Lessons from Chechnya

IN THE AFTERMATH of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a predominantly Muslim segment of the population of Chechnya simply turned its back on the central political authority of Moscow. There was, to be sure, no love lost between the Chechens and the Russians. During the Second World War, Stalin had gone so far as to deport almost the entire Chechen population to Siberia, during which time a ghastly number of them perished. Remembrance of this deportation is one of the key motivating factors of current Chechen life. So upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in short order, Chechnya came under the control of a group of Chechen secessionists of Sufi-Islamic background.

The Russian leadership, whose political authority over Chechnya dated back to the days of Peter the Great (1672-1725), was not about to let such a situation persist in a critical border region. Aside from historical Russian claims to the territory, Russia was also interested in maintaining security in a region that hosts critical pipeline systems that carry oil from the Caspian Sea region to the international pipelines and shipping terminals of the Black Sea. Thus, in December 1994, the Russian army commenced an operation to wrest back the city of Grozny, Chechnya, from what the Russian government characterized as the "Muslim rebels."

Hotter Than Hell

"’Remember,’ said he, ‘that the Irish fight well/ but the Russian artillery’s hotter than Hell.’" So go the famous last lines of the sad poem from the Crimean War, "The Kerry Recruit."

And in recent times, a century and a half after the end of the Crimean War, the Russian artillery still fires hot. During the last three weeks of 1994, the Russians launched more than 50,000 artillery shells into Grozny. That is about 2,500 shells per day, or more than 100 per hour. The devastation was overwhelming, the destruction vast. The Russians were serious and wanted to make a statement to the locals, if not to the world, that Russia’s territorial integrity was a paramount national interest. The Russian defense minister at that time, Pavel Grachev, stated confidently that Grozny could "be captured in two hours, with one parachute regiment."

On New Year’s Eve 1994, the Russian army commenced its ground assault into Grozny. At first light, the Russians sent in a 6,000-man armored force composed of the 131st Maikop Brigade and the 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment. By the middle of the day, Dec. 31, 1994, the tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Russian army were closing in on the presidential palace, headquarters of the breakaway Chechen leadership. The leading units of tanks rumbled unopposed into the heart of the battered city. By noon, not a single shot had been fired. Some elements of the advance even had Russian flags and high-quality cameras in their kit, intending to capture the moment when those flags were hoisted over the heads of the soon-to-be subjugated Chechens.

Tsushima of the Caucasus

And then all hell broke loose, and this time not from Russian artillery tubes. The Russian forces had driven into a trap. Russian columns were stretched out over several miles, throughout the street grid and urban maze of Grozny. The built-up urban terrain made it difficult for one unit to cover or reinforce another, and radio communications were disrupted and problematic within the canyons of concrete and steel. Upon a signal and as if acting as one, a torrent of fire began to rain down upon the unsuspecting Russian soldiers.

Rocket-propelled grenades flew from rooftops, landing in the engine compartments of Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Fuel tanks ignited, and ammunition stores began to burn and cook off. Typically, the lead and last vehicles in a column were the first to be targeted, so that the vehicles in the middle could not get away. Then these immobilized armored coffins met their own fates, each marked by a column of smoke that the Russian commanders could see from their positions outside the city. In most cases, each burning vehicle was its own funeral pyre. The tactical radio frequencies became jammed with anguished cries of distress. As the trapped soldiers exited their disabled or burning equipment, the Chechen machine gunners opened up. Chechen snipers went about their deadly business, picking off panicked and fleeing Russian soldiers like shooting ducks in a gallery at the carnival.

What the overconfident Russians thought would be a show of force, and a rapid and textbook military exercise of seizing a city that was historically, if not nominally, a part of the Russian state, turned into a slaughter. Except that this battle was a slaughter of the Russians by the Chechens. Even in defeat, the carnage was compounded with grisly scenes of Chechen fighters slitting the throats of wounded Russians, or using their traditional sabers to behead captured Russian prisoners. When the bulk of the fighting was over, the Russians could not reenter Grozny, even to recover their dead. Bodies of Russian soldiers lay exposed for weeks, rotting and being devoured by rats and stray dogs. The Chechens bragged about this in their subsequent accounts of the battle.

The Kremlin has never released an accurate account of Russian losses on that one disastrous day, Dec. 31, 1994. Russian news accounts reported at least 2,000 confirmed killed and more than 1,500 missing. (Almost 12 years later, these missing souls have never been otherwise located.) Accounts from the Chechen side state that the Russian forces lost more than 5,000 killed and wounded out of the 6,000 troops that entered Grozny. A U.S. Marine Corps study estimated that "the Russians lost about 70% of the tanks committed" to the assault. Another account, prepared by researchers at Columbia University, stated that the Russians "lost more tanks in Grozny than they did in the Battle for Berlin in 1945." One Russian newspaper ran a headline that summed up the caliber of disaster, calling the event the "Tsushima of the Caucasus."

Subsequent Events

The Russians quickly sent additional forces into the region. After regrouping, the Russians resumed their attack on the Chechen resistance that held Grozny, and slowly, block by block and house by house, moved into the wrecked city. There was plenty more of that Russian artillery, "hotter than hell" as always, and innumerable airstrikes were brought to bear. By Jan. 19, 1995, Russian forces captured the by-then nearly destroyed presidential palace, suffering tremendous losses in lives and materiel, and incurring profound losses of morale. Pressing on, by May 1995, Russian forces captured the main towns and had secured about two-thirds of Chechen territory. However, Chechen resistance and bitter fighting continued.

In June 1995, Chechen rebels expanded the conflict by seizing several hundred hostages at a hospital in Budennovsk in southern Russia. The siege ended after Russian commandos stormed the hospital, but in carrying out the operation, over a hundred hostages were killed. Russians, and those in the West who were paying attention, were shocked. The Chechens were demonstrating unanticipated tenacity and fighting skill, to include attacking out of area, deep within Russian lands.

Combat escalated through April 1996, when Russian forces killed one of the Chechen leaders by firing a missile that tracked a satellite phone he was using. In August 1996, after several unsuccessful truces, punctuated by repeated attacks on Grozny by Chechen rebels, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent an emissary to negotiate with one of the Chechen chieftains. The Russians and Chechen rebels finally signed an accord in November 1996, which provided for a cease-fire and paved the way for a formal agreement to withdraw Russian troops. Chechnya received de facto independence from Russia in January 1997, when Russia recognized a newly elected Chechen government.


According to the general staff of the Russian armed forces, in the two years between December 1994-1996, 3,826 troops were killed and 17,892 were wounded. (This may be an understatement, because many Russian troops who were wounded and died after being evacuated are not listed as combat deaths.) Officially, 1,906 Russian soldiers are missing in action, most from the failed assault at Grozny on Dec. 31, 1994. Based on data from human rights organizations, anywhere from 60,000-100,000 civilians were killed during what some Russians call the First Chechen War.

Despite its extensive experience in fighting against Islamic rebels in Afghanistan between 1979-1989, the Russian military planners failed to appreciate that in Chechnya, they would again encounter a tough, traditional people steeped in a warrior tradition. Russian military analysts and planners apparently paid little attention to the adversary they were about to face, and they grossly underestimated the fighting abilities of the Chechens. The Russians thought that capturing the city of Grozny and reasserting Russian sovereignty in Chechnya would be a small task for a great power. The Russians were so proud of their powerful machines and splendid ranks of trained soldiers that they failed to consider that bands of traditional, clannish people who were little more than "mountain tribesmen" could stand up to them. We will get back to this point later in this article.

Descent Into Lawlessness

After great sacrifice, frustration, and humiliation, in 1997, the Russians recognized Chechnya as an autonomous republic within Russia. But this did not resolve Chechnya’s formal status as a sovereign republic. The new government of Chechnya promptly, in early 1997, proclaimed its independence from Russia, and called itself the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This new government, however, lacked the resources, as well as the political legitimacy, to exercise control of either its people or its territory. If the so-called "Republic of Ichkeria" was not a failed state, neither was it anything even remotely resembling a success.

By June 1998, kidnappings were of epidemic proportion throughout Chechnya and in adjacent regions. Non-Muslim ethnic Russians were being intimidated, robbed, abducted, assassinated, and all but "ethnically cleansed" from the region. Russian Orthodox Christian churches were being burned. The borders of Chechnya and neighboring states were sieves of both arms and drug smuggling and other general lawlessness. Almost every house was an armed fort, of necessity in such a brutal neighborhood. Travel and commerce were greatly impeded by roadblocks and robbers. Well-organized criminal gangs and rival warlords increasingly grew in power, rivaling the authority of the Chechen government. Chechnya’s international standing plummeted when four engineers from Britain and New Zealand were kidnapped and later found decapitated.

In the first months of 1999, fundamentalist Islamic groups pressured the Chechen government to adopt Islamic Shariah law, and then upped the ante by insisting that the government adopt Islam as its official mode of government. Toward the end of winter 1999, armed Chechen rebel troops invaded neighboring Dagestan in a campaign to spread and establish an Islamic state. Thus began the next phase of Chechnya’s clash with Russia and its army.

An Open Wound, a Bloody Quagmire

Also in 1999, more than 300 civilians were killed in Russia in a series of explosions that rocked apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities. These bombings were immediately labeled terrorist acts and blamed on Chechen rebels. Russia’s new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, launched an anti-terrorism campaign and redeployed Russian forces toward Chechnya. By the end of 1999, an estimated 200,000 civilian refugees, mostly Russian Christians, fled Chechnya for neighboring republics and Russia.

Toward the end of 1999, Moscow cut off all negotiations with the nominal leadership of Chechnya and refused to recognize any legitimate Chechen authority. With the able assistance of Russian intelligence services, several former members of the Chechen legislature thereupon formed the so-called "State Council of the Republic of Chechnya." This new entity instantly became the only Chechen authority recognized by the Kremlin.

In early 2000, Russian troops moved back into Grozny, or what was left of it. After the seizure of Grozny in February, Vladimir Putin, who had been elected president of Russia in March, declared that Chechnya would be governed by Moscow. In the summer of 2000, Putin appointed a former cleric to head Russia’s administration in Chechnya.

The Russians continued to press on with large-scale military operations during 2000 and 2001.  Russia’s President Putin referred to these operations as "anti terrorist operations."  This form of semantics provided a certain sense of legitimacy to the prolonged combat, in that it supported the Russian view that their troops were protecting and defending long-held Russian territory.  In addition, using the term "terrorist" tended to de-legitimize the Chechen resistance in the eyes of much of the rest of the world (at least, the non-Muslim part), and permitted Russia to claim to meddling outsiders that the matter was "an internal affair."  The label "anti terrorist" also justified the Russian army ceding operational control to the Federal Security Service (FSB), which operates under a different, and less restrictive, set of laws and internal regulations that are not the same as for the army.

Chechen forces responded to the Russian push with fierce resistance, to include almost daily ambushes of Russian/FSB troops and other attacks on Russian property and interests.  On occasion, Chechen forces even succeeded in downing Russian aircraft, including on one occasion a massive helicopter that was carrying almost 200 passengers, most of whom were killed. Many "foreign fighters" from all over the Islamic world also appeared in Chechnya. These foreigners were part of a jihad-type struggle, on behalf of Islam, and against the Russians. According to the Russians, "formal military operations" ended in  December 2001, when negotiations with certain of the opposition Chechen elements led to a nominal peace settlement in Moscow.

However, despite the "peace settlement" Russian troops are still present and operating, carrying out extensive patrolling and not infrequent combat operations in the Chechen region. The Russian forces are searching for Chechen "rebels." On occasion the Russian troops kill a particularly notorious Chechen figure, and customarily display the corpse like some sort of hunting trophy.  And in turn, Chechen rebels and "foreign fighters" continue to attack Russian forces, as well as other Russian targets of opportunity.  Thus the Russians continue to take casualties, and their war is far from over.

The Chechen fighters continue their active resistance against the Russians, and also against those who assist Russia. In May 2004, the Russian-backed leader of Chechnya was killed in an explosion while he was giving a Victory Day speech (celebrating the end of the Second World War)  in Grozny. The bomb had been planted inside a concrete column, erected some time before the speech, and located in such a spot as to kill whoever was standing there. This took careful, foresighted planning, and a number of people very much on the inside. Thus, Chechnya remains an open wound and a bloody quagmire for the Russians.

The War Comes Home

Meanwhile, since the Russians moved back into Chechnya, terrorist attacks on Russian territory have increased. In October 2002, Chechen rebels seized about 900 hostages in a Moscow theater. In the ensuing response by FSB forces, hundreds of the hostages were killed, as were all of the hostage takers. In the summer 2003, a series of suicide bombings occurred in Moscow, killing dozens of people. In February 2004, a suicide bomber attacked the Moscow subway system, killing 50 people and injuring many more. In September 2004, several hundred schoolchildren were captured by rebels in the town of Beslan, and scores died when the rebels detonated explosives that they had wired throughout the seized building. Chechen women whose husbands have died in the fighting, referred to as "black widows" by Russian security forces, have bombed Russian aircraft in flight. And so it goes in Russia, the war in Chechnya coming home to its towns and cities and people.

A Russian Self-Assessment

In a recent article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta by a well-regarded Russian commentator, Sergei Karaganov, the foregoing history of the Chechen war was summed up in terms that are rather optimistic, if not self-congratulatory. Karaganov stated:

"The war on terrorism is not failing everywhere. There have been some isolated victories, although most of them have been of the tactical variety. We were the first to fight against the expansion of militant Islamic terrorism in Chechnya, and we won that fight, but at an outrageous price. The plans to establish an Islamic caliphate from the Black Sea to the Caspian, with a strong possibility of subsequent movement up the Volga, were crushed. People in Russia who were drawn to the militant branch of Islam and were supported by forces from abroad were taught a grim lesson. As far as I know, there are no Wahhabite seminaries in Russia now.

"We won the fight, but not the battle. Russia chose to rely on the military-psychological containment of extremism and separatism. Too little was done, however, to eliminate their causes: the poverty and underdevelopment of some regions in the North Caucasus, inhabited primarily by Russian Muslims."

"We won the fight, but not the battle," he says. The commentator refers to "the military-psychological containment of extremism and separatism." These are "isolated" and "tactical" victories. All true, as far as the comments go. But what is the prognosis, simply to eliminate "poverty and underdevelopment"? Has this doctor misdiagnosed the underlying disease? Is Russia in some sort of "battle of ideas" with militant Islam? Or is Russia involved in a battle of ideas against raw faith? There is a profound difference.

Looking Backward and Forward

Despite a dozen years of strife and bleeding in Chechnya, there are two aspects of Chechen history that cannot be ignored. First, the Chechens bear a festering and deep-seated hatred of Russia as a result of not just 200 years of Russian rule, but also for the Stalin-era deportation that almost wiped their kind from the face of the Earth. And second, even in the face of world economic development, Chechen society is a traditional one in which both Islamic principles and ancient warrior skills are part of the way of life.

Looking forward, it appears inescapable that "traditional" concepts of war — as a religious duty of holy warriors — will remain relevant, in Chechnya and in many other locales. Ethnic, tribal, clan, and religious groups will fight for their own reasons, and will not give up their history, their traditions, or certainly their religion any more than the Soviet Union succeeded in creating the mythical "New Soviet Man."

In these traditional societies, the organization and the command and control of military operations will remain decentralized and very much unconventional. As the Russians learned to their anguish at Grozny, the "rebel" troops might not wear uniforms or march in smart formation. But the rebels can mobilize rapidly for war and adapt their tactics to fight against a modern military force. To fight any such war of the future, the established Western (to include Russian) concepts of operations, and certainly of targeting, will have to change radically. Hand in hand, and forced by circumstances and events, the constraints on the use of different levels of force will evolve. This may not necessarily imply more firepower, but less. But it will surely mean harder fighting, and more of it.

It is also clear that the areas of operations are expanding, not contracting. The Chechen warriors may have their origins in mountain redoubts, but that has not stopped them from adapting intelligently¸ infiltrating the heart of Moscow and bringing the war directly to the Russian populace. Thus is war no longer isolated to battlefields, or even to front lines. War can encompass an entire region, and expand across nations and continents. No target is off-limits. To this end, the role of what can be called "outside actors" is also expanding.

There is an old bit of advice to "know the enemy." But the prerequisite to this adage is, first and foremost, to figure out against whom one is fighting and to what end. And when fighting against such a foe, how can you ever know if you have won the war? What is the theory, if not the practical measure, of victory? In the world of the future, we should all be prepared to ask such questions.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 23, 2006