New Year’s Eve 1994 – a city under siege. The week-long bombing campaign had been vicious and indiscriminate, killing thousands of civilians in the process. The battered landscape of the Chechen capital, Grozny, is about to witness some of the worst fighting on the European continent since 1945.
Russian soldiers, many untrained conscripted young men, begin advancing through the shattered streets. What the new Russian government had assumed would be a straightforward military exercise was about to spiral horribly out of control and lead to a horrific year and a half war of attrition that would push both sides to the very brink – and that was just the start.
For the Russian people, the name Chechnya comes with a chilling undertone. An area that brought not one, but two major conflicts that slowly bled the nation, while also sparking high profile sieges and terrorist attacks in Russia itself.
The story of Russia’s chaotic attempts at pacifying a region battling for its independence saw some of the most brutal fighting since the Second World War and eventually left Grozny looking more like Dresden or Stalingrad. They were two conflicts that helped shape modern Russia, for better or for worse, and one that, even to this day, remains perilously balanced.
Chechnya has long been a thorn in the side of first Russia, then the Soviet Union and finally Russia again and their battle for independence has stretched over several centuries. Officially known as the Chechen Republic, Chechnya is today one of Russia’s 22 Constituent Republics, situated in the south of the country in the North Caucasus region – a place of spectacular mountainous beauty that has also been the scene of some of the most shocking events in recent decades.
The Caucasus region has a complex history. Traditionally broke into two areas, the Greater Caucasus region to the north, which for a long time experienced much greater degrees of freedom, and the Lesser Caucasus in the south, which had long been part of successive large empires, such as the Roman, Persian and Ottoman.
During the reign of Catherine the Great, Russia sought to establish better trade connections with the Middle East and with the Caucasus region the easiest way south, a series of military campaigns aiming at pacifying the region were met with ferocious resistance.
The Caucasian War fought between 1817 and 1864, saw the slow wearing down of resistance and the eventual expulsion or mass murder of an estimated 800,000 to 1.5 million Muslim Circassians during a period that has come to be known as the Circassian Genocide in which Russia did its best at emptying a region that had caused it so many problems.
In 1917, with the once-mighty Russian Empire imploding, Chechnya, along with neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan declared independence and formed a single state under the name, ‘United Mountain Dwellers of the North Caucasus’. However, the fledgling nation lasted barely four years, before Soviet troops invaded in 1921 and occupied the region.
While there had been plenty of acts to spur on the Chechen independence movement before the Soviet invasion, it was the seven decades under the yolk of Soviet rule that really set the scene for what was to come.
During this period, Chechnya and Ingushetia were lumped together to form the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the 1930s saw huge numbers of immigrants arrive in the region from Ukraine during the Holodomor, Joseph Stalin’s terror-famine that took the lives of millions.
Fighting arrived in the Caucasus in July 1942 as the German Wehrmacht surged through the region during Operation Barbarossa. Despite some fierce, and let’s be perfectly honest, pretty hopeless resistance from the local people in the face of a far superior opposition, Soviet leaders blamed the Chechens for the speed at which the Caucasus was overrun, to such an extent they were openly dubbed Nazi collaborators.
Stalin’s response was madly draconian even for him and between February and March 1944 up to 600,000 Chechen and Ingush people were forcibly deported from the region with most ending up in the wilderness of Central Asia – with at least a quarter dying as a result. That deportation figure represented a quarter to a third of the population at the time and completely altered the social landscape in Chechnya.
In 1956, after the death of Joseph Stalin and the implementation of the de-Stalinization directives that sought to wipe away much of the hero-worshipping lunacy that had been cultivated around the long-lasting Soviet leader, Chechen and Ingush civilians were allowed to return to their homelands but many arrived back to find others from around the Soviet Union now living in their ancestral homes.
A series of Russification policies were established even after de-Stalinization, as Russia sought to quietly continue the old ways of subjecting the region’s people and slowly eradicating their culture and history. Ethnic tension between Chechens and Russians in the region bubbled away and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Chechens once again found themselves as the majority in their homeland.
As the Soviet house of cards started to come crashing down, the question of independence swept through regions around the USSR. Some would eventually gain full independence, while others established greater autonomy but remained firmly leashed to the country that would effectively replace the Soviet Union, Russia. Across the region, independence movements, protests and elections began appearing as the geopolitical earthquake that was the dissolution of the USSR picked up steam.
On 6th September 1991, militants of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People stormed a session of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR Supreme Soviet intending to force independence from the Soviet Union. The incident saw the head of Grozny’s branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Vitaly Kutsenko, “fall” to his death from a high window and effectively led to the disintegration of the local government.
Elections in October 1991, branded “illegal” by Soviet authorities, led to former Soviet Air Force general Dzhokhar Dudayev becoming the first President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria after full independence was declared in 1993.
But things were not going to be so simple. The first few years of the 1990s saw the difficult transitions between the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, which made military conflicts all but impossible until the dust settled.
It’s difficult to say exactly why certain regions gained independence while others did not, but it was clear that the new Russian government wanted to retain as much land and resources as possible while accepting that many of the larger regions would naturally break away. On 31st March 1992, the Treaty of Federation was signed by 18 of the 20 autonomous regions who agreed to remain part of Russia in return for greater autonomy and a larger share of natural resources.
One of the two regions that didn’t sign was Chechnya (the other being Tatarstan which did sign up in 1994). It was clear that many Chechens wanted absolutely nothing to do with Russia and both sides made their intentions perfectly clear. Chechnya wanted full independence and Russia knew that allowing one disgruntled region to break away by force would likely lead to a domino effect with other areas looking to do the same.
The First Chechen War
As the shaky independent Chechnya emerged much to Russia’s chagrin, internal issues quickly arose and in-fighting between those who supported Dudayev and those who didn’t soon threatened to destabilise the region’s progress. Broadly speaking, most people in the region wanted independence from Russia, but often vehemently disagreed over how it should happen and who should lead the movement. It’s also worth noting that Chechens, and indeed many others in the Caucasus region, have always had a long intricate history of tribal warfare between each other, so the concept of a fully united Chechnya always faced enormous hurdles.
Of course, Russia was more than happy to quietly encourage and arm separatists in Chechnya who wished to remain part of Russia, while a military blockade was eventually placed around the young Republic as the new Russian government began to turn the screw.
Two badly organised covert operations in late 1994 formed by opposition Chechens and Russian special forces failed miserably and with the situation quickly deteriorating, Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave the warring groups in Chechnya an ultimatum to disarm and surrender. Once the Chechen government formally refused, the Russians had their excuse to restore order by force.
On 1st December 1994, Russian planes began hitting Chechnya for the first time while the screech of rockets could frequently be heard overhead. What may have started as targetted bombing quickly degenerated into indiscriminate ariel bombardment. As Christmas came and went and Russian forces turned their attention on Grozny itself, Chechen resistance stood firm – but everybody knew that the next stage of military intervention would be key.
On 31st December, as many as 40,000 Russian troops attempted to enter Grozny from four separate directions with the goal of linking up in the city centre near the Presidential Palace. Optimism was said to be high among Russian commanders who bragged about a ‘bloodless blitzkrieg’ but events quickly began falling apart for the badly trained Russian army, many of whom were young conscripts who had little to no idea where they were or of their real objectives.
The fighting quickly collapsed into a bloodbath as armed columns were annihilated and thousands of Russian soldiers died. In response, commanders ordered further airstrikes to support their ground troops and it’s thought that between 25,000 and 40,000 civilians died during the Siege of Grozny in conditions that shocked not only the world but the Russian people themselves.
While Russian forces did eventually push the Chechens out of the ruined centre of the city, it had come at a horrific cost that shattered Russian self-belief. What came next was savage bloodletting on both sides as the Russians sought to “cleanse” the area, while the desperate Chechens resorted to mass-hostage taking and murder.
During the Samashki Massacre, Russian soldiers were said to have executed 103 civilians, while the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis, which began on 14th June 1995 and involved 1,500 hostages taken by Chechen separatists, resulted in the deaths of 120 people. This was a pattern of events that would continue for almost a decade.
To call this period chaotic would be an understatement as fighting spread to all corners of Chechnya as Russian forces gradually began to assert themselves. But again, this was far from clear cut and the war had long become deeply unpopular back in Russia. With the Russian government eager to find a way out of the conflict, a series of ceasefires and treaties came and went as both sides sought to find an agreement that would both save face and leave them with what they wanted – but still, there was no end in sight.
In April 1996, the Chechen cause was dealt a major blow when two Russian laser-guided missiles killed Dudayev while he was using a satellite phone, reportedly as he spoke with a more liberal politician in Moscow over how to end the fighting in Chechnya. There’s also been reports that the American NSA may have also been involved, though exact details of the strike have never been released.
A ferocious Chechen assault on Grozny in August 1996 left the occupying Russian troops wobbling and a message was sent out that all Chechen soldiers must leave the city within 48 hours or it would be levelled by rocket and aerial attacks. This resulted in widespread panic as thousands rushed to leave the city. Long columns of refugees clogged the streets as the bombings once again began, but in an act of impeccable timing, a ceasefire was agreed between the two sides shortly after the attacks started, which eventually led to the Khasavyurt Accord being signed on 31st August 1996.
This marked the end of the First Chechen War as both groups heaved a weary sigh of relief with Russian troops making a dispirited withdrawal from Chechnya. The fighting had been brutal with roughly 5,000 killed on both sides – though other sources place Russian deaths as high as 14,000. As you’ll see as we go on, casualty figures in Chechnya have become notoriously difficult to determine with both sides quite clearly muddying the water and Russia, in particular, looking to downplay their own losses on the world stage.
OK, so with a second war starting just three years after the first ended, it can be tempting to think that not much changed, but that wasn’t quite right. In that time, rather than uniting against a common enemy, Chechens took to fighting among themselves, with areas outside of Grozny effectively becoming no-go zones. Kidnappings were rife and it’s estimated 1,300 people were kidnapped in Chechnya between 1996 and 1999 with roughly $200 million paid in ransoms. Sometimes these were foreign nationals but more often than not, it was Chechen kidnapping Chechen.
In Russia, the ailing, and frequently well-watered, Boris Yeltsin was stumbling towards the exit where a dark horse lay in wait to replace him. Just a few years prior, few had heard of the name Vladimir Putin but his rise through the ranks had seen him manoeuvre himself to become the President-to-be when Yeltsin finally stepped down. Tensions between Russians and Chechens remained high and a series of terrorist attacks on Russian soil added fuel to the simmering rage that needed only an excuse to escalate.
And that excuse came like a wrapped birthday gift when Chechen separatists invaded Dagestan on 7 August 1999, sparking the Second Chechen War.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the struggle in the region was now not simply just about independence but had also become a religious war with the word Jihad now finding its way onto the battlefield. The troops that surged into neighbouring Dagestan consisted of Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and international mujahideen and Wahhabist militants from Chechnya under the banner of the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (IIPB) whose intention was to unite Chechnya and Dagestan under Islamic rule.
But their assault was doomed from the beginning and they were quickly thrown back into Chechnya. The Chechen government, which had been entirely opposed to the invasion of Dagestan, offered to root out those who were responsible, but Russia refused and the country prepared for a second massive assault on Chechnya.
Now, as I said earlier, the First Chechen War had become deeply unpopular in Russia as images of young Russian soldiers being paraded through the streets arrived on Russian television. It had been a harrowing experience for the young Russian Federation and one which remained deeply embedded in the population. While many in the Russian government were chomping at the bit to smash Chechnya once and for all, they knew that a large-scale invasion, accompanied by large-scale loss of life, would prove deeply unpopular back at home.
With that in mind, and by some remarkable stroke of luck, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow blamed on Chechen separatists set the Russian population on edge. However, there was a dark twist to this particular chapter of the story because apparently Russian Federal Security Service agents were caught by local police planting one of the bombs. The Russian government quickly ordered that the agents be released and that everything be quickly and quietly swept out of sight. If you happen to remember the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who died in the UK after being poisoned with polonium in 2006, he was one of the leading proponents of the theory that the Moscow apartment bombing campaign had been a false flag attack by the FSB to give Russia not only an excuse but a public mandate to finish the job in Chechnya.
The Second Chechen War
Starting in late August and early September 1999, Russia unleashed a massive aerial bombardment loosely under the guise of pushing the insurgents out of Dagestan, but also very much softening up the area for the land invasion that would follow.
By late September, Chechnya was surrounded by Russian forces and on 1st October 1999, the new Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin declared the Chechen government to be illegitimate. Over the next three months, huge numbers of Russian troops moved steadily through Chechnya until once again its capital was surrounded.
Still smarting from the disastrous first attempt to take Grozny in 1994, Russian forces moved slowly and with great force through the city, while receiving heavy aircraft and artillery support. Once again, the fighting was savage and what had been spared of Grozny from the first war was now pulverised. An apocalyptic winter scene now hung in the air and by February, fighting had all but ceased in the capital as the Chechens were driven out.
Fighting quickly spread to the mountains and it would be years until Russian soldiers finally put down the guerilla insurgency that followed and in that time, a very different form of terror would emerge.
The years that followed were bloody, inside and outside Chechnya. On 23rd October 2002, 40 to 50 Chechen separatists stormed the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, taking 850 people hostage in the process and demanding a full Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. Three days later, Russian special forces pumped an unspecified gas into the theatre before launching an all-out assault. The result led to the deaths of 170 of the hostages along with all of the separatists.
Two years later, during the Beslan school siege, 1,100 people (including 777 children) were taken hostage by 32 separatists. Once again, the Russians took the heavy-handed approach and three days after the siege began, a full-scale attack involving special forces, tanks and artillery began, which led to the deaths of all but one of the separatists and 333 hostages, including 186 children.
These two events cast a painful shadow but in terms of encouraging anti-Chechen sentiment within the Russian people, you couldn’t really have done any better. There is a strong argument that it was this period that really jacked up xenophobia around Russia and it’s also worth pointing out that the media coverage of the two wars back in Russia was entirely different. The first: honest, real and catastrophic for moral, the second: fake, heavily cultivated and propaganda laced. The Second Chechen War coincided almost perfectly with Putin taking the reins, a period that has seen consistent examples of the Russian bear throwing its weight around in the region.
An Unsteady Truce
Events over the last two decades have done little to address the root causes of the problems in Chechnya. Shortly after the majority of the fighting ended in 2000, Putin appointed Akhmad Kadyrov as head of the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya. Kadyrov had actually fought against the Russians during the First Chechen War but had mysteriously decided to change sides during the Second War and suddenly found himself chummy with Putin.
Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004 but was quickly replaced by his son, Ramzan Kadyrov who breathes new life into the term psychopathic puppet leader. This is a man who is openly anti-LGBT, anti-female equality and very much pro-torture, pro-death squads and pro-repression to an extent that even Vladimir must be deeply impressed.
As for Chechnya itself, the region is still trying to recover from two wars that absolutely decimated the area. In 2005, it was estimated that 77% of the population was suffering from some kind of PTSD, while child mortality, crime, and unemployment rates are shockingly high. Chechnya is also one of the most landmine-affected regions in the world and there are countless instances of civilian injuries each year because of them.
But reconstruction is underway and has slowly gathered pace in recent years as the Russian government appears to acknowledge that the only way out of these cycles of revenge and radicalisation will be to rebuild the region. However, it will likely take decades until Chechnya becomes anything remotely like other parts of Russia.
Today, an uneasy truce hangs over Chechnya, glued together with rampant corruption and repression that is some of the most severe anywhere in the world. The majority of the fighting may have ended over twenty years ago, but Chechnya remains a deeply scarred place, while also being a painful scar on the psyche of the Russian people. Like Afghanistan before for the Soviets and Vietnam for the Americans, Chechnya proved to be a murderous killing ground where fierce independence mixed with dangerous ideologies that pushed the largest country on the planet all the way. The wars may have ended, but the battle for Chechnya is far from over.