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Chechnya is a small, mountainous, land-locked republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, somewhat smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey. Its population of about one million has been decimated by years of warfare as the Russian government, centered in Moscow, deployed tens of thousands of troops in two unsuccessful attempts to eradicate a separatist movement that had declared Chechnya's sovereignty. Russia and Chechnya share a long history, from military rule during the tsarist era through mass deportations and repression under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), to an uneasy resettlement and reintegration in the last decades of the Soviet period. That shared history did not predetermine the outbreak of war in the mid-1990s, but it does go some way toward explaining the Chechens' desire for greater independence. There is also, however, a long history of Russian-Chechen cooperation. During the Soviet era large numbers of Chechens received higher education, loosened their ties to Muslim tradition in favor of secularism, joined professions, and moved to urban centers outside their homeland. If not for the economic and political collapse of the USSR, many Chechens might have continued along this trajectory to a modern cosmopolitan lifestyle, leaving the ways of the guerrilla fighter in the distant past. Instead, the demise of Soviet order and the policies of Russian and Chechen leaders brought about the renewal of violent conflict.

Post-Soviet Russia has fought two wars in Chechnya. The first was waged from 1994 to 1996; the second resumed in autumn 1999 and by 2006 had yet to end. The wars have entailed massive indiscriminate bombing of cities and villages, with high civilian casualties, sweep operations, herding of people into so-called filtration camps, extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances. Some one hundred thousand or more people are estimated to have died in the wars—mostly civilians—and several hundred thousand remained refugees.

Russia's military campaigns in Chechnya violated many international and European laws and agreements, including the Geneva Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and, arguably, the Genocide Convention.


Russia's first military encounter with Chechnya came in 1722, when Chechen fighters routed a cavalry force sent there by Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725). Later Chechen resistance to Russian tsarist influence was led by Islamic leaders such as Sheikh Mansur, Kazi Mullah, and Shamil. Typical of European colonial powers of that era, Russia pursued a strategy of economic warfare against the recalcitrant mountaineers, destroying their crops and burning their villages, and perpetrating massacres and deportations.

Some of the mountain peoples of the North Caucasus had opposed the reimposition of Russian rule during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, and in subsequent decades resisted Soviet policies of collectivization of agriculture—as did peasants throughout the Soviet Union. Perceiving the Chechens as particularly rebellious, the Stalinist regime undertook a mass deportation of the entire population. Starting in the middle of the night of 22–23 February 1944, about five hundred thousand people were rounded up and packed into trains. Between the deportation itself and the conditions of exile, about a quarter of the population had perished within five years of their departure, according to official statistics.

In 1956–1957, Stalin's successors, led by Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), officially permitted the deported groups to return from exile. In Chechnya, a program of industrialization, based on oil refining, led to modernization, urbanization, and a large influx of Russians, especially to the capital city of Grozny. In the next few decades, many Chechens, including the sizable diaspora still spread throughout the Soviet Union, integrated into Soviet society, entered mixed marriages, adopted the Russian language, and pursued higher education and urban lifestyles.


Although it is fashionable to link the Russo-Chechen war that broke out in the 1990s to previous centuries of conflict, doing so risks overlooking the more immediate and relevant context. The Chechen drive for independence was part of a broad movement throughout the Soviet Union for greater autonomy from the hypercentralized communist system ruled from Moscow. The economic and political reforms launched by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) under the banner of perestroika emboldened activists throughout the multiethnic Soviet Union to speak out and organize for more autonomy. Ultimately it was the de facto secession of Russia itself, under the leadership of Gorbachev's rival Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931), that brought the Soviet Union to an end in December 1991.

With the advent of perestroika, residents of Chechnya mobilized to support political and economic change. Some of them seized on nationalist symbols and chose Dzhokhar Dudayev (1944–1996), a recently retired Soviet air force general, to head their movement. When the local communist authorities in Chechnya failed to condemn the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, they discredited themselves in the eyes of increasingly nationalist and anticommunist Chechens as well as among the supporters of Yelstin, whose symbolic role in defeating the coup had made him a hero. Demonstrations in Grozny convinced Yeltsin's circle to support Dudayev as an alternative to the Soviet-era leader.

Yeltsin realized his mistake too late. The mercurial Dudayev and his supporters seized government buildings, the radio and television center, and an arsenal of weapons. He was elected president under disputed circumstances and immediately issued a declaration of sovereignty of the Chechen Republic. Yeltsin declared a state of emergency and dispatched twenty-five hundred interior ministry troops. Dudayev responded by declaring martial law and mobilizing forces for Chechnya's defense. Under threat of Russian invasion, most of Dudayev's erstwhile opponents rallied to his side—a phenomenon that was repeated under his successor when Russia invaded again in 1999.


Post-Soviet Chechnya suffered an unemployment rate of some 40 percent. Its main source of wealth—oil—saw a steady decline from peak production in 1971 of twenty-one million tons to a low of four million in 1991, with further declines projected. Three-fourths of the goods produced in Chechnya, including oil products, were dependent on deliveries from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. In focusing on what he knew best—war—Dudayev neglected everything else that Chechnya would need to become a viable political and economic entity, including good relations with Russia.

Through bribery and intimidation, Dudayev's forces inherited a sizable arsenal of weapons, including some forty thousand automatic weapons and machine guns. Because Chechnya did not possess a formal army, many of the weapons were dispersed throughout the population. They ended up in the hands of rival gangs, many of them oriented more toward crime than national defense. As criminal activity spread beyond Chechnya's borders into other parts of Russia, Moscow authorities became increasingly determined to crush Dudayev's regime.


The path to war was cleared by Yeltsin's hawkish advisors, who presented one-sided views of the Chechen conflict, and by the Chechen president's suspicious nature, bordering on paranoia. Doubts emerged within the Russian General Staff about the wisdom of an invasion and the inadequacy of planning. Many Russian officers resigned rather than attempt to carry out such an implausible and morally dubious action, and others were fired for refusal to do so—more than five hundred, by some estimates. Chechnya received some support from foreign Islamist groups sympathetic to its plight, but most came in the wake of the Russian invasion in December 1994.

In some respects Russia could have won the war in Chechnya. Its armed forces destroyed the capital and gained nominal control of all other major population centers. Chechen troops retreated to the mountains to conduct a guerrilla campaign. Moscow might have used economic aid to win over the civilian population and police methods to deal with the remaining rebel forces. Instead the Russian forces treated the residents of Chechnya—including thousands of ethnic Russians who lived in Grozny—indiscriminately as enemies. The occupying Russian army—with drunken and drugged soldiers robbing, harassing, and otherwise maltreating civilians—did little to win over hearts and minds.

The Chechen resistance forces turned the tide of the war and put an end to Russian occupation by becoming what Moscow had always branded them: terrorists. The two most notorious attacks took place in June 1995 in the Russian town of Budennovsk and in January 1996 in Kizliar, Dagestan. In both cases Chechen forces seized hospitals and kept hundreds of hostages, executing some of them to keep Russian troops at bay.

Popular opposition to the war was widespread in Russia, led by organizations such as the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which supported efforts of parents to travel to Chechnya and rescue their sons or recover their bodies. The presidential election campaign of 1996 also played an important role, as Yeltsin acknowledged that he could not be reelected if he did not try to end the war. In August 1996, after another costly and senseless attack on Grozny, Yeltsin finally faced reality and gave General Alexander Lebed (1950–2002), an erstwhile rival presidential candidate, authority to negotiate the Russian withdrawal. Four months earlier, the Russian army had assassinated Dudayev, thereby removing an unpredictable and unreliable negotiating partner. Aslan Maskhadov (1951–2005), Dudayev's successor as commander-in-chief, worked with Lebed to craft the so-called Khasavyurt Accord. It formally left the status of Chechnya's relationship to Russia undecided until 31 December 2001, by which date subsequent negotiations were supposed to resolve the two sides' differences.


Following the Russian troop withdrawal, Chechnya enjoyed a short-lived de facto independence, although "suffered" would be a more accurate characterization. Maskhadov won the Chechen presidency in January 1997, in an election universally acknowledged as free and fair, but he never succeeded in establishing control over the country. Adversaries, including self-styled Islamist revolutionaries, commanded their own armed gangs and challenged Maskhadov's authority and his commitment to a secular state. They carried out kidnappings and murders of foreign workers to disrupt Maskhadov's plans to revive the Chechen economy through oil exports, and they ran a lucrative slave trade, whose victims included Chechens. The lawless nature of independent Chechnya gave Russia ample reason to develop contingency plans for a renewal of military conflict, even though a May 1997 peace treaty signed by presidents Yeltsin and Maskhadov committed both sides "forever to repudiate the use and the threat to use military force to resolve whatever disputes may arise."

Moscow's second war with Chechnya began during the first days of August 1999, when a force of Chechens, Dagestani Wahhabis, and others launched an attack across the Chechen border into Dagestan. They were led by Shamil Basaev (b. 1965) and Khattab (1969–2002), an Arab fighter married to a Dagestani woman. Local Dagestani forces resisted the invasion and were soon joined by regular Russian troops. Even after repelling the attack into Dagestan, Russian forces continued military operations against Chechnya, with massive aerial attacks in early September followed by a ground invasion. Unlike the first Chechen war—which nearly led to Yeltsin's impeachment—this one was popular, owing to its apparent defensive origins and the fact that the attack coincided with a series of terrorist bombings on Russian territory. During the first half of September four apartment buildings were blown up in Dagestan, Moscow, and Volgodonsk. Suspicion naturally fell on Chechens.

Vladimir Putin (b. 1952), appointed prime minister and heir apparent by Yeltsin days after the attack on Dagestan, seized the opportunity to prosecute the war while it still enjoyed public support. Four months into the war Yeltsin resigned his presidency, putting Putin in a position to move from acting president to the real thing with elections in March 2000. Renewal of the war against Chechnya, supported by an increasingly docile Russian press, secured Putin's victory.

The war itself dragged on for years. Even after most of Chechnya was bombed into rubble, and thousands of its citizens killed or driven away, the country remained a dangerously insecure place, with frequent guerrilla attacks, assassinations, and abductions. In autumn 2003, a Russian newspaper, drawing on official sources, estimated a death toll of about twelve thousand troops for both wars, with civilian deaths approaching a hundred thousand.

Moscow's attempts to "normalize" the situation in Chechnya proved futile. Troops alienated the local population with their brutal tactics and gave rise to a wave of terrorist attacks increasingly perpetrated outside Chechnya, including in Moscow. Putin branded Maskhadov an international terrorist and refused to negotiate anything but the terms of his surrender. Holding new presidential elections in Chechnya failed to induce popular support for the pro-Moscow regime. The October 2003 elections, widely denounced as fraudulent, yielded victory for the Kremlin's choice, Akhmad Kadyrov (1951–2004), but his assassination seven months later necessitated yet another round. No one was surprised at the August 2004 victory of Putin's candidate, General Alu Alkhanov (b. 1947), the Moscow-appointed interior minister.

By most accounts, the war-weary Chechen population would gladly trade its short-lived and costly independence for peace, stability, and a return to the status quo ante (of the Soviet era, if that were possible). But by the mid 2000s, the brutal character of the Russian occupation seemed destined only to stoke the embers of resentment and breed further violence.

See alsoAl Qaeda; Guerrilla Warfare; Islamic Terrorism; Russia; Soviet Union; Terrorism.


Primary Sources

Gall, Carlotta, and Thomas de Waal. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York, 1998. An excellent journalists' account of the first war.

Nivat, Anne. Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya. Translated by Susan Darnton. New York, 2001. A French journalist's firsthand reporting from inside war-torn Chechnya.

Politkovskaya, Anna. A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. Translated from the Russian and edited by John Crowfoot; with an introduction by Thomas de Waal. London, 2001.

——. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky; with an introduction by Georgi Derluguian. Chicago, 2003.

Secondary Sources

Dunlop, John B. Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Evangelista, Matthew. The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? Washington, D.C., 2002.

Lieven, Anatol. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Tishkov, Valery. Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society. Berkeley, Calif., 2004.

Trenin, Dmitri V., and Aleksei V. Malashenko, with Anatol Lieven. Russia's Restless Frontier: The Chechnya Factor in Post-Soviet Russia. Washington, D.C., 2004.

Matthew Evangelista