Caucasian Wars

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Russian contacts, both diplomatic and military, with the Caucasus region began during the rule of Ivan IV in the sixteenth century. However, only much later, during the reign of Catherine II in the late eighteenth century, did Russian economic and military power permit sustained, active involvement. Catherine appointed Prince Grigory Potemkin Russia's first viceroy of the Caucasus in 1785, although the actual extent of Russian control reached only as far south as Mozdok and Vladikavkaz. Meanwhile, military campaigns guided by Potemkin and General Alexander Suvorov penetrated far along the Caspian and Black Sea coasts. Russian intrusion energized hostility among much of the predominantly Muslim populace of the northern Caucasus, culminating in the proclamation of a "holy war" by Shaykh Mansur, a fiery resistance leader. Despite military collaboration with the Turks and Crimean Tatars, Mansur was captured by Russian forces at Anapa in 1791. At the time of the Empress' death in 1796, the so-called Caucasian Line, a sequence of forts and outposts tracing the Kuban and Terek Rivers, marked the practical limits of Russian authority.

Meanwhile, it was Russia's relationship with the small Christian kingdom of Georgia that set the stage for protracted warfare in the Caucasus in the nineteenth century. Pressed militarily by its powerful Muslim neighbors to the south, Persia and Ottoman Turkey, Georgia sought the military protection of Russia. In 1799, just four years after a Persian army sacked the capital of Tiflis, Georgy XII asked the tsar to accept Georgia into the Russian Empire. The official annexation of Georgia occurred in 1801 under Tsar Alexander I.

The acquisition of Georgia created a geopolitical anomaly that all but assured further fighting in the Caucasus. By 1813, following war with Persia, Russia was firmly positioned in the middle of the region with territorial claims spanning from the Caspian to the Black Sea. However, most of the heavily Muslim north central Caucasus was unreconciled to Russian domination. In a practical sense, Georgia constituted an island of Russian power in the so-called Transcaucasus whose lines of communications to the old Caucasian Line were ever precarious. Soon Dagestan, Chechnya, and Avaria in the east and the Kuban River basin in the west emerged as major bastions of popular resistance. Particularly in the interior of the country, among the thick forests and rugged mountains of the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, the terrain as well as throngs of able guerrilla warriors posed a formidable military obstacle. As in any such unconventional conflict, Russia had to stretch its resources both to protect friendly populations and prosecute a complex political-military struggle against a determined opposition. To secure areas under imperial authority, the Russians established a loose cordon of fortified points around the mountains. This, however, proved insufficient to prevent hostile raids. Meanwhile, the Russian effort to subjugate the resistance, widely known as the "mountaineers" or gortsy, required the ever increasing application of armed force. In the view of General Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov, commander of the Caucasus, the mountains constituted a great fortress, difficult to either storm or besiege.

Roughly speaking, the Russian subjugation of the mountaineer resistance is divisible into three stages. From 1801 to 1832, Russia's campaigns were sporadic, owing in part to the distraction of intermittent warfare with Persia, Turkey, Sweden, and France. In addition, the threat to Russian rule

in the Caucasus did not for several decades appear extremely serious. This situation changed in the early 1830s as the resistance assumed increasingly religious overtones. In 1834, a capable and charismatic resistance leader emerged in the person of Shamil, an Avar who headed a spiritual movement described by the Russians as "muridism" (derived from the term murid, meaning disciple). Combining religious appeal with military and administrative savvy, Shamil forged an alliance of mountain tribes that fundamentally transformed the character of the war.

Although the true center of Shamil's strength lay in the mountains of eastern Dagestan, his power was equally dependent upon the support of the Chechen tribes inhabiting the forested slopes and foothills between Georgia and the Terek River. Also important to the eastern resistance were the Lezghian tribes along the fringes of the Caucasian range. Because it was not strongly linked to Shamil, the Russians were less concerned in the short term with resistance in the western Caucasus (the southern Kuban and Black Sea coast), and formally treated that area as a separate military theater from 1821.

From the early 1830s, the Russians relied increasingly on large, conventional campaigns in an effort to shatter Shamil's resistance in a single campaign. This strategy did not produce the desired results. Although the tsar's columns proved repeatedly that they could march deep into the rugged interior of the region to assault and capture virtually any rebel position, Shamil's forces would not stand still long enough to risk total defeat. Moreover, upon retreating from the mountains, where it was impossible to supply Russian armies for more than a few weeks, Russian forces suffered repeated ambushes and loss of prestige The last such attempt was the nearly disastrous expedition of 1845. Under the command of the new Viceroy of the Caucasus, Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, a force of about eighteen thousand, including one thousand native militiamen, drove deep into the mountains and stormed a fiercely defended fort at Dargo. Yet, the mountaineers managed to evade total destruction by melting away into the surrounding forests. Upon their return from the mountains, Russian troops suffered incessant harassment by unseen snipers and were cut off from resupply. Only the arrival of a relief column prevented a complete debacle, but the invaders endured more than three thousand casualties during the campaign.

Finally, in 1846, Russian strategy changed to reflect a more patient and methodical modus operandi. Russia refocused its efforts on limited, achievable objectives with the overall intent of gradually reducing the territory under Shamil's influence. The advent of the Crimean War disrupted Russian progress as the diversion of Russian regiments to fighting the Turks served once again to encourage popular resistance. However, with the conclusion of that war in 1856, the empire resolved to finish its increasingly tiresome struggle for dominion over the Caucasus by massing its strength in the region for the first time.

To accomplish this, the new viceroy, General Alexander I. Baryatinsky, retained control of forces assumed committed against Turkey in the Caucasian theater. With approximately 250,000 soldiers at his disposal, Baryatinsky was able to apply relentless pressure against multiple objectives by mounting separate but converging campaigns. He was ably served in this endeavor by Dmitry Milyutin, the future War Minister, as chief of staff. Both men were veterans of fighting in the Caucasus and understood the necessity to separate the resistance from the general population. They ruthlessly achieved this end by systematically clearing and burning forests, destroying villages, and forcibly resettling entire tribes, thereby progressively denying Shamil access to critical resources. Following the fall of Shamil's key stronghold at Veden in 1859, the Russians captured the resistance leader himself at Gunib. Then, having gained success in the east, Russian forces liquidated remaining opposition in the west during the next several years. Ultimately, as many as half a million Moslem tribesmen, above all Cherkes in the west, were relocated from their ancestral lands.

See also: baryatinsky, alexander ivanovich; caucasus; georgia and georgians; milyutin, dmitry alexeyevich; shamil; vorontsov, mikhail semenovich


Baddeley, John. (1908). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. New York: Longmans, Green and Co.

Baumann, Robert. (1993). Russian-Soviet Unconventional Wars in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute.

Gammer, Moshe. (1994). Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London and Portland, OR: F. Cass.

Robert F. Baumann