Small Wars Journal

Insurgency in the North Caucasus: Lessons of the First Chechen War

Sun, 07/26/2020 - 12:37pm

Insurgency in the North Caucasus: Lessons of the First Chechen War


Кавказ! Далекая страна!                                                       Oh Caucasus! A land so far away!

Жилище вольности простой!                                               A home of pure freedom!

И ты несчастьями полна                                                      You are so full of misery

И окровавлена войной!..                                                      And hemorrhaged from war!...

Mikhail Lermontov

To Caucasus, 1830 (author’s translation)


            When Russian troops entered the rebellious Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in December 1994, the Yeltsin regime was confident that the Russo-Chechen conflict would end with Russia’s quick victory and territorial restoration of the Russian Federation. However, the war, which later became known as the First Chechen War, lasted for nearly two years, ended with the victory of Chechen militants, and led to the deaths of roughly 50,000 Chechens and about 6,000 Russian soldiers.[1]

Many Russian government officials initially treated the conflict in Chechnya as an inconvenience rather than a serious war, so it was not surprising that the Yeltsin regime grossly underestimated the motivation and military potential of Chechen insurgents.[2] Moreover, much to the shock of federal authorities in Moscow, the First Chechen War also revealed that the Russian army was plagued by inadequate training, inefficient use of resources, and lack of coordination. In the end, Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Chechnya in 1996, and the settlement of the political status of the Chechen Republic was postponed until 1999 when Russian troops reentered the republic once again.[3]

            The causes of both Chechen wars have been extensively studied by political scientists and military scholars across the world. The goal of this work, however, is to provide a detailed look at the First Chechen War and explore the reasons for Chechnya’s successful performance in 1994-1996. In order to provide a better understanding of the Chechen strategy, I will briefly examine Chechnya’s history and describe its short period of independence in the early 1990s. After that, I will explore the tactics that Chechen insurgents used during the conflict and explain why they were able to defeat Russian forces. I will finish this paper by analyzing how the First Chechen War affected Russia’s approach to its next conflict in the North Caucasus and make predictions about the possibility of another clash between federal troops and Chechen insurgents in the future.


Chechnya’s Political Status Prior to the First Chechen War

            The Chechen people have inhabited the mountainous North Caucasus territory for approximately 6,000 years, which makes them one of the oldest ethnic groups in the region.[4] Russia’s first attempt to penetrate the North Caucasus region started in the 15th century when Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered the khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan. By then, the Chechen territory, which was mostly inhabited by Muslims, had already become the object of competition between Russians, Persians, and Turks. [5] During the next several centuries, a number of Russians rulers attempted to conquer and subdue the Chechens. It was not until the late 1860s that Russian forces finally managed to crush the Chechen resistance, although Russian authorities still frequently struggled to maintain order in the region.[6]

            Chechen resistance to Russian imperialism was reignited again during the Bolshevik Revolution. By then, the North Caucasus region was in the middle of an economic boom due to the discovery of oil in Chechnya in the 1880s-1890s. After the Bolsheviks overthrew the czar in 1917, Chechnya tried to seize the moment and proclaimed independence in 1918. By 1921, however, the Red Army reoccupied the region, and Bolsheviks announced the establishment of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic on the Chechen territory.[7]

The Soviet rule was brutal in Chechnya, which explains why there were no less than six armed revolts in the region between 1922 and 1941. However, the central defining event in modern Chechen history happened at the end of the Second World War when millions of ethnic Chechens were deported from their homeland to Central Asia after Stalin infamously accused them of cooperating with Nazi Germany. During the deportation, the Chechens lost over one-third of their population to diseases, cold, and hunger, and they were not allowed to return to Chechnya until the new leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev reversed Stalin’s orders in the mid-1950s.[8]

            In the early 1980s, Chechnya had become one of the poorest regions of Russia due to years of communist neglect and mismanagement. During that time, unemployment rates were extremely high in the republic, and native Chechens were noticeably underrepresented in better-paid jobs such as oil extraction and refining, machinery manufacturing, and transportation. Moreover, the Chechen political elite was severely underdeveloped within the regional administration, and high population density and rapid demographic growth contributed to the rise of economic inequality in the region.[9]

Due to economic instability and bitter memories of the tsarist oppression and Soviet expulsions, the idea of Chechnya’s independence began to gain traction among locals in the 1980s.[10] Moreover, when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, his program of liberalization of the Soviet Union further contributed to the profound transformation of Chechnya’s political environment. For instance, in 1989, Doku Zavgayev became the first Chechen to hold the position of the First Secretary of the Chechen-Ingush Republic’s Communist Party, and his appointment triggered strong nationalistic sentiments among ethnic Chechens. However, it soon became apparent that Zavgayev struggled to navigate the policy of liberalization in a politically unstable and poverty-stricken republic, hence his control of Chechnya began to diminish in 1990.[11]

            In 1991, Zavgayev attempted to re-establish his authority over Chechnya by adopting a more confrontational attitude in his relationship with the federal government in Moscow. However, his failure to quickly condemn the anti-Gorbachev putsch organized by reactionary communists in August 1991 was perceived as a sign of support for hardline communists and was widely criticized by his opponents. For instance, General Dhokhar Dudayev, one of Zavgaev’s leading critics and the head of the Chechen National Congress (OKChN), publicly denounced Zavgayev’s refusal to speak out against the coup and demanded the transfer of power from the Communist party to OKChN, a political group that was rapidly gaining influence in the republic.[12]

            At that time, Russia’s new liberal leader Boris Yeltsin was also in confrontation with the communist elite of the USSR. As the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, Yeltsin frequently clashed with the communist leadership over the issue of authority and sovereignty within the USSR and even encouraged other leaders of Soviet republics to “take all the sovereignty they could swallow.”[13] Due to his conflict with the communists, Yeltsin favored the removal of Zavgayev from office, so he forced Zavgayev to resign in early 1991. Shortly thereafter, Yeltsin ordered Chechen authorities to establish a temporary council that would rule the Chechen-Ingush Republic until parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for mid-November in 1991.[14]

Dudayev, who became one of the most powerful men in Chechnya after Zavgayev’s resignation, was aware of Yeltsin’s power struggle with the communists.  In the fall of 1991, he took advantage of Russia’s new leadership’s position toward the communist party and announced that OKChN was the supreme authority in the Chechen republic. By then, Yeltsin realized that Russian officials were struggling to contain Chechnya’s “revolutionary fever,” so he announced that federal authorities did not authorize OKChN to control the republic.[15] However, Yeltsin had already missed his chance to stop Dudayev: OKChN preemptively held parliamentary and presidential elections in late October 1991, and Dudayev became Chechnya’s first popularly elected president.[16]

After taking office, Dudayev unilaterally announced Chechnya’s independence, which propelled Yeltsin to declare a state of emergency in the republic. In addition to issuing the emergency order, Yeltsin also sent 1,000 Russian troops to Grozny. However, after Russian forces arrived at the Grozny airport, they were quickly forced to withdraw once they were surrounded by Dudayev’s heavily armed supporters.[17] After suffering this humiliating defeat, Yeltsin was prepared to send more troops to Chechnya, but his rivalry with Gorbachev and poor relationship with the parliament did not let him focus on the rebellious republic right away, which allowed Dudayev to remain a de facto ruler of the newly proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria until 1994.[18]


A Period of Chechnya’s Short-Lived Independence

            After becoming Chechnya’s president, Dudayev actively tried to dismantle all instruments of Moscow’s rule in the republic. In his inaugural presidential decree, Dudayev announced Chechnya’s secession from Russia and enacted the Law on the State Sovereignty of the Chechen Republic.[19] Soon afterward, he launched the creation of the Chechen Army by announcing republic-wide conscription that commenced in late November 1991. Dudayev also allowed Chechen fighters to attack Russian troops still stationed within the republic, and assaults on federal service personnel became such a regular occurrence that Russian troops were forced to withdraw from Chechnya in June 1992.[20]

            Besides Chechen authorities’ push for complete political separation from Russia, they also tried to turn Chechnya into a state with a self-sufficient market economy.  In 1992, Chechnya stopped paying taxes into the Russian federal budget, and Dudayev announced an ambitious strategy for rebooting the republic’s economy.[21] Specifically, Dudayev’s visionary plan included the nationalization of all Soviet industries located on Chechnya’s territory, creation of gold and currency reserves, and construction of a water pipeline from the North Caucasus to the Middle East.[22] However, by mid-1992, it had become clear that Dudayev’s ambitious plans were destined to fail. For example, during Dudayev’s rule, Chechnya’s industrial and agricultural production swiftly fell while an already high level of unemployment rose dramatically. Moreover, oil extraction in the republic went into sharp decline, mostly due to the mass outflow of ethnic Russians who had been previously employed in the industry and left the republic after the rise of ethnic tensions in Chechnya.[23]

In addition to Chechnya’s economic struggles, Dudayev also faced political instability in the country. In March 1992, a group of Chechen opposition members seized Grozny’s television and radio stations and demanded Dudayev’s resignation. Dudayev’s National Guard quickly crushed the uprising and accused the opposition of being Moscow’s pawn. However, given the state of affairs in Chechnya at that time, it is entirely plausible that the rebellion was homegrown since the republic was filled with anti-Dudayev groups that viewed him as an illegitimate ruler.[24]  By the spring of 1993, anti-Dudayev sentiments had become so strong in the republic that Dudayev decided to ban all political parties, closed down parliament, and even used tanks against protestors who came out on the streets of Grozny in June 1993.[25]  

            Chechnya's economic collapse and political instability, combined with the easy availability of weapons, led to a rather volatile situation in the republic. The region quickly became a major transit point for contraband, including weapons and drugs, and Chechnya transformed into the largest center of counterfeit money amongst all former Soviet states.[26] As criminal activity continued to rise in Chechnya and spread beyond its borders, Russian politicians began to accuse Dudayev and his subordinates of running a criminal gang and became increasingly determined to destroy Dudayev's regime.[27] Moreover, Dudayev's decision to use anti-Russian sentiments in order to energize his political base played in the hands of Russian "hawks" who began to aggressively push Yeltsin to use force in order to solve the Chechen crisis.[28] Other leaders in the Caucasus also began to put pressure on Yeltsin as they feared that Chechen instability would spread across the region.[29] By 1994, Russian authorities' frustration with Chechen officials had reached its peak, and Yeltsin became determined to end Dudayev's rule in Chechnya after Tatarstan, another republic that had attempted to secede from Russia in 1991, signed a treaty to accept Russian sovereignty in exchange for broader autonomy in 1994.[30]

            In early 1994, authorities in Moscow stopped looking for diplomatic solutions to the Chechen problem and began preparing for the use of force in Chechnya. However, Yeltsin still hoped that Dudayev would be ousted by his numerous political opponents who had started to receive economic and military aid from Russia. Unfortunately for Yeltsin, infighting between Dudayev's rivals led to their failure to topple Dudayev's regime during their attack on Grozny in November 1994. In addition to federal authorities' failure to remove Dudayev, Russians also suffered a serious blow to their reputation after Dudayev's forces paraded captured Russian service-members before the press.[31]

            By mid-November, Dudayev sensed that Yeltsin was seriously considering using military force to remove him from office, so he made several attempts to go back to the negotiating table with Russia. However, the Russian Security Council had already decided to invade Chechnya, and Yeltsin issued a secret decree that sanctioned the use of direct military force against the rebellious republic.[32] Several weeks later, Russian troops entered the Chechen territory, and Russian authorities officially announced that they were ready to “restore constitutional law and order” in Chechnya.[33]  


Russia’s Military Intervention in Chechnya

Prior to Russia’s attack on Chechnya, a number of government officials and people working in Russia’s Defense Ministry expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of Chechen invasion and the adequacy of Russia’s strategic war planning. For example, Sergei Yushenkov, the Chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee at that time, actively tried to forestall the invasion following Russia’s failed coup d’état attempt in November 1994.[34] General Gromov, a deputy Minister of Defense, also opposed the invasion and criticized Russia’s Defense Minister Grachev for his unrealistic expectations and lack of preparation for the war. By December 1994, lack of training and the poor state of the Russian army had become such a serious point of contention among Russian military professionals that over 550 officers of all ranks were believed to had been disciplined, sacked, or had left the Russian army voluntarily due to their opposition to the Chechen campaign.[35]  Nevertheless, the officers’ pleas for extra time and training were largely ignored by the Russian leadership, so Russian military planners ultimately had less than two weeks to move and position their forces and supplies.[36]

            On December 11, 1994, Russian troops entered Chechnya from three directions. Russia’s Northern Column moved from Mozdok in North Ossetia, where Russian operational headquarters were based. The Western Column crossed Ingushetia from Vladikavkaz, and the Eastern Column started its advance in Dagestan (See Figure 1). The principal goal of the invasion was to take control of Chechnya’s outlying areas, which would allow federal troops to advance through the republic towards Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and the heart of the rebellion.[37]

Figure 1: Russia’s Military Invasion of Chechnya during the First Chechen War (Source: Olga Oliker, “Grozny I: 1994-1995,” in Russia’s Chechen War 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001, 11).

            When Russian soldiers from the Northern Column entered Chechnya, they did not face much opposition from the locals because the northern part of the republic had always been historically more receptive to Russian rule and was heavily influenced by Dudayev’s rivals. The Eastern and Western Columns, however, were met with bitter resistance from the locals.[38] To the surprise of federal authorities, the entry of Russian forces altered the political situation in eastern and western Chechnya, and Dudayev’s government experienced a surge of popular support. After federal troops crossed Chechen borders, many locals began to associate Chechen leadership with the defense of their homeland, so hundreds of Chechen civilians, including women and children, blocked the passage of Russian forces and bitterly fought against the invaders.[39] Moreover, because Russian troops started to attack civilians and bombard buildings of no military value, the casualty rate among Chechens skyrocketed, which turned the local population against the Russian army and increased Dudayev’s ability to recruit fighters.[40] Unsurprisingly, this opposition from the locals significantly slowed down Russian forces, and the first Russian troops did not make it to Grozny until December 20, more than a week later than it had been initially planned.[41]

            Russian forces finally reached and encircled Grozny on December 26, 1994. However, the city stayed relatively porous, particularly in the south, so Chechen insurgents still had the capacity to enter and leave the capital unnoticed. A few days after Grozny's encirclement, six thousand Russian soldiers attempted to penetrate the city with the hopes of taking over Dudayev’s Presidential Palace.[42] However, the Russian army was met with a well-organized Chechen force, and it soon became clear that Russians would have to capture each street of Grozny individually instead of seizing the entire city at once.[43]

At the time of the invasion, Russian troops were relatively well-equipped, but they were not the same professional force that they had been after the Second World War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian soldiers were poorly trained, the army's operational planning capability was completely inadequate, and the level of mobilization readiness was extremely poor.[44] Moreover, Russian ground forces had not conducted a divisional training exercise since 1992, and many battalion-size units were reportedly manned at 55-60 percent strength.[45] To make matters worse, Russian soldiers had no training in urban warfare, and there was a lack of basic cooperation between different subunits and their commanders and subordinates.[46] For example, units from the Ministry of Defense, Internal Affairs, and Internal Security had all been assigned to the Chechen operation, but none of them had previously trained together, which led to internal friction and mistrust among Russian troops and ultimately hindered federal forces' unity of effort.[47]Moreover, federal authorities did not establish any coordinating agency that would aim to resolve political problems in the republic, and, at the time of the intervention, Russia also lacked a unified national security strategy in regard to the entire North Caucasus region.[48] 

            Unlike Russian troops, Chechen forces were much better prepared for the conflict.  During the battle for Grozny, Chechen fighters attacked federal troops from ground and subterranean levels, so Russian soldiers constantly found themselves attacked from different directions.[49] Chechen fighters also attacked Russian forces by throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails from atop buildings, which allowed them to slow down Russian columns moving down city streets.[50] Moreover, the insurgents, who had already enjoyed the advantages of defense, used their knowledge of the city to confuse the Russians. For example, they took down street signs and repositioned them in misleading places to confound Russian soldiers who often lacked adequate maps of the city.[51] Chechens were also acutely aware of Russia’s overwhelming indirect and direct fire weapons systems, so insurgents refused to place the bulk of their combat power in stationary positions. Instead, they frequently employed “hit and run” tactics and moved from vehicle to vehicle firing rocket-propelled grenades at Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers.[52]

Ultimately, hundreds of Russian soldiers ended up trapped in the streets of Grozny due to Russia’s lack of preparation for urban warfare.[53] After Russian military leadership realized that federal troops were unable to gain control of the city, it turned to the massive application of overwhelming force, which involved shelling and bombing of Grozny and other major Chechen cities.[54] As a result of the intense air bombardment, nearly all of Chechnya’s urban centers were obliterated, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.[55] Unsurprisingly, Russia’s use of overwhelming force and indiscriminate violence only further embittered the local population, so the bombardment of Grozny increased the number of insurgents.[56]

            The battle for Chechnya’s capital lasted for several weeks, and Russian forces managed to take control of the Presidential Palace in Grozny on January 19, 1995. The following day, Russian troops hoisted the federal flag over the Palace, reenacting the Red Army’s seizure of the Reichstag at the end of the Second World War.[57] Shortly thereafter, the army passed Grozny over to Russia’s Interior troops, also known as MVD, who were tasked with disarming all illegal formations, guarding important city installations, escorting humanitarian aid columns, and maintaining public order in the city.[58]

While Grozny remained fairly calm under MVD until 1996, towns and villages throughout Chechnya continued to present a number of challenges to Russian forces.[59] For instance, while Russian troops exerted some control over Chechnya’s territory in the northern part of the republic, Chechen guerrillas found a natural stronghold in the mountainous south of the country, where they frequently received support from the local population.[60] In fact, due to the strong influence of Chechnya’s clan-based social organization, thousands of Chechens joined Dudayev’s insurgency to avenge their murdered or injured relatives, as well as to restore their individual and clan honor.[61] 

            Despite the loss of the Chechen capital, the resistance against Russian troops continued throughout the two years. In March 1996, Chechen insurgents attempted to retake Grozny, but Russian forces prevailed and managed to defend the city. A month later, Russian authorities had another breakthrough after they tracked Dudayev’s satellite telephone and killed him in a subsequent missile strike.[62] By then, the war was coming to an end, and the third attack on Grozny in August 1996 became the culmination of the conflict. When Chechen insurgents launched their assault on the capital, they caught unprepared MVD forces by surprise and managed to seal off the three main entrances into Grozny, which severely restricted Russia’s ability to reinforce. Once again, Russian ground forces were poorly prepared for urban combat, and fighting for the city continued for over two weeks. In the end, Russians failed to defend the city, and the battle for Grozny ended with a cease-fire agreement, which ultimately led to the end of the First Chechen War.[63]

Russian authorities finished their two-year military operation with the signing of the Khasavyurt agreement, which allowed for presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya. Moscow also recognized the winner of the presidential elections, Aslan Maskhadov, who previously worked as Dudayev’s Chief of Staff and became the commander of the Chechen forces after Dudayev’s assassination.[64] In March 1997, Maskhadov met with Yeltsin to sign a treaty that would assure that both sides of the conflict would seek only peaceful solutions to any disputes that could potentially arise between Russia and the Chechen Republic. [65] However, in September 1999, Russian federal troops moved to take over Chechnya once again after Chechen militants tried to invade Dagestan, a federal subject of Russia and Chechnya’s eastern neighbor.[66] Russia’s second war with Chechnya lasted for nearly ten years, but it ultimately ended with Russia’s victory and resulted in the restoration of Russia’s territorial integrity.


Chechen Strategy and Tactics during the First Chechen War

            Several important factors contributed to Chechnya’s successful performance in the war against Russia in 1994-1996. First, the insurgents’ employment of guerrilla tactics proved very effective against Russian forces. For example, Chechen fighters were acutely aware of Russian numerical superiority, so they preferred to avoid conventional battles and fought in urban or mountainous areas of the republic. Moreover, after Russian forces started to heavily employ artillery and mortar support, the insurgents frequently moved into close proximity with the enemy troops (the technique known as “hugging”) to force Russians to lift their supporting fires to prevent fratricides.[67]

In addition, the Chechens skillfully used their location and Chechnya’s terrain throughout the war. For instance, because Chechnya is located on the periphery of Russia and has treacherous mountains in the south, Chechen insurgents were often able to hide from Russian troops and conceal their ammunition and weapons in the mountains. In addition to that, the Chechens had safe havens in Russia’s Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as numerous sanctuaries across the border in Georgia, which allowed them to evade federal forces and retreat into safety.[68]

            The insurgents’ organizational structure also significantly contributed to the effectiveness of the Chechen fighters. The insurgents often operated in small detachments and frequently used roadside bombs to cause disarray among Russian forces. In addition, the small size of Chechen units increased their mobility and invisibility to the Russians, which is why they were able to launch surprise attacks against their enemy and undertake raids against Russian convoys, military rail transport, and fixed bases.[69] 

            During the war, Chechen insurgents also used a multitude of communication devices, including radios, cell phones, and commercial scanner systems to communicate with one another and ensure the coordination of their combat operations.[70] Moreover, Chechen fighters had access to Russian communications, which in the early days of the war had been transmitted in the clear due to the federal forces’ unfamiliarity with secure communications procedures. Unlike their opponents, the insurgents were also well-informed about the importance of secure communications. For example, Chechens carefully controlled the flow of military information, which was disseminated on a need-to-know basis. Moreover, Chechen fighters preferred to use hand-held radios and spoke in their native language to prevent monolingual Russians from eavesdropping on their conversations.[71]

            Furthermore, Chechen familiarity with the Russian army was another significant advantage that the insurgents enjoyed. For example, Russian army commanders overlooked the fact that many Chechen rebels received their training in the Soviet army.[72] For instance, Chechens' acquaintanceship with the Russian military equipment allowed them to successfully target fuel cells and engines of armored vehicles, which permitted the insurgents to effectively destroy Russian tanks with a minimum of rounds.[73]

            Chechen insurgents also employed a variety of other simple and cost-effective tools to fight the Russian army. For instance, they used weapons that were well-suited for urban combat and were easy to use and replace, such as assault and sniper rifles and anti-tank rocket launchers RPG-7 (the latter weapon was particularly effective in destroying Russia’s armored vehicles).[74] In addition, Chechens frequently used sniper attacks to keep Russian troops on edge, interrupt the work of the enemy’s specialized squads such as mine-clearing units, and confuse and disrupt the Russian chain of command.[75] Thanks to the adoption of these simple tactics, Chechen fighters were often able to dilute Russian attacks during the war and separate Russian infantry from their supporting tanks.[76] 

            Despite Chechens’ best efforts and their successes at the beginning of the war, Russian troops started to slowly gain an advantage in the republic due to their overwhelming firepower and numerical superiority. However, the war took an unexpected turn in 1995, when Chechen insurgents decided to change their tactics and shift from using purely military means of fighting the war to exploiting Yeltsin’s political vulnerabilities.[77]

For instance, Chechen insurgents began to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks against Russia’s ‘soft’ targets. In June 1995, Chechen terrorists caught Russian authorities by surprise when an infamous Chechen commander Shamil Basayev seized a hospital in the Russian town of Budennovsk and captured over 1,000 hostages.[78] By taking hostages, Basayev hoped to force Russian authorities to the negotiating table and end the conflict in Chechnya. During the siege, Basayev threatened to kill the civilians unless federal authorities abandoned their military campaign in Chechnya, withdrew all troops from the republic, and agreed to start the negotiation process with Dudayev. Initially, Russian Special Forces tried to storm the hospital in order to free the hostages, but they failed on multiple occasions and were eventually forced to capitulate.[79]

In the end, Basayev achieved most of his demands and managed to leave Budennovsk unharmed while Russian authorities faced humiliation due to their poor handling of the crisis. Moreover, upon his return to the rebellious republic, Basayev became a Chechen hero overnight, and he continued to use terrorist tactics to achieve his political goals throughout the First and Second Chechen Wars.[80] 

            During the war, Chechens also skillfully used media to draw attention to their cause and influence public opinion in Russia. For instance, the insurgents provided unlimited access to many Russian journalists who could freely travel around Chechnya and speak with Chechen rebels about their goals and grievances against the federal troops.[81]  Chechen leadership also invited foreign press to the republic, which allowed the insurgents to spread their message about Russia’s brutality across the world. In the end, Chechen authorities’ ability to take advantage of domestic and international press enabled Chechens to spread the idea of the legitimacy of their claims, as well as allowed them to manipulate Russian public opinion in order to decrease the civilian support for the war. The insurgents’ skillful use of media also hurt the morale of Russian servicemen, as they began to feel like they were fighting a war that the public neither supported nor understood.[82]

            Chechen insurgents also took advantage of Russian brutality and used it as a recruitment tool. For example, when Russian forces first entered Chechnya in 1994, they often used mass and indiscriminate firepower that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Chechen civilians. Locals also frequently witnessed the impunity of Russian siloviki (force personnel), who terrorized Chechen civilians and were never punished for their crimes.[83] Unsurprisingly, this indiscriminate brutality alienated even those Chechens who had not supported the insurgents at the beginning of the war, which allowed the rebels to attract recruits and led to their quick growth in numbers.

            Ultimately, Chechen insurgents managed to achieve most of their political goals due to their skillful use of guerrilla tactics, ability to quickly respond to Russian troops, clever use of geography and urban warfare, deep understanding of Russia’s political and military vulnerabilities, and support of the local population. Since the First Chechen War resulted in the rebels’ surprising triumph over federal troops, Chechen authorities enjoyed their de factoindependence for several years. However, federal officials never gave up their claims to the rebellious republic, so the new conflict between Chechnya and Russia began to brew almost immediately after the first war ended.


Conclusion: Lessons Learned and Chechnya’s Future

            Russia’s 1994-1996 military campaign against Chechnya was a disaster for a variety of reasons. First, due to the leadership’s lack of planning, inefficient coordination, and poor intelligence gathering, federal authorities viewed the war as a minor military operation and falsely assumed that massive firepower would easily subdue Chechen insurgents.[84]Second, before launching the war, Russian authorities had little understanding of the weaknesses of the Russian military and the strengths of their enemies, which is why Russia’s disintegrating and untrained armed forces quickly broke down when they entered the Chechen territory and faced motivated and well-armed insurgents.[85] Third, Russia lacked a cohesive strategy to deal with the Chechen insurgency. For example, Yeltsin failed to articulate realistically obtainable objectives before Russia launched the invasion, and his administration frequently confused military leadership by giving ambiguous and unrealistic orders.[86] 

            After suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chechen insurgency, Russian authorities were eager to show that they were ready for a rematch. In October 1999, Russian troops launched another military campaign against Chechnya as a reaction to the insurgents’ attempts to export an Islamic revolution into Dagestan.[87] In 2000, Russia’s new President Vladimir Putin began to improve coordination between forces of various ministries and ordered the retraining of specialized forces, which prepared Russian troops for mountain and urban combat. In addition, federal forces started to conduct joint operations exercises, and the Putin regime learned how to control the media narrative and created a strategic and cohesive plan to defeat the insurgency.[88] Russian authorities also began to rely on their Chechen proxy Akhmad Kadyrov and his kadyrovtsy paramilitaries, who established a power base within the structure of the Chechen clans and skillfully created sharp divisions within the Chechen society, which allowed them to reduce the level of the local support for the insurgents.[89]

            Although the Second Chechen War ended with Russia’s victory, the political status of the Republic of Chechnya remains murky. The Chechen Republic is currently ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, son of Akhmad Kadyrov, and one of Putin’s biggest yet somewhat unstable allies. Within the past decade, Kadyrov created a ‘state within the state’ in the republic, and Chechnya, which nominally exists in the Russian constitutional space, is entirely controlled by Kadyrov and his own security apparatus.[90] Unlike other leaders of regional districts, Kadyrov also has an unprecedented political influence in the country, and he is not afraid to show off his special relationship with Putin to other federal authorities. For example, in April 2020, he entered into an open argument with Russia’s Prime-Minister Mikhail Mishustin over Chechnya’s restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.[91] 

A close relationship between Putin and Kadyrov has allowed Russia to maintain its control over the republic since the end of the Second Chechen War. However, the region remains exceptionally volatile because Chechnya’s political stability is entirely dependent on the will of two people, whose loyalty to each other is determined by their political ambitions and Putin’s willingness to condone Kadyrov’s unconventional governing tactics. Even more importantly, the region remains unstable because federal authorities barely addressed any of the root causes that led to the rise of the Chechen insurgency in the first place. Today, Chechen authorities mimic the tactics of federal officials during Soviet times and rely on repression and arbitrary punishment to control the local population. Moreover, Moscow continues to ignore economic inequality, widespread corruption, and poor social infrastructure in the republic.[92]  Therefore, Moscow’s nearly unconditional support for Kadyrov may backfire in the long run, especially if federal authorities fail to integrate Chechnya into Russia’s constitutional space and refuse to hold Kadyrov accountable for his complete disregard of human rights and Russia’s federal laws.



[1] “25 Лет Назад Началась Первая Чеченская Война” [The First Chechen War Started 25 Years Ago], Radio Free Liberty, December 11, 2019,

[2] John B. Dunlop, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 213.

[3] Ekaterina Sokirianskaya, “State and Violence in Chechnya (1997-1999)” in Chechnya at War and Beyond, ed. Anne Le Huerou, Aude Merlin, Amandine Regamey, Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski (New York: Routledge, 2014), 93.

[4] Jason A. Roberts, “Russia and Chechnya: The Path to War” (Master’s thesis, West Virginia University, 2005), 1.

[5] John B. Dunlop, “Russia Confronts Chechnya,” 3-6.

[6] Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 68.

[7] Dunlop, 34-37.

[8] Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, “Ideology and Conflict: Chechen Political Nationalism Prior to, and during, Ten Years of War,” in Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder, ed. Moshe Gammer (New York: Routledge, 2008), 105-106.

[9] Tracy C. German, Russia’s Chechen War (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 19-22.

[10] Ariel Cohen, Russia’s Counterinsurgency in North Caucasus: Performance and Consequences (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2014), 17.

[11] German, “Russia’s Chechen War,” 24.

[12] Gammer, “The Lone Wolf and the Bear,” 201-202.

[13] Timothy L. Thomas, “The Battle of Grozny: Deadly Classroom for Urban Combat,” Parameters 29, no. 2 (1999): 88.

[14] Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2002), 18.

[15] Emil A. Payin and Arkady A. Popov, “Chapter 2: Chechnya” in U.S. and Russian Policymaking With Respect to the Use of Force, eds. Jeremy R. Azrael and Emil A. Payin (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1996), 14.

[16] Dunlop, 114.

[17] Mike Bowker, “Russia and Chechnya: The Issue of Secession,” Nations and Nationalism 10, no. 4 (2004): 467.

[18] Evangelista, “The Chechen Wars,” 17-20.

[19] German, 47.

[20] German, 56.

[21] Dunlop, 126.

[22] German, 60-61.

[23] Dunlop, 126.

[24] Roberts, “Russia and Chechnya,” 33-34.

[25] Bowker, “Russia and Chechnya,” 468. 

[26] Dunlop, 126-127.

[27] Evangelista, 21.

[28] Gali W. Lapidus, “Contested Sovereignty: The Tragedy of Chechnya,” International Security 23, no. 1 (1998): 15.

[29] Bowker, 468.

[30] Dianne Leigh Sumner, “Success of Terrorism in War: The Case of Chechnya,” in Chechnya Revisited, ed. Yu. K. Nikolaev (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2003), 86-87.

[31] James F. Pike, “Urban Operations in Chechnya: Lessons Learned and Implications for U.S. Urban Doctrine and Training,” U.S. Army War College (2001): 7-8.

[32] James Hughes, Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2007), 73-76.

[33] German, 129.

[34] Dunlop, 211.

[35] Evangelista, 37-38.

[36] Thomas, “The Battle of Grozny,” 88.

[37] German, 130.

[38] German, 130-131.

[39] Lapidus, “Contested Sovereignty,” 20.

[40] Brad Nickens, “In Search of Post-Soviet Operational Art: A Case Study in Russian Military Operations in the North Caucasus Since 1991” (Master’s thesis, United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 2009): 6.

[41] German, 131.

[42] Olga Oliker, “Grozny I: 1994-1995,” in Russia’s Chechen War 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 10-14.

[43] Roberts, 105.

[44] Thomas, “The Battle for Grozny,” 89.

[45] Pike, “Urban Operations in Chechnya,” 10-11.

[46] Timothy L. Thomas, “The Caucasus Conflict and Russian Security: The Russian Armed Forces Confront Chechnya III. The Battle for Grozny, 1-26 January 1995,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 10, no. 1 (2007): 52.

[47] Pike, 13.

[48] Thomas, “The Battle of Grozny,” 92.

[49] Pike, 19.

[50] Nickens, “In Search of Post-Soviet Operational Art,” 7.

[51] Pike, 91-95.

[52] Brian A. Kelller, Intelligence Support to Military Operations on Urban Terrain: Lessons Learned from the Battle of Grozny (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2000), 12.

[53] Oliker, “Grozny I: 1994-1995,” 13.

[54] David Stone, “Chechnya Wars (19902 – Present)” in Twentieth-Century War and Conflict: A Concise Encyclopedia,” ed. Gordon Martel (UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2015), 36.

[55] Cohen, “Russia’s Counterinsurgency in North Caucasus,” 24.

[56] Roberts,106

[57] Keller, “Intelligence Support to Military Operations on Urban Terrain,” 13.

[58] Pike, 76-77.

[59] Oliker, 28-29.

[60] Stone, “Chechnya Wars,” 36.

[61] Emil Aslan Souleimanov and Huseyn Aliyev, “Blood Revenge and Violent Mobilization: Evidence from the Chechen Wars,” International Security 40, no. 2 (2015): 179.

[62] Nickens, 8.

[63] Oliker, 30-31.

[64] Evangelista, 41-42.

[65] Emil Pain, “The Chechen War in the Context of Contemporary Russian Politics,” in Chechnya: From Past to Future, ed. Richard Sakwa (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 67-68.

[66] Donald P. Schurr, “Self-Inflicted Wounds: Russia’s Failed Chechen and North Caucasus Policy,” United States Army War College (2012), 13.

[67] Pike, 15.

[68] Mark Kramer, “The Perils of Counterinsurgency: Russia’s War in Chechnya,” International Security 29, no. 3 (2005): 6.

[69] Kramer, “The Perils of Counterinsurgency,” 19-20.

[70] Thomas, “The Battle for Grozny,” 94.

[71] Oliker, 18-19.

[72] Keller, 25

[73] Oliker, 20.

[74] Pike, 15.

[75] Mark Kramer, “Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency and Terrorism in the North Caucasus: The Military Dimension of the Russian-Chechen Conflict,” Europe-Asia Studies 57, no. 2 (2005): 239.

[76] Keller, 12.

[77] Sumner, “Success of Terrorism in War,” 90-91.

[78] Kramer, “Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency and Terrorism in the North Caucasus,” 246.

[79] Raymond C. Finch, “A Face of Future Battle: Chechen Fighter Shamil Basayev,” Military Review 77, no. 3 (1997): 37-38.

[80] Sumner, 94.

[81] Oliker, 22.

[82] Thomas, “The Caucasus Conflict and Russian Security,” 66

[83] Alexander Cherkasov and Dmitry Grushkin, “The Chechen Wars and Human Rights in Russia,” in Chechnya: From Past to Future, ed. Richard Sakwa (London: Anthem Press, 2005), 138.

[84] Yagil Henkin, “I Can Fight, Army against Army: The 1994-1996 Russo-Chechen War, Strategies and Misconceptions,” in Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder, ed. Moshe Gammer (New York: Routledge, 2008), 151. 

[85] Dunlop, 222.

[86] Pike, 9.

[87] M. A. Smith, “The Second Chechen War: The All-Russian Context,” in The Second Chechen War, ed. Anne Aldis (United Kingdom: SCSI Occasional Papers, 2000), 6.

[88] Oliker, “Russia’s Capabilities 1994-2000: Lessons Learned and Lessons Forgotten,” in Russia’s Chechen War 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001), 82.

[89] Emil Souleimanov, “An Ethnography of Counterinsurgency: Kadyrovtsy and Russia’s Policy of Chechenization,” Post-Soviet Affairs 311, no. 2 (2015): 108.

[90] Richard Sakwa, “Blowback? Chechnya and the Challenges of Russian Politics,” in The Fire Below: How the Caucasus Shaped Russia, ed. Robert Bruce Ware (New York: Bloomsbury Academy, 2013), 177-178.

[91] “Russian PM Chides Regional Chiefs for Overzealous Coronavirus Lockdowns,” Reuters, April 6, 2020,

[92] “Chechnya: The Inner Abroad,” Crisis Group Europe Report no. 236 (June 30, 2015): 1,

About the Author(s)

Elina Driscoll holds a Master’s Degree in International Security from George Mason University. She is a Eurasia regional specialist at a DC-based watchdog organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights and political freedoms. Elina’s regional focus includes Russia, Central Asia, and Turkey.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:49am

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