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 before being concluded in 1864 when they defeated the Caucasian Imamate governed by Imam Shamil. 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 states.
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. At firs, he began arming Chechens sympathetic to Moscow using the criminal network that took hold of the urban areas, but then he sent Russian conscripts disguised as Chechens to stage a coup. The attempt failed miserably with Yeltsin being humiliated when the conscripts were exposed in national television by Dudayev. As such, he mobilized the federal troops and formally declared an invasion of Chechenya.
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 note 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 newly independent country, on top of it being unrecognized by no one else in the international community except by fellow pariah state Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. With their infrastructure being dependent on the mafia and criminals smuggling goods into their territory thanks to Dudayev, Chechens began turning to raids and kidnappings across the border which proved very profitable. Foreign nationals were especially valuable for their captors could charge very high ransoms, but very often, those kidnapped were sold into slavery openly in the streets where they would be mistreated by their masters.
A schism took place among Chechens, as many began turning to Wahhabi Islam under al-Qaeda influence which clashed with their traditional Sufi values. Of course, there was more than just religious differences: the Islamists envisioned to "free the Caucasus from the Russian yoke" and establish a Islamic state, while nationalists were interested in just surviving and knew that such aspirations would provoke Russia's wrath once again. They also didn't like the presence of foreigners like Arabs and Afghans co-opting their independence to serve their own personal jihad. Nevertheless, the secular Maskhadov was strong-armed into applying sharia law by the Islamists against his own will and the Chechen people at large, as he had lost control of his men who became warlords.
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, and with the Yeltsin's health ailing, it was time for a new generation to take over. 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.
With the warlords growing 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 the process. 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 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 many 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 (who had defected to the Russians) as the new 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 proper.
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, which was reorganized into the jihadist faction Caucasian Emirate by his successors. 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 Western commentators lamenting 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. The fact that none of the Chechen separatists ever took credit for these bombings note and Litvinenko's death by poisoning in 2006 under mysterious circumstances led to several theories about Russia's involvement in provoking the war. note .
Outbreaks of xenophobia and racism grew as result of the extremist actions: Chechens were regarded in Russia as "bandits" and "terrorists" who were naturally inclined to violence, religious fanaticism and having no morals (nevermind, Chechen civilians were among the biggest casualties) with Islamic terrorists of Russian origin being often labeled "Chechens" even if they were not ethnically such. Beforehand, the kidnappings of foreigners were considered a major blow and serious obstacle for the internation recognition of the breakway republic - something which Maskhadov acknowledged and tried to clamp down to no avail. The Beslan crisis was a turning point for the conflict and a particularly shameful moment for Chechens as the international community reacted with revulsion towards the massacre as one spokesman lamented that "Such a bigger blow could not be dealt upon us... People around the world will think that Chechens are monsters if they could attack children". Since then, Chechens became disillusioned with the cause of independence and have largely become part of Russia of their own volition.
The North Caucasus insurgency continues to this day even after official operations were concluded, but they were an ever-diminishing threat and no longer able to threaten the Federation's territorial integrity like before. It's still very much real problem on a local level in Chechnya as well as Dagestan, though the police forces and local militias are able to handle the insurgent problem. Many Chechens volunteers have joined the Syrian Civil War to fight on the side of rebel jihadists against the Assad regime supported by 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.
Over the last two decades, Chechnya's standard of living has massively improved- life expectancy is six years higher than it was at the turn of the century (and above the Russian average), its GDP PPP per capita has more than tripled over the last fifteen years, and the formerly bombed-out capital of Grozny has been rebuilt◊ as a more or less modern city. Unfortunately for Chechnya itself, it still has many issues. While much richer than at any other time in history, Chechnya is still by far the poorest constituent republic of the Russian Federation (at $6,245 GDP PPP per capita in 2018, it's about on par with mid-tier Sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria or Angola).
Furthermore, the region is still considered very dangerous to visit and live not only because of the low-level insurgency and the repressive regime of President Ramzan Kadyrov (though nowhere near as much as it was under Ichkeria obviously- no open-air slave markets), 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 continue to turn an blind eye to appease it's unruly subject republic in the name of peace or be forced to reassert its authority towards Chechnya once again.
Works that depict/reference 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.
- One episode of Seven Days takes place during this period as Parker and Olga head into Chechnya to rescue a kidnapped test tube baby from a Chechen militia that wants to raise the child to be their future leader. Russian officials grant them access into the region but warn them the bombing campaign is about to step up soon.
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) heavily references the conflict alongside the Syrian Civil War. Rather than Chechnya, the game largely takes place in Urzikstan which is also located in the Caucasus, was invaded by Russia in the 90s and features clashing between secular nationalists and Islamists. Furthermore, Urzikstan's flag closely resembles the Republic of Ichkeria's.