Accessibility links

Breaking News

Chechnya: Ten Years After -- The Logic Behind The First Chechen War

On 11 December 1994, Russian troops entered Chechnya. Officially, their mission was to restore Moscow's authority over the secessionist republic. The Russian defense minister at the time, Pavel Grachev, assured then President Boris Yeltsin that the Chechen capital Grozny could be seized in two hours by a regiment of paratroopers. Ten years and two military campaigns later, the war rages on, with no end in sight. RFE/RL takes a look back at the events that led Russia and Chechnya into the most brutal conflict of the late 20th century.

Prague, 10 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In October 1991, a retired Soviet Air Force general was elected president of Chechnya, which had just separated from its sister republic of Ingushetia.

Under Djokhar Dudaev, Chechnya promptly -- and unilaterally -- seceded from Russia.

Over the next three years, tensions with Moscow steadily grew as Dudaev took steps to build a national army in a bid to prop up Chechnya's independence. President Yeltsin hesitated on how to bring the rebellious general back into the fold.

Finally, after several attempts to forcibly depose Dudaev through proxies and a failed tank assault on Grozny, Moscow issued an ultimatum on 29 November 1994. Russia's National Security Council told Chechnya's government to disarm and submit to Moscow, or face retaliation.

Two weeks earlier, Dudaev had summoned Akhmed Zakaev to tell him of his decision to appoint him culture minister.

Talking to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service from his self-exile in London, Zakaev said Dudaev did not believe war would come. The Chechen president had supported Yeltsin in a 1993 coup attempt in Moscow and believed the Russian leader would seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

"I told Djokhar I would not go away and stand ready to oppose any resistance to what was already under way," Zakaev said. "He then told me: 'I'm sure there will be no war; the world will not tolerate that.' I don't know why, but Djokhar was pretty sure the war would not begin."

At the time, Ivan Rybkin was speaker of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. As such, he attended the 29 November Security Council meeting that sealed Chechnya's fate for 10 years to come.
"I don't know why, but Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] turned to me and, looking straight into my eyes, said: 'I am very much afraid this may turn into a second Afghanistan.'"

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service in November, Rybkin recollected the mood that prevailed at the meeting. He said all participants but two -- then Justice Minister Yurii Kalmykov and then Federation Council Speaker Vladimir Shumeiko -- agreed to issue Chechnya an ultimatum.

As for Yeltsin, Rybkin said he seemed to have second thoughts.

"I don't know why, but Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] turned to me and, looking straight into my eyes, said, 'I am very much afraid this may turn into a second Afghanistan,'" Rybkin said.

Yeltsin later publicly acknowledged that the decision to launch an onslaught on Chechnya was a "serious mistake."

His apprehensions of a "second Afghanistan" appear to have been justified. Some 13,000 Soviet soldiers were killed during the 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. Russian forces are estimated to have suffered twice as many deaths since the beginning of the first Chechen war.

As for civilians, the Chechen separatist leadership says up to 250,000 -- including 40,000 children -- have been killed, though this figure is impossible to verify.

In addition, tens of thousands of civilians remain scattered across the Caucasus region and beyond, under constant threat of being forcibly repatriated to Chechnya.

Emil Pain runs the Center for Ethno-Political and Regional Studies, an independent Moscow-based think tank. When the Chechen war started, he was working as an adviser to Yeltsin. RFE/RL asked him whether anyone among the Russian leadership anticipated the consequences of the military intervention.

"I'm sure they didn't," Pain said. "When I was a member of the Experts Council and the Presidential Council, I sometimes met with those people who were in charge of the campaign, including [army generals], and when I was asking them that question it was absolutely clear that they didn't have any real plan, that they had not even taken into account such an obvious thing as the possibility of a fierce and massive armed resistance [on the part of the Chechens]."

Overwhelmed by Russian firepower, Dudaev's troops abandoned the Chechen capital after the initial days of fierce street fighting. They withdrew to the mountainous south, whence Russian forces have to this day been unable to dislodge them.

Dudaev was assassinated in a Russian missile attack in April 1996.

Yet the Chechen separatist forces recaptured Grozny and forced Moscow to negotiate a peace agreement. It was signed in August 1996 in the Daghestani town of Khasavyurt.

A few months later, separatist chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov succeeded Dudaev in an election recognized by Moscow and the international community.

In the fall of 1999, however, Russian troops reentered Chechnya and the war resumed.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who would succeed Yeltsin as president a few weeks later, presented the new war as a crusade against Chechen "terrorists" that he blamed for a series of deadly apartment bombings in Moscow.

But despite Putin's pledge to "quickly nip the vermin [of terrorism] in the bud," an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight.

Led by a new generation of field commanders, the resistance has inflicted severe losses on federal forces over the last five years and carried out a series of attacks in Russian cities. These include the dramatic taking of hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002 and an attack on a school in the southern town of Beslan in early September.

In May, the separatists succeeded in assassinating Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, the head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration.

Unlike his predecessor, Putin refuses any possibility of talks with the separatists.

Meanwhile, the private militias that help Russia maintain control in Chechnya are spreading terror in the region, further antagonizing the local population.

Aleksandr Podrabinek is a former Soviet dissident and Russian rights activist. He told RFE/RL that although a majority of Russians would welcome a negotiated end to the conflict, there is no indication the Kremlin would agree to a compromise.

He said his pessimism stems largely from what he sees as the logic of the Chechen war.

"The aim is not to defeat the enemy, win the war and end it with a peace treaty," Podrabinek said. "The aim is that this war goes on and on. I believe the main objective of the whole Chechen campaign was to create a state of permanent war in Russia that would allow our Kremlin politicians to rake all sorts of dividends. The most important thing is that this state of war helps maintain tension within society, vote laws that restrict civic liberties, strengthen the army and [law enforcement agencies], and -- finally -- helps army officers make fortunes from the war, as it is now well known."

Political expert Pain said the Chechen war has also contributed to Russia's slide toward "authoritarianism."

Among other consequences, he said, are rising xenophobia among Russians and, among Chechens, the "widespread sentiment that life can only get worse."

[See also "Look Back In Anger -- Ten Years Of War In Chechnya".]

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.