CSP 8: The Muslims Of Russia

Professor Walter Comins-Richmond


First Chechnya War - 1994-1996

Russian troops entered Chechnya in December 1994, in order to prevent Chechnya's effort to secede from the Russian Federation, and after almost 2 years of fighting, a peace agreement was reached. As part of that agreement, resolution of Chechnya's call for independence was postponed for up to 5 years. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and over 500,000 persons displaced since the conflict began.

The origins of the conflict are complex. Relations between Russia and the people of Chechnya have long been contentious, dating to the period of Russian expansion in the Caucasus in the 19th Century. Since their forced annexation to the Russian empire, the Chechens have never willingly accepted Russian rule. During the Russian Civil War (1917-20), the Chechens declared their sovereignty until the Red Army suppressed them in 1920. Located on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains within 100 kilometers of the Caspian Sea, Chechnya is strategically vital to Russia for two reasons. First, access routes to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea go from the center of the federation through Chechnya. Second, vital Russian oil and gas pipeline connections with Kazakstan and Azerbaijan also run through Chechnya.

The Russian Federation's Republic of Chechnya in the northern Caucasus declared itself independent from the Russian Federation in 1991 under the leadership of Dzhokar Dudayev, was a former pilot of the Soviet Strategic Aviation (Dalnya Aviatsia) who flew nuclear bombers for many years. The declaration of full independence issued in 1993 by the Chechen government of Dudayev led to civil war in that republic, and several Russian-backed attempts to overthrow Dudayev failed in 1993 and 1994. In the summer of 1994, the Russian Government intensified its charges against the government of secessionist President Dudayev, accusing it of repressing political dissent, of corruption, and of involvement in international criminal activities. Chechnya had become an outpost of organized crime, gun-running and drug smuggling. Several armed opposition groups financially and militarily supported by Russian government entities sought to overthrow President Dudayev. In August 1994 they bombed a telephone station and the Moscow-Baku railroad line. The Dudayev government blamed the acts on the political opposition and introduced a state of emergency, followed in September 1994 by martial law. Restrictions included a curfew, limits on exit and entry procedures, and restrictions on travel by road in some areas.

The opposition launched a major offensive on 26 November 1994 with the covert support of "volunteers" from several elite regular Russian army units. Russian military officials initially denied any official involvement in the conflict. The operation failed to unseat Dudayev. By December 1994 Russian military forces were actively working to overthrow the Dudayev regime. Having relied on clandestine measures to remove Dudayev, detailed planning for a wide-scale conventional military operation did not begin until early December.

After a decision of unclear origin in the Yeltsin administration, three divisions of Russian armor, pro-Russian Chechen infantry, and internal security troops--a force including units detailed from the regular armed forces--invaded Chechnya on 10-11 December 1994. The objective was a quick victory leading to pacification and reestablishment of a pro-Russian government. The result, however, was a long series of military operations bungled by the Russians and stymied by the traditionally rugged guerrilla forces of the Chechen separatists.

Russian military aircraft bombed both military and civilian targets in Groznyy, the capital of the republic. Regular army and MVD troops crossed the border into Chechnya on December 10 to surround Groznyy. Beginning in late December 1994, following major Chechen resistance, there was massive aerial and artillery bombardment of Chechnya's capital, Groznyy, resulting in a heavy loss of civilian life and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. Air strikes continued through the month of December and into January, causing extensive damage and heavy civilian casualties. According to press reports, there were up to 4,000 detonations an hour at the height of the winter campaign against Groznyy. Beyond the large number of civilians injured and killed, most residential and public buildings in Groznyy, including hospitals and an orphanage, were destroyed.

These actions were denounced as major human rights violations by Sergey Kovalev, President Yeltsin's Human Rights Commissioner, and by human rights NGO's. The Russian Government announced on December 28 that Russian ground forces had begun an operation to "liberate" Groznyy one district at a time and disarm the "illegal armed groupings." Dudayev supporters vowed to continue resisting and to switch to guerrilla warfare.

Although Russian forces leveled the Chechen capital city of Groznyy and other population centers during a long and bloody campaign of urban warfare, Chechen forces held extensive territory elsewhere in the republic through 1995 and into 1996. Two major hostage-taking incidents--one at Budennovsk in southern Russia in June 1995 and one at the Dagestani border town of Pervomayskoye in January 1996--led to the embarrassment of unsuccessful military missions to release the prisoners. The Pervomayskoye incident led to the complete destruction of the town and numerous civilian casualties.

The Chechen conflict sparked a major debate over accountability in government decisionmaking and the Government's commitment to the rights of its citizens and international norms. The Constitutional Court found President Yeltsin's deployment of military forces in Chechnya without parliamentary approval to be constitutional. However, the Court ruled that international law was binding on both government and rebel forces, although neither was in compliance with Protocol II Additional of the Geneva Conventions, specifically with the provision that every effort must be made to avoid causing damage to civilians and their property.

Russian forces used indiscriminate and disproportionate force in attacks on other Chechen towns and villages. After federal forces captured several major cities and towns in the Chechen Republic, Chechen fighters employed guerrilla and terrorist tactics against forces of the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs, as well as against Russian civilians in the town of Budennovsk.

As the campaign's failures and substantial casualties were being well documented by Russia's independent news media (an estimated 1,500 Russian troops and 25,000 civilians had died by April 1995), public opinion in Russia turned strongly against continued occupation. However, fearing that capitulation to a separatist government in one ethnic republic would set a precedent for other independence-minded regions, in 1995 President Yeltsin wavered between full support of Chechnya operations and condemnation of the supposed incompetence of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and his generals. Yeltsin fired several top generals, including Deputy Minister of Defense Boris Gromov, who were critical of the war. In 1995 and early 1996, Grachev's inability to obtain a favorable outcome and continued disarray in top command echelons indicated that he had lost control of the military establishment.

On 30 July 1995 the Government and forces loyal to Chechen president Dudayev signed a military protocol calling for a cease-fire, the disarming of rebel formations, the withdrawal of most federal troops, and the exchange of prisoners. Implementation of the protocol was slow and came to a halt in the fall, following the assassination attempt on General Romanov, former commander of the federal forces in Chechnya.

In late 1995, the Russian government announced elections to replace the Moscow- backed government that assumed power after Dudayev was driven from Groznyy. Prominent human rights organizations called for cancellation of the 17 December 1995 elections in Chechnya due to the conditions in the region, which they described as a virtual state of emergency. They warned that the results of the elections would lack credibility and predicted that the elections would exacerbate preexisting tensions and prevent political reconciliation. The OSCE Assistance Group (AG) temporarily departed Groznyy rather than monitor elections that they judged could not be "free and fair." Dokur Zavgayev won the elections, but there were widespread allegations of fraud and manipulation of the results.

Violations of international humanitarian law and human rights committed by Russian forces occured on a much larger scale than those of the Chechen separatists. Russian forces engaged in the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. They also prevented civilians from evacuating from areas of imminent danger and humanitarian organizations from assisting civilians in need. Security forces were also responsible for disappearances in Chechnya. Chechen forces executed some members of the federal forces and repeatedly seized civilian hostages. Both parties to the conflict at times used torture, mistreated prisoners of war, and executed some of them.

On 21-22 April 1996 President Dzhokar Dudayev, leader of the Chechen uprising, was lethally wounded in his head by a shell fragment. He died shortly afterwards. According to one report, he was killed in the field while trying to establish a connection via a satellite phone. A few seconds before his death he complained to other party about noise from overflying aircraft. It is believed that he was targeted by some sort of air-to-ground missile. Russian officials denied the presence of Russian aircraft in the area, but according to reports Dudayev had been deliberately targeted by a rocket fired from the air which homed in on him by following the signal of his satellite telephone. It is reliably reported that Russian forces routinely called in air and ground-launched rocket strikes on locations of satellite telephone operations identified with radiolocation equipment.

In August 1996 the two sides initiated a cease-fire and for the remainder of the year made steady progress toward a political settlement. Russian troops completed their withdrawal from Chechnya, leaving the separatist forces in effective control of the Chechen Republic. The two sides agreed to hold elections in early 1997 and to resolve Chechnya's status within 5 years.

For the most part, the Russian media operated freely in reporting on the Chechen conflict despite government pressure and heavy-handed treatment by Russian troops in the war zone. The Constitutional Court found the Government's efforts to ban certain journalists from the war zone unconstitutional. While journalists were permitted back into the war zone, pressures against them continued. Several journalists were killed during the war, some deliberately, others accidentally; other journalists were kidnaped.

In 1995 and early 1996, Chechen forces fought from mountain enclaves, into which they had been driven by Russian forces with superior firepower and air support. The Chechens used various opportunities to attack targets outside their enclaves, including the Budennovsk raid of June 1995. On several occasions, Russian forces continued bombardments of Chechen strongholds after Yeltsin had announced a cease-fire.

In numerous well-documented incidents, federal troops used excessive force against the separatist forces and recklessly put civilians in harm's way. Federal use of helicopter gunships and artillery bombardments were cited as the most frequent causes of death among civilians. Prior to attacks, Russian forces often would encircle a village and issue an ultimatum to surrender weapons, troops, and money or face attack. Often, however, even those villages that complied with those terms were subjected to Russian attack. Civilians were often forced to pay federal forces for permission to escape areas under attack through "humanitarian corridors;" in some cases, however, civilians--including women--were fired upon while transiting these corridors.

Breaking a cease-fire shortly after the presidential election, federal forces launched a "preemptive strike" on 10 July 1996 against Geikhi, a village in which Chechen forces said there were no rebel soldiers. The attack, which was preceded by aerial and artillery bombardments, killed at least 20 civilians. Similar attacks were mounted in July against the villages of Mairtup, Kurchaloy, and Artury. Attempts by federal forces in August to hold Groznyy were also characterized by indiscriminate use of air power and artillery, destroying several residential buildings and a hospital, according to credible sources.

In March 1996 federal forces shelled the village of Sernovodsk while refusing to allow civilians to leave the area, resulting in numerous deaths. Similarly, in an assault on Samashki, the federal forces gave inhabitants 2 hours' warning to evacuate before shelling commenced. Once the bombardment started, Chechen men were not permitted to leave.

Domestic and international human rights groups compiled a substantial number of credible accounts of torture and other cruel and inhuman or degrading punishment of Chechens by Russian military and internal security forces during the Chechen conflict. These abuses include beatings of combatants as well as of unarmed civilians suspected of involvement with, or support for, the secessionist Chechen rebels.

Federal forces used "filtration centers" to detain suspected separatists and supporters. Detainees were frequently subjected to torture during interrogation in these centers. Russian forces took hostages through the filtration center apparatus--including civilians--and used these hostages to exchange for federal prisoners held by the separatists.

Incidents were reported in the Russian press of undisciplined federal forces engaging in theft, looting, assault, rape, and murder--frequently while intoxicated. There are many documented cases of junior officers and ordinary soldiers participating in such incidents.

Separatist forces also violated international humanitarian law by taking and executing hostages and using prisoners as human shields. In January 1996 Chechen forces took about 100 civilians hostage in the city of Kizlyar and then transported them to Pervomayskoye (both in Dagestan). Following a stand-off of several days during which federal authorities claimed that hostages were executed, federal forces bombarded the settlement, resulting in extensive property damage and killing an unknown number of hostages and Chechen rebels. During the crisis, another group of rebels hijacked a passenger ship on the Black Sea with many Russians on board. The Turkish Government resolved the incident peacefully.

After the separatist takeover of Groznyy in August 1996, Chechen forces also carried out summary executions of civilians deemed collaborators. Even after the cease-fire came into force, separatist forces detained, tortured, and killed members of the Moscow-backed administration of Doku Zavgayev. During the January 1996 Pervomayskoye crisis, Chechen separatists tortured, burned alive, and left the remains of three hostages they had previously abducted from the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Efforts at producing a settlement, though ultimately successful, were uneven. In May 1996, during the final days of Yeltsin's reelection campaign, Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev signed a cease-fire with Yeltsin in Moscow, followed by full armistice protocols negotiated by the OSCE in the Ingush city of Nazran. The protocols set 30 August 1996 for withdrawal of "temporary" Russian forces (plans already existed for permanent stationing of two brigades), contingent on parallel disarmament of Chechen forces.

Russian military and political actions immediately before and after the protocols indicated little respect for their terms. The Russian-supported regime in Groznyy signed a draft political status on Chechnya without consulting the rebels, and the Russian Ministry of Defense reaffirmed its plan to keep troops in Chechnya indefinitely. Those circumstances indicated strongly that peace negotiations were a short-term strategy to reduce the Chechnya obstacle to Yeltsin's reelection in the summer of 1996.

The May 1996 cease-fire agreement lowered the intensity of the conflict for several weeks. Immediately after Yeltsin's victory, however, the federal forces unleashed an offensive that caused scores of civilian casualties, as they had in March 1996. At the end of June 1996, Russian forces began a partial withdrawal, but fighting continued in some regions, and negotiations stalled amid mutual recriminations. In July 1996 Russian forces began a new assault on villages described as harboring guerrilla forces, and Russia again seemed to lack a unified policy toward Chechnya. In subsequent weeks, Alexander Lebed took over the negotiations and in August 1996 he signed an agreement with Chechen commander Aslan Maskhadov that called for an end to hostilities, full exchange of prisoners, and joint administration by a coalition government. The agreement stated that Chechnya's political status would be decided within 5 years. Despite Yeltsin's dismissal of Lebed, the peace process continued during the fall and in November the two sides reached another agreement that called for the withdrawal of federal forces by the end of the year and the holding of elections in January 1997.

In February 1997 Russia approved an amnesty for Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels who committed illegal acts in connection with the war in Chechnya between December 9, 1994, and September 1, 1996. The pardon excluded crimes such as murder, rape, and hostage-taking, and ordered the establishment of a commission to review appeals for amnesty. Although many Chechen rebels, including Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Basayev, were under indictment in Russia for commission of serious crimes during the war, there was no demonstrated attempt by Russian law-enforcement organs to bring such persons to justice. In effect, this selective amnesty was applied as a blanket amnesty.

President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov signed a peace agreement on 12 May 1997 in which both sides agreed to settle their dispute by peaceful means. In the earlier 1996 agreement, the two sides agreed to resolve Chechnya's political status prior to 2001, but fundamental differences remained on that question with Chechnya asserting that it has earned the right to full independence and Russia insisting that Chechnya will remain a part of the Federation.

During 1998 no progress was reported on resolving differences between the two sides, particularly on the question of Chechnya's independence. Continued kidnapings and instability in Chechnya, where the Federal Government exercises virtually no authority, exacerbated tensions between federal and republican authorities. Kidnapings orchestrated by uncontrolled armed formations and bandits, some of which may have links to the former insurgent forces, have become frequent. The usual motivation for kidnapings is ransom, but some cases have political overtones. Both journalists and humanitarian assistance workers have been targets.

The exact routes for new pipelines from Central Asia and the Caspian basin are a matter of fierce dispute. Over 20 major Western oil companies; their Russian, Azeri and Kazakh partners; and the governments of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Turkey, Iran, Greece, and Bulgaria are variously advocating up to 10 alternative routes. For technical reasons, new pipelines must avoid the rugged Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black seas. The choice of routes is complicated politically by conflicts in Chechnya to the north, and in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey to the south.

The peace agreement cleared the way for the July 1997 tripartite agreement between Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Russia on early oil exports from Azerbaijan. While the deal allowed necessary repairs to begin on the existing oil pipeline, it did not settle the issues of regional security and pipeline tariffs. Chechnya and Russian transport company, Transneft, have also clashed in the past over the issue of tariffs and war reparations from Russia. Russia has offered to provide economic aid to Chechnya on the condition that Chechnya secures the safety of the northern route for early oil that passes through its borders.

Deadlocks over negotiations prompted Russia to announce that it would build another pipeline that would bypass Chechnya. One proposed alternative pipeline would use the northern route, but would add a new segment that would pass along the Chechen border in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, and then go on towards the Stavropol region, ending at Terskoye in North Ossetia. Russian Fuel and Energy Minister Generalov stated in November 1998 that a lack of funding could cause this project to be shelved. In October 1998, Russia made another proposal to build a new pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan via Dagestan to Novorosissk in Russia, but the proposal was rejected by SOCAR of Azerbaijan. Dagestan has security concerns of its own, including the rise of rival factions. In May 1998, the seat of government in Makhachkala was stormed by a rival gang, and the failed coup resulted in accusations by the chairman of the Dagestan Supreme Council that the United States had supported the coup attempt as a means of discouraging interest in a Baku-Novorosissk route for the Main Export Pipeline (MEP) of the Azerbaijan International Oil Consortium (AIOC).

Estimates vary of the total number of casualties caused by the war. Russian Interior Minister Kulikov claimed that fewer than 20,000 civilians were killed while then-Secretary of the National Security Council Aleksandr Lebed asserted that 80,000 to 100,000 had been killed and 240,000 had been injured. Chechen spokesmen claim that the true numbers are even higher. Human rights groups estimate that over 4,300 soldiers from the federal forces were killed. In addition international organizations estimate that up to 500,000 people have fled Chechnya during the war. Many ethnic Chechens returned since the conflict ended.

Because of the poor performance of regular troops in Chechnya, Russia had been forced to use elite naval infantry and airborne assault units--the former gathered from fifty units of the Baltic Fleet and more than 100 ships or units of the Pacific Fleet. Airborne units from two divisions were used to end the Pervomayskoye hostage crisis in January 1996.

According to Russian and Western experts, the many serious command errors made in the Chechnya campaign were at least partly the result of a fragmented command system in which the lack of direct coordination deprived commanders of the ability to make timely decisions. A major cause of this problem was the lack of field training among all levels of the officer corps.

The Chechnya crisis was the most visible indication of the division in Russia's government over the application of military doctrine, and of a disintegration process that even Boris Yeltsin had recognized in 1994. With numerous declarations of sovereignty having emerged from ethnic republics and regions in 1991 and 1992, the 1993 military doctrine had stipulated that the military could be used against separatist groups within the federation, providing a theoretical justification for the Chechnya action. Many military authorities argued that such a campaign was foolhardy, given military budget cuts that made proper training and equipping of troops impossible. Nevertheless, the "war party" of officials and advisers surrounding Yeltsin failed to foresee the media storm that resulted from a bloody military struggle within the federation.

Through mid-1999 intermittent military clashes and other security related incidents (including increased incidents of kidnapping of aid workers and foreign nationals) continued in and around Chechnya.

Sources and Methods