that formerly shared the autonomous republic, as many as 200,000 refugees from Chechnya and neighboring North Ossetia strained Ingushetia's already weak economy. On several occasions, Ingush president Ruslan Aushev protested incursions by Russian soldiers, and even threatened to sue the Russian Ministry of Defense for damages inflicted. Undisciplined Russian soldiers were also reported as murdering, raping, and looting in Ingushetia. In a widely reported incident partially witnessed by visiting Russian Duma deputies, at least nine Ingush civilians and an ethnic Bashkir soldier were murdered by apparently drunk Russian soldiers. In earlier incidents, drunken Russian soldiers killed another Russian soldier, the Ingush Health Minister and five Ingush villagers.

The Russian government officials feared that a move to end the war short of victory would create a cascade of secession attempts by other ethnic minorities, and present a new target for extreme nationalist Russian factions. The Don Cossacks, who were originally sympathetic to the Chechen cause, turned hostile in result of the Chechen terror attacks, and the Kuban Cossacks started organizing themselves against the Chechens, including manning paramilitary roadblocks against infiltration of their territories by militants. In January 1996, Russian forces, in reaction to the large-scale Chechen hostage taking in Kizlyar, destroyed Pervomayskoye, a border village in the Russian republic of Dagestan. This action brought strong criticism from the hitherto loyal Dagestan and escalated domestic dissatisfaction.

Continued Russian offensive

A group of the Chechen boyeviki (fighters)

The poorly-disciplined, ill-supplied, and badly led conscripts of the Russian army proved incapable of suppressing determined Chechen opposition, both in the Chechen capital and in the countryside. It took Russian forces over 15 months to capture Bamut, a small village southwest of the capital Grozny, which fell on May 22, 1996. On March 6, 1996, between 1,500 and 2,000 Chechen fighters infiltrated Grozny and launched a three-day surprise raid on the city, overrunning much of the city and capturing caches of weapons and ammunition. Also in March the Chechens attacked Samashki, where hundreds of villagers were killed by indiscriminate Russian fire. A month later, on April 16, forces of Arab commander Ibn al-Khattab destroyed a large Russian armored column in an ambush near Shatoy, killing at least 53 soldiers. In another near Vedeno, at least 28 troops were killed.

As military defeats and growing casualties made the war more and more unpopular in Russia, and as the 1996 presidential elections neared, Yeltsin's government sought a way out of the conflict. Although a Russian guided missile attack killed the Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev on April 21, 1996, the rebels persisted. Yeltsin officially declared "victory" in Grozny on May 28, 1996, after a new temporary ceasefire was signed with the Chechen Acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. While the political leaders were talking about the ceasefires and peace negotiations, military forces continued to conduct combat operations. On August 6, 1996, three days before Yeltsin was to be inaugurated for his second term as president, and when most of the Russian Army troops were moved south due to what was planned as their final offensive against remaining mountainous rebel strongholds, the Chechens launched another surprise attack on Grozny.

3rd Battle of Grozny

A Chechen fighter takes cover behind a burned Russian BMP-1 vehicle on a street of Grozny

In spite of the fact that the Russians had about 12,000 troops in and around Grozny, more than 1,500 Chechen fighters, led by Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev and Ruslan Gelayev, had overrun the key districts within hours. The attackers then laid siege to the Russian posts and bases and the government compound in the centre, while a number of Chechens deemed to be Russian collaborators were rounded up, detained, and in some cases executed.[25] At the same time Russian troops in the other cities of Argun and Gudermes were too surrounded in their garrisons.

Several attempts by the Army armored columns to rescue the mainly MVD units, which were trapped by the Chechens, were repelled with heavy Russian casualties; the 276th Motorized Regiment of 900 men lost 450 dead or wounded in a two-day attempt to reach the city centre. Russian military officials said that more than 200 soldiers had been killed and nearly 800 wounded in five days of fighting, and that an unknown number were missing; Chechens put the number of Russian dead at close to 1000. Thousands of demoralized, hungry, and thirsty troops were either taken prisoner or surrounded and largely disarmed, their heavy weapons and ammunition commandeered by the rebels.

On August 19, despite the presence of 50,000 to 200,000 both Chechen and Russian civilians, as well as thousands of federal servicemen in Grozny, the Russian commander Konstantin Pulikovsky gave an ultimatum for Chechen fighters to leave the city in 48 hours, or it would be leveled in a massive aerial and ground bombardment. This was followed by a chaotic of scenes of panic as civilians tried to flee before the army carried out its threat, with parts of the city ablaze and falling shells scattering refugee columns. The bombardment was halted by a ceasefire brokered by Yeltsin's national security adviser Alexander Lebed on August 22. The ultimatum, issued by Gen. Pulikovsky, now replaced, had been a "bad joke," Gen. Lebed said.[26] However, Maskhadov later said the ultimatum was probably Lebed's initiative.[27]

The Khasav-Yurt Accord

During eight hours of subsequent talks, Lebed and Maskhadov drafted and signed the Khasav-Yurt Accord on August 31, 1996. It included: technical aspects of demilitarization, the withdrawal of both sides' forces from Grozny, the creation of joint headquarters to preclude looting in the city, the withdrawal of all federal forces from Chechnya by December 31, 1996, and a stipulation that any agreement on the relations between the Chechen Republic Ichkeria and the Russian federal government need not be signed until late 2001.



According to the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, 3,826 troops were killed, 17,892 were wounded, and 1,906 are missing in action.[28] Seely comments that official statistics can not be trusted because no one on the Russian side "showed the slightest respect for accuracy of information."[29]

Dead bodies on a truck in Grozny

Chechen casualties are estimated at up to 100,000 dead or more, of which most were civilians. Various estimates put the number of Chechens dead or missing between 50,000 and 100,000. Russian Interior Minister Kulikov claimed that fewer than 20,000 civilians were killed. State Duma deputy Sergey Kovalyov's team could offer their conservative, documented estimate of more than 50,000 civilian deaths. Aleksander Lebed asserted that 80,000 to 100,000 had been killed and 240,000 had been injured.[30] The number given by the Ichkerian authorities was about 100,000 killed.

Chechen separatists estimated their combat deaths at about 3,000 including 800 in the first three months, mostly killed by mortar fire.[31], although this number is almost certainly too low. Tony Wood, a journalist and author who's written extensively about Chechnya, estimated about 4,000 Chechen militant losses.[32] It is impossible to know exactly how many Chechen rebels were killed however, since many fought independently and were not under the control of Dudayev (as such, their deaths were not counted among official Chechen losses). The Russian estimate is much higher; Russia's Federal Forces Command estimated that 15,000 Chechen fighters had been killed by the end of the war.[33]


In the Khasavyurt agreements, both sides specifically agreed to an "all for all" exchange of prisoners to be carried out at the end of the war. Despite this commitment, many persons remained forcibly detained.

As of mid-January 1997, the Chechens still held between 700 and 1,000 Russian soldiers and officers as prisoners of war, according to Human Rights Watch.[34] According to Amnesty International same month, 1,058 Russian soldiers and officers were still detained by Chechen fighters who were willing to release them in exchange for members of Chechen armed groups.

A partial analysis, by Victims of War, of 264 of the list of 1,432 reported missing found that, as of October 30, 1996, at least 139 were still being forcibly detained by the Russian side. It was entirely unclear how many of these men were alive.[34]

The Moscow peace treaty

The Khasav-Yurt Accord paved the way for the signing of two further agreements between Russia and Chechnya. In mid-November 1996, Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed an agreement on economic relations and reparations to Chechens who had been "affected" by the 1994–1996 war.

In February 1997 Russia also approved an amnesty for Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels alike who committed illegal acts in connection with the war in Chechnya between December 9, 1994, and September 1, 1996.

Six months after the Khasav-Yurt agreement, on May 12, 1997, Chechen-elected president Aslan Maskhadov traveled to Moscow where he and Yeltsin signed a formal treaty "on peace and the principles of Russian-Chechen relations" that Maskhadov predicted would demolish "any basis to create ill-feelings between Moscow and Grozny."[35]

Maskhadov's optimism, however, proved misplaced. Over the next two years a few of Maskhadov's former comrades-in-arms, led by field commander Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khattab, launched an incursion into Dagestan in the summer of 1999, and soon Russia invaded Chechnya again starting the Second Chechen War.


In his 1902 draft of Hadji Murat, Leon Tolstoy wrote:

What happened was what always happens when a state possessing great military strength enters into relations with primitive, small peoples living their independent lives. Either on the pretext of self-defense, even though any attacks are always provoked by the offences of the strong neighbor, or on the pretext of bringing civilization to a wild people, even though this wild people lives incomparably better and more peacefully than its civilizers … the servants of large military states commit all sorts of villainy against small nations, insisting that it is impossible to deal with them in any other way.[36]

Maskhadov's optimism, sadly, was misplaced. Over the next two years a few of Maskhadov's former comrades-in-arms, led by field commander Shamil Basayev and Ibn al-Khattab, launched an incursion into Dagestan in the summer of 1999, and soon Russia invaded Chechnya again starting the Second Chechen War. The Russian army occupied Chechnya, bringing its autonomy to an end. Post 9/11, Russia has characterized their campaign less as "counter insurgency" than as part of the international war against terrorism[37] and Chechen groups have been designated as Terrorist Organizations by the United States government.[38]. "Chechnya," says Hahn, "is now routinely mentioned in the statements of Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and other radical Islamists" and the "minimal goal of creating a North Caucasian caliphate is increasingly being accompanied by a more ambitious objective; the liberation of all 'Muslim lands' on the territory of Russia and the former Soviet Union and the creation of a Eurasian Islamist caliphate." This would further bin Laden's plan "to unite contiguous Muslim lands" to restore the caliphate "lost with the 1921 dissolution of the Ottoman Empire."[39] The jihadist agenda has started to spread into neighboring regions.

What began as a nationalist movement has morphed into a much more complex armed campaign, with the result that people continue to lose their lives. The First Chechen War was characterized by a cavalier attitude towards the value of life, so much so that accurate statistics were not even recorded by the Russian army. Neither side honored international rules on the conduct of war. Arguably, both sides have used forms of terror rather than conventional strategies. Representation of the conflict as one of terrorism and counter-terrorism obscures the reality that it is about a people's resistance to colonial rule. Wood argues that the war in Chechnya is still an anti-imperial struggle morally comparable to those that have taken place elsewhere, that Chechens have never accepted Russian domination and have a right to be free. Chechens have responded to "widespread brutality" with "the sole possession of a proud but domination people - resistance."[40] If Russia had honored the Chechens right to self-determination, much violence would have been avoided. In the face of Russia's attempt to retain Chechnya by force, Chechens in turn respond with force. Violence has led to more violence. Too often, the international community has attempted to ameliorate war instead of making war unthinkable. In this conflict, humanitarian conventions on the conduct of war have been ignored, which in fact only limit war; by even existing, they accept that nations will engage in war. If any lesson can be learned from the Chechen war it is that unless people really do believe that life is cheap, peaceful, non-violent means of resolving disputes are the only morally acceptable ones.


  1. Michael D. Goldhaber, A People's History of the European Court of Human Rights (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0813539836), 150.
  2. Alekseĭ Georgievich Arbatov, Managing Conflict in the Former Soviet Union: Russian and American perspectives (CSIA studies in international security.) (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0262510936), 57.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ib Faurby, Battles of Grozny Baltic Defense Review 2 (1999): 75-87. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  4. Emmanuel Karagiannis, Energy and Security in the Caucasus (London, UK: Routledge, 2002, ISBN 9780700714810), 61.
  5. John B. Dunlop, Russia Fonfronts Chechnya: Roots of a separatist conflict (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, ISBN 9780521631846), 208.
  6. Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000, ISBN 9780814731321), 177.
  7. John P. Moran, From Garrison State to Nation-State: Political power and the Russian military under Gorbachev and Yeltsin (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002, ISBN 9780275972172), 45.
  8. Zoltan D. Barany, Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007, ISBN 0691128960), 98.
  9. Mennonite Central Committee, Chapter 3: Cluster Munitions Use by Russian Federation Forces in Chechnya. Clusters of Death, 2000.
  10. Bryan Glyn Williams, "The Russo-Chechen War: A Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Eurasia?" Middle East Policy 8(1) (2001):128-148.
  11. Gall and De Waal, 19.
  12. The First Bloody Battle BBC News, March 16, 2000. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  13. Ruslan Alikhadzhiev, Interview Small Wars Journal, 1999. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  14. Lessons Learned from Modern Urban Combat U.S. Army. Extracted from U.S. Army FM 3-06.11 - Combined arms operations in urban terrain - February 28 2002. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  15. Russian Federation: Human Rights Developments Human Rights Watch, 1996. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  16. Timothy L. Thomas and Charles P. O'Hara, Combat Stress in Chechnya: "The Equal Opportunity Disorder." Army Medical Department Journal (Jan-Mar. 2000) Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  17. The situation of human rights in the Republic of Chechnya of the Russian Federation ECOSOC Report of the Secretary-General, March 26, 1996. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  18. O.P. Orlov and Aleksandr Cherkasov, Behind their Backs: Russian forces' use of civilians as hostages and human shields during the Chechnya war (Moscow, RU: "Memorial" Human Rights Center, 1997, ISBN 9785882550225), 27.
  19. Chris Hunter, Mass protests in Grozny end in bloodshed Chechnya PeaceWatch Project, 1996, 1. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  20. James Hughes, Chechnya: From nationalism to jihad (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, ISBN 9780812240139), 98-100.
  21. Hughes, 102.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Peter L. Bergen, Holy war, Inc.: Inside the secret world of Osama bin Laden (New York, NY: Free Press, 2001, ISBN 9780743205023), 239.
  23. Gordon M. Hahn, Russia's Islamic Threat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780300120776), 36.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996, ISBN 9780684811642), 271.
  25. O. P. Orlov, A.V. Cherkasov, and A.V. Sokolov, The Violation of Human Rights and Norms of Humanitarian Law in the Course of the Armed Conflict in the Chechen Republic A Report of the Human Rights Center Memorial. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  26. Moran, 53.
  27. Aslan Maskhadov, Interview Small Wars Journal, 1999, 6. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  28. Roger E. Kanet, Russia: Re-emerging great power (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, ISBN 9780230543041), 72.
  29. Robert Seely, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000 (London, UK: Routledge, 2000, ISBN 9780714649924), 260.
  30. Open Media Research Institute, Transition (Prague, CZ: Open Media Research Institute, 1995), 89.
  31. Dalkhan Khozhaev Interview Small Wars Journal, 1999. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  32. Tony Wood Chechnya: The case for independence (London, UK: Verso, 2007, ISBN 9781844671144), 75.
  33. Stasys Knezys and Romaras Sedlickas, The War in Chechnya (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999, ISBN 9780890968567), 303-304.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Missing persons, those forcibly detained, and exchanges. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  35. David Hoffman, Mowcow, Chechnya Sign Peace Treaty The Washington Posty, May 13, 1997. Retrieved February 7, 2023.
  36. Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Cosimo Classics, 2006, ISBN 978-1602060135).
  37. Hughes, 131.
  38. Hughes, 139.
  39. Hahn, 85.
  40. Wood, 5, 8.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Arbatov, Alekseĭ Georgievich. Managing Conflict in the Former Soviet Union: Russian and American perspectives. (CSIA studies in international security.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0262510936
  • Barany, Zoltan D. Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. ISBN 0691128960
  • Bergen, Peter L. Holy war, Inc.: Inside the secret world of Osama bin Laden. New York, NY: Free Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0743205023
  • Dunlop, John B. Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a separatist conflict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0521631846
  • Gall, Carlotta, and Thomas De Waal. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000 (original 1998). ISBN 978-0814731321
  • Goldhaber, Michael D. A People's History of the European Court of Human Rights. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0813539836
  • Hahn, Gordon M. Russia's Islamic threat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0300120776
  • Hughes, James. Chechnya: From nationalism to jihad. (National and ethnic conflict in the 21st century) Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0812240139
  • Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996. ISBN 978-0684811642
  • Kanet, Roger E. Russia: Re-emerging great power. Studies in central and eastern Europe. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN 978-0230543041
  • Karagiannis, Emmanuel. Energy and Security in the Caucasus. London, UK: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 978-0700714810
  • Knezys, Stasys, and Romaras Sedlickas. The War in Chechnya. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0890968567
  • Moran, John P. From Garrison State to Nation-State: Political power and the Russian military under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. ISBN 978-0275972172
  • Orlov, O.P., and Aleksandr Cherkasov. Behind their Backs: Russian forces' use of civilians as hostages and human shields during the Chechnya war. Moscow, RU: "Memorial" Human Rights Center, 1997. ISBN 978-5882550225
  • Seely, Robert. Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000. London, UK: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 978-0714649924
  • Tolstoy, Leo. Hadji Murad. Cosimo Classics, 2006. ISBN 978-1602060135
  • Williams, Bryan Glyn, "The Russo-Chechen War: A Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Eurasia?" Middle East Policy 8(1) (2001): 128-148.
  • Wood, Tony. Chechnya: The case for independence. London, UK: Verso, 2007. ISBN 978-1844671144

External links

All links retrieved March 26, 2024.


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