The Chechnya Wars were a series of conflicts between the Russian Federation and the rebellious province of Chechnya styled as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from 1994 to 2009. They are split into two parts - the first war raging from 1994 to 1996 and the second one from 2000 to 2009. Though these wars were mostly fought on regional scale, their origins traced from far longer way back to the 18th Century and had far reaching consequences beyond just being nationalistic and sectarian in nature, as they served as a prelude to The War on Terror due to second war dealing with Islamic terrorists before 9/11 and it also helped shape Russia as we know today with Vladimir Putin's rise.
BackgroundChechnya is located into the Northern Caucasus, a mountainous region bordered between Europe and Asia whose peoples are predominantly Muslim, having adopted Islam as their religion in contrast to their Orthodox Christian neighbors in Georgia, Armenia and more importantly, the Tsardom of Russia. In the late 18th Century, the Russians would begin an expansion into the region under Catherine the Great, though the campaign would be very long going through three Tsars and facing several enemies like the Circassians and the Caucasian Imamate governed by Imam Shamil before the Caucasus fell into their control in 1864.
By the early 20th Century as the Russian Revolution was underway, the Chechens found an opportunity to break away with a good portion of other Caucasian nations like Dagestan and Ingushetia to form their independent republics. When the USSR emerged as the victors with Josef Stalin in charge, they were brought into heel as satellite Communist republics. The Chechens would prove their stubbornness is not easily curbed and when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, they threw their lot with them against the "Red Imperialists", seeing the Nazis as their "liberators". Unfortunately for them, the Nazis were routed and when the Russians regained control of the Northern Caucasus region, Stalin ordered the entire Chechen and Ingusheti populations to be displaced by the NKVD on grounds of being collaborators to the Nazis. This was known as Operation Lentil, which saw hundreds of thousands being relocated to Kazakhstan with up to a third of their population dying off in death marches due to exposure to the inhospitable Kazakh areas, and in return Russians would resettle the abandoned region as per Soviet policy.
It wouldn't be until the 50s when Nikita Khrushchev took power that he permitted them to return to their homeland. Decades passed and as the Soviet Union weakened, the Chechens were clamoring to gain their independence from it, with General Dzhokar Dudayev literally throwing out the Soviet administrators in 1991 and being elected the first President of Chechnya - curiously, it was one of the first republics to declare independence before the USSR disintegrated. However, by the time the Union fell and it was split into several different countries, Chechnya wasn't recognized and instead was officially part of the Russian Federation. The Chechens still considered themselves independent, and due to the persecutionnote of non-Chechen minorities within the region and the oil fields being integral for Russia's infrastructure, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin began to prioritize the Chechen problem. After attempts to oust Dudayev by peaceful means or otherwise, the Russian administration formally declared an invasion to put down the separatist movement.
The First Chechen War (1994-1996)Russia's plan was very simple: they would invade Chechnya from all three sides using tanks and infantry after their air forces had softened the region. What the federal forces did not expect is that the separatists were armed with heavy artillery and managed to bring down their fighters, and everytime the Russians tried to enter the city using armor, their vehicles would be blown up.
As Russian casualties began to pile up, they turned to reducing the capital Grozny to ruins with every weapon they had. Though at first glance, this battle seemingly ended the war in a conventional sense, since their capital was now taken and the separatist forces were in disarray, the Chechens fled into the mountainous regions and began a campaign of guerrilla warfare against federal forces - just as their ancestors had done centuries ago. From the mountains, they were able to hide from Russians and attack their convoys without any mercy.
Despite the odds being initially placed in Russia's favor as they had sheer numbers on their side, the balance shifted against them very fast. Forced drafting was highly unpopular across the Federation, with some republics passing laws to minimize the number of men conscripted into Russia's army to fight in Chechnya. On the other side, Chechens saw an increase of volunteers from Muslim-predominant regions in Russia such as Dagestan and beyond thanks to its Chief Mufti, Akhmad Kadyrov declaring a jihad to gain help from outsiders. Among these volunteers would include Afghan Mujhadeen and Al-Qaeda, who were able to finance the separatists with large sums of money.
One infamous incident being the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis where separatists led by Shamil Basayev invaded a Russian town and took over a maternity hospital hostage and demanded a ceasefire. As Basayev's terrorists began to randomly gun down the victims, the Russian forces tried to hastily storm the hospital which ended in failure. With 140 dead (105 being civilians), the Russians agreed to a ceasefire. This incident dealt a large blow to the Russian's morale and by 1996 and Yeltsin was pressured to show any results of the federal forces' efforts. This would eventually come in Dudayev's assassination by means of two guided missiles. Unfortunately for them, this victory was short-lived: not soon after Dudayev's death, the separatists would manage to retake the capital of Grozny, effectively sending the Russians back to square one. At this point, they were already tired of fighting and knew it was time to call it quits. Yeltsin met with Aslan Maskhadov, the new President of Chechnya to sign the Khasav-Yurt Accord which granted de facto independence to the republic, but it was still nominally part of Russia.
Inter-War Period (1996-1999)The Chechens had finally achieved the dream of independence, or rather, the nightmare of independence. The war was nothing short of devastating for their country; whereas their original infrastructure was merely fragile, it became non-existent after the conflict, as they relied on the mafia and criminals smuggling goods into their territory thanks to Dudayev. Maskhadov promised the Chechens peace, but he could do no more than that, since their nation were all by themselves and no other nation recognized Chechnya due to their quasi-independence. Without an enemy to fight, the army began to splinter and field commanders became warlords who oversaw criminal activities like kidnapping across the border which proved highly profitable in order to replace the devastated infrastructure.
Religious extremism became very rife within the republic: Chechens were a majorly Sufi Muslims motivated by nationalism, but began converting to radical Wahhabism thanks to al-Qaeda's influence. A schism took place between the secular nationalists such as Maskhadov and Kadyrov who tried to curb fundamentalism, and Islamists like Basayev who promoted it to advance their personal power as Chechnya deteriorated into lawlessness.
Meanwhile, the situation in Russia wasn't any better. Yeltsin's actions during the war made him extremely unpopular and it took every bit of influence in the Propaganda Machine to sway the public opinion in his favor. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union peaked and many feared that Russia would descend into anarchy with the old man's health ailing, it was time for a new generation to take place. Enter the former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, who would become the second President of Russia and would focus on solving the Chechen problem as a way of strengthening Russia and bringing together the presidency, the government and people.
As the warlords grew bolder and bolder with their raids across the border, Shamil Basayev and fellow warlord Ibn al-Khattab invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan, which was also of Muslim-majority, taking over several villages in hopes of "liberating the entire Caucasus from the Russian yoke". The Russian response was swift and effective: the armed forces alongside Dagestani police officers and partisans outnumbered the terrorists 10 to 1 and now fighting completely out of their element, they were kicked back to Chechnya. The invasion of Dagestan, alongside a series of bombings in Russian territories perpetrated by the Chechens served as casus belli for the second Chechnya War with Putin declaring that "there is no border with Chechnya".
Second Chechen War (1999-2009)To not repeat the same mistakes of the previous war, federal forces would begin with a prolonged air raid campaign over Grozny with before a land invasion could happen. By the time they rolled out and took the city, federal forces didn't suffer nearly as many casualties as the first time and became a glorified mop cleaning up the mess as the bulk of the warlords had already retreated into the mountains to restart their guerrilla campaign. The Russians started a campaign of bombings to clear out the mountains, even though to fully complete this task would take decades. The ruthlessness employed by the Russians saw several civilians being killed, a refugee crisis into the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia and the West being shocked with the war crimes being committed by both federal and separatist forces.
In order to quell the unrest between the locals and the international community, Putin installed Akhmad Kadyrov as the now President of Chechnya in hopes of bringing the Chechens together against the separatists, and he also had a tight hand around the media in order to not show the war's horrors into the open. By 2000, the Russians had already pushed out all of the separatists out of Grozny and took control of the most important asset of the war, the people. Though the military phase was over very quickly, the war certainly wasn't as the insurgency phase would take place through most of the decade and see the worst atrocities leaking out of Chechnya and into Russia abroad.
Daily attacks from Chechen insurgents took place in southern portions of the region and spilling into nearby Caucasian territories. Out of all warlords, Shamil Basayev became the most wanted and dangerous man in Russia as he engaged into psychological warfare to demoralize the Russians through suicide bombings and assassinations just like he had done with the Budyonnovsk hospital crisis years ago. Most of these targets would have been civilians, with two biggest ones being the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis and the 2004 Beslan school siege, which saw the deaths of hundreds of innocents.
These atrocities shocked the International community, specially in the aftermath of 9/11 which Putin used to highlight his own fight against Islamic terrorism and gain more support from the West. Though Basayev was the mastermind of these terrorist attacks, he was just one of the several Ichkeria militant leaders that were highly disorganized and had their different agendas, while the pro-Moscow Kadyrov was able to pacify and centralize Chechen into an autonomous republic for the Russian Federation. As such in 2004 saw the apogee of terrorist attacks, when alongside the aforementioned Beslan school siege, a stadium bombing claimed Kadyrov's life alongside 29 people, leaving his son Ranzam as the next President of Chechnya. The next years after 2004 would see the insurgency die down following the deaths of Basayev and Maskhadov putting an end to the dreams of an secular Ichkeria republic, leaving now the terrorists aimless except for lashing out against the rest. Very slowly, the responsibility of fighting separatists would be slowly transferred from federal forces to Kadyrov's militia, and billions were spent in order to reconstruct Grozny. The anti-terrorist operations would officially end in 2009.
AftermathThe war proved to be integral in solidifying Putin's leadership and popularity for the Russian people. By rallying under a common threat, they were reunited after Yeltsin's disastrous mishandling of the conflict. However, the conflict contributed to deep changes in Russia's politics and society with a some stating that the wars killed Russia's fledging democracy in its cradle by handing it over to a strong-handed ruler. Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was notorious for accusing Putin of among many things, orchestrating the apartment bombings as an excuse to justify a war against the Chechens and transform Russia into an mafia state.
Outbreaks of xenophobia and racism against Caucasians in general grew due to the terrorist attacks, which were further exacerbated by the unrelated war against Georgia in 2008. Whatever is left of the separatist movement now has ties with terrorist organizations such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS and it has been known that Chechen volunteers have fought on the Syrian Civil War against the Russians (though Russians employed Chechen volunteers of their own), as well as alongside Ukrainian separatists during the Crimean crisis, which is ironic considering they are Orthodox Christians just like their common enemies.
Unfortunately for Chechnya itself, things haven't improved much since the end of the war. While the republic is an autonomous entity that embraces its Islamic roots as well as being a loyal subject of the Federation, the region has become very repressive under President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is accused of widespread human right violations such as kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings and the most infamous one of all: an concentration camp for LGBT individuals. This resulted in backlash from Western entities and the USA imposing sanctions on Kadyrov himself, who denied these allegations though he hasn't made himself look better by fiercely antagonizing his critics and stating gays don't exist in Chechnya, "weren't human" and "their families should kill them", as well as voicing support for domestic abuse, honor killings, polygamy (even though it's illegal in Russia) with any Muslim who speaks out against the practice being no true adherent of their faith, among many controversies.
Even though the possibility of yet another Chechnya War erupting as the ones before seems unlikely with the local insurgency being nowhere near as powerful as it used to be, as well as Putin and Kadyrov enjoying a friendly relationship, the Chechen leader has shown complete disregard for Russian legislature and is implementing what witnesses can only describe as sharia law. Not only did he authorized his militia (which is reported to be more feared and dangerous among Chechen civilians than the separatists themselves) to shoot any police officers from other parts of Russia, he also made bold moves like crossing the border to Ingushetia and pressuring its neighbor to surrender 10% of their territory. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin will be forced to reassert its authority towards it's unruly subject republic.
Tropes present during this conflict
- Arms Dealer: Guns were being smuggled by the droves into Chechnya before the war. It was in Yeltsin's interest to see any pro-Russian Chechens being armed in order to oust Dudayev. This proved to be a fatal mistake on his part.
- Authority in Name Only: As the new President of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov was powerless to keep Chechnya under control as the real power rested at the hands of the local warlords.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Akhmad Kadyrov, then Chief Mufti of the Chechen Republic, declared this struggle a jihad in order to gain assistance of foreigner volunteers which the Chechens would receive from Islamist fighters such as Arab Mujhadeen. The Chechens would eventually win the first war, but many of them would turn to radical Wahhabism of which Kadyrov (a Sufi Muslim) disapproved of. As sharia law was enforced on Chechnya by the warlords, Kadyrov himself became disillusioned with the insurgency and switched sides with the Russians.
- Better the Devil You Know: Despite hating the Russians for generations, over the course of the inter-war period most of the Chechen population eventually came to support the secular Russians against the Islamic radicals that had taken over the region.
- Conscription: Federal forces employed teenage boys for their army that ended up serving as cannon fodder. This practice turned out to be extremely unpopular as the death toll began to rise and Russian families began to see their sons' bodies being returned in droves. Several republics within the Russian Federation tried to minimize the number of men conscripted into the army and the administration feared that further pressure would lead to more republics revolting.
- Crippling Overspecialization: The Chechens' main strength came from guerrilla warfare and defending their position from invaders. When they tried to invade the autonomous region of Dagestan, they were curb-stomped by the Russians since they were now fighting outside of their home turf.
- David vs. Goliath: Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned in everyway, the Chechens did manage to win against the Russians during the first war.
- Decapitated Army: Defied. Dudayev's death did not stop the insurgency, nor did it benefit Russia in the long run.
- Defector from Decadence: Akhmad Kadyrov was a prominent Chechen leader during the rebellion, but he grew disillusioned with the newly-gained independence when he saw the Arab jihadists converting the locals to Wahhabism which taught the Islam they practiced was "distorted". He switched sides to the Russians in an attempt to curb fundamentalism.
- Divided We Fall: A key reason why the separatists ultimately lost. During the first war, even though they were a very loose coalition, they were united by a single goal. During the second war, there was a schism between the different warlords: secular nationalists like Maskhadov fought for the right of their country to exist, while radicals Islamists like Basayev were not content with just that and wanted to expand their control over the entire Caucasus. They fought against the Russians, but were by no means allies.
- Everyone Is Armed: One of Dudayev's first decrees was granting every man in Chechnya the right to bear firearms, and thanks to the smugglers, there were more guns than civilians in the land. In hindsight, this was not a good decision since it meant now every Chechen has the means to fight off a possible invasion.
- Everyone Has Standards: The Chechen nationalists in regards to the Islamic radicals. They approved the terrorist attack that killed Kadyrov, seeing him as The Quisling to the Russians, but denounced the attack on the Beslan school as perpetrated by "mad men". Some Islamists themselves were disturbed by Beslan since warlord/cleric Abdul-Halim Sadulayev is credited to have persuaded Basayev from carrying out major terrorist attacks after it.
- False Flag Operation:
- Before the war could start, Yeltsin attempted to defuse the situation by sending Russian soldiers disguised as mercenaries to assist in a coup against Dudayev. The operation was a failure and Dudayev exposed the mercenaries on national television. This humiliation ultimately spurred Yeltsin into invading Chechnya.
- Alexander Litvinenko claims that the Russian appartment bombings were an inside job that served as an excuse to invade Chechnya again. Though no hard evidence of this exists, the government was very keen on censoring him and may have been implicated in his death by poisoning in 2006.
- The Fundamentalist: Thanks to al-Qaeda's influence, several Chechen fighters turned into Wahhabism and hoped to establish an Islamic state. Chechens were mostly Sufi Muslims and were terrified of the radicals because of this.
- Full-Circle Revolution: At first Chechens were fighting for freedom from Russian imperialists, and then they found themselves being oppressed by domestic Islamist terrorists that were enforcing sharia law. They went to war a second time to defeat the Islamists, this time with Russia to help them out and it seems the revolution has made its full-circle again when their new autocratic president began enforcing sharia law himself...
- Godzilla Threshold: The escalation of terrorist attacks from the Chechens' perspective were the cause of this. Aslambek Abdulkhadzhiev said in an interview that the Budennovsk crisis which he took part wouldn't have been considered except as an desperate last resort and that all they wished was for the war to be over.
- Gone Horribly Right: Aslan Maskhadov's reasoning for passing a Sharia-based criminal code on as President even though he personally opposed it, he did it in hopes of discrediting the Islamists for strong-arming him and turn the population against them. Unfortunately, this only served to alienate the population into Russia's side.
- Government in Exile: The original, non-Islamist, secular Chechen Republic of Ichkeria became this after the outbreak of the second war. Its last Prime Minister Akhmed Zakayev currently lives in exile in the United Kingdom and he is wanted by the Russian government on charges of sedition, as well as the Islamists for "professing democracy, secularism and the laws of men instead of Sharia law".
- Harmful to Minors: Infant mortality in Chechnya was the highest in all of Russia, and an entire generation of Chechen children shows symptoms to psychological trauma due to the war. Some of the most infamous incidents of the war such as the Beslan school siege and the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis definitely qualify.
- Hoist by His Own Petard:
- The Russians plan to invade Grozny and end the war as quickly as possible fell apart due to the Chechens having anti-aircraft weaponry... Which was supplied by the Russians in the first place in hopes of sympathetic Chechens overthrowing Dudayev.
- Shamil Basayev is said to have been killed by one of his own mines when it was mishandled in his presence, literally blowing it up in his face.
- Home Field Advantage: The Chechens used the mountains to their advantage as they had done so centuries ago against invaders, and were slowly able to whittle down the Russian forces through guerrilla warfare.
- History Repeats: When Russians invaded Chechnya in the 19th Century, the country became just like the Old West, a lawless no-man's land where the rebels retreated into the mountains and fought a guerrilla warfare against the invaders before they eventually accepted their control. The same thing happened when the Russians tried to reassert control following the Soviet Union's fall. Also both times had religious leaders declaring jihad against the Russians. Coincidentally, they had a prominent leader with the same name: Iman Shamil in the 19th Century and Shamil Basayev in the second war.
- I Have Your Wife: The warlords' main MO was kidnapping people across the border to hold them ransom. This became so infamous that it persists on Chechnya to this day.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: By the time the separatists retook Grozny in the First Chechen War, Yeltsin knew when to cut his losses and just signed a peace treaty with the Chechens granting them independence. It was either this or restart the war all over again, which was not on the table due to how demoralized the army was at this point.
- Meet the New Boss: Dudayev was a straight up dictator who dissolved the parliament and took direct control. After his death, several warlords tried to fill the power gap with Shamil Basayev being the most prominent as de facto leader of the Chechen terrorists. In recent years, some feel this way in regards to Ramzan Kadyrov.
- Patriotic Fervor: From both sides.
- The Chechens initially fought to have a nation of their own. After the first war, they began clashing with radical Islamists in their group that sought to create a Caucasian Emirate and get rid of all non-Muslims in their land. Even when Russian invaded them a second time, Chechen nationalists fought on their own and its said the dreams of a Ichkeria republic died with Maskadov's death.
- The Russians themselves were not feeling it during the first war. This changed following the terrorist attacks and Dagestan's invasion and intensified during the insurgency phase that saw more and more Russians signing up. This also extends to Muslim-majority republic of Dagestan, who had no interest in creating a Islamic state and were comfortable being part of the Russian Federation with the local police and volunteers assisting the federal forces in driving out the Chechen invaders.
- People's Republic of Tyranny: Chechnya under Dzhokhar Dudayev. Though he came to power democratically and professed the destiny of freedom for the Chechens, he abolished the parliament and took direct rule in response to a failed coup. Interestingly, it was an anti-Communist example that was formed just before the Soviet Union's fall.
- Pyrrhic Victory:
- The First Battle of Grozny was this for the Russians. Because of their generals' poorly-thought out plans for a quick invasion of the city (which ended up being drawn out for two months), casualties on their side were extremely heavy and morale was nearly shattered. They eventually took the city only to eventually lose it a year afterwards.
- For the Chechens, the First Chechen War as a whole. They succeeded in gaining their (partial) independence from Russia after the first war, but it came at cost of their country being devastated with thousands of civilian lives lost and practically no way to rebuild, since no one except the Mujhadeen recognized their sovereignty.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Chechen fighters were a very loose coalition of militia that was highly undisciplined, uncoordinated and that only answered orders from their immediate field commander.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Even though he was in the side of the rebels, Aslan Maskhadov is remembered for being a secular Muslim leader that opposed the jihadists, though he was powerless to stop them. Akhmad Kadyrov could arguably count as this, since he was concerned about sectarianism and was willing to grant amnesty to surrendering rebels.
- The Remnant: A low-level insurgency still exists even after the war was formally ended in 2009, though it has grown more and more dormant with every year.
- Renegade Splinter Faction: The Caucasian Emirate was a militant jihadist group that emerged from the former secular Chechen Republic, and whose aim was to get rid of all non-Muslims living in the Caucasus, not just in Chechnya but the surrounding areas of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as Georgia and Armenia. Later on, they would splinter into their own renegade ISIS members that formed the Caucasian Province of the organization.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several young men returned to their homes traumatized and emotionally scarred by the war, with psychiatrists dubbing this case of PSTD as "Chechen syndrome".
- Shocking Defeat Legacy: For Boris Yeltsin, that is. The war was already unpopular from the get go and his reputation did not recover after signing the peace treaty, though that was the only option left at that point.
- Vice City: Grozny was a criminal paradise thanks to Dudayev's inexperienced and poorly-guided policies.
- War Is Hell: Alongside The Yugoslav Wars, this war saw the worst bloodshed and destruction in Europe since World War II and it was characterized by brutality and atrocities from both sides. Just the first war (which lasted a year) saw tens of thousands of civilian deaths alone.
- We ARE Struggling Together: The separatists were highly decentralized during the Second Chechen War, with its many members having their personal agendas. In fact, nationalists and islamists were already fighting among themselves before Russia even invaded.
- The Worf Barrage: The First Battle of Grozny saw the Russians point every cannon and weapon towards the city's direction and indiscriminately bombing the crap out of it. Though the city was taken shortly afterwards, it was considered a pyrrhic victory for federal forces while the separatists would continue the fighting on the mountains and eventually retake the city.
- Wretched Hive: Before the war even began, the Chechen capital of Grozny was a cesspool. Civil services were non-existent, the infrastructure is maladjusted and the main draw was illegal activity and gambling. It became even worse after the war, as it was not only reduced to a ruined carcass, it was now under control of warlords and religious fundamentalists.
Works set in this conflict
- Ant in a Glass Jar, an diary by Polina Zherebtsova, a Chechen survivor who documented her experiences when she was just a little girl and later published it in 2014. Notable for using child-like depictions of the horrors of war. She has been compared to Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic.
- The Search received an remake of the same name in 2014 which follows the same premise but it's set during the Chechen conflict with, replacing the original protagonists (an American soldier and a German boy) with a French NGO worker and a Chechen boy, respectively.