The wars of Chechnya were military conflicts in Chechen territory that followed one another, and it is accepted to call them as the First and Second Chechen War. During the Second Chechen War, Russia officially called the conflict as an antiterrorism operation, even though the real reason for the war was Chechen national ambitions and Russia’s desire to silence them.
The First Chechen War took place between 11 December 1994 and 31 August 1996, while the Second Chechen War happened from 26 August 1999 until May 2000. In different information sources, the end of the Second Chechen War is dated either in 2002, when Russian Armed Forces stopped major operations, or on 15 April 2009, when the antiterrorism operation regime was cancelled in Chechnya.
The First Chechen War started on 11 December 1994, when Russian Armed Forces attacked in Chechnya. By implementing the Armed Forces command plan, Russian army tried to occupy Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, as quick as possible. But it developed in cruel battles from 31 December 1994 until 19 January 1995, when Russian Forces managed to occupy the President’s Palace in the centre of Grozny; battles in the city streets continued until 6 March 1995.
From 26 January 1995, attempts were made to reach peace, but the heavy discussions between the both parties failed and on 5 March 1995 intense warfare resumed in the remaining territory of Chechnya, which was not yet occupied by the Russian Forces. On 23 March, Arguna was occupied and by the end of April 1995 the largest part of Chechen territory was under the control of Russian Armed Forces, however regular attacks by Chechen soldiers continued to happen by using the guerrilla fight tactic.
The battle of Gudermes, which took place on 14 December 1995, is considered as one of the most notable battles of the remaining war period. Approximately 600 Chechen soldiers, under the leadership of field commander Salman Raduyev, attacked the Russian troops who were in the city. After that, several notable hostage crises in Dagestan followed, with whom the Chechens tried to achieve their demands.
21 April 1996 marked an important event of the murder of the President of Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev. Despite the gained achievements against the Chechen forces, Russian army was not able to break their constant resistance.
While warfare was happening in Chechnya, a Chechen soldier group, under the leadership of field commander Shamil Basayev, on 14 June 1995, in Budyonnovsk (Stavropol area) occupied the local hospital and took approximately 1800 people as hostages, demanding Moscow to end the military operations in the Chechen territory. The hostage crisis was resolved by allowing Basayev’s group to retrieve to Chechnya.
In July 1996, the Russian Armed Forces management decided to expand the military operations towards the Chechnya south region, in order to force the Chechen soldiers to surrender. At the same time, the Chechen troops, led by Aslan Maskhadov, were preparing to attack Grozny; the attack started in August 1996. Due to a successfully played out surprise moment, within three hours, the Chechens had occupied the largest part of Grozny, while the federal forces and Chechen soldiers that were loyal to them fled from the city or fortified themselves in the buildings. In the result of the attack, more than 5000 soldiers of federal forces were surrounded in Grozny. On 31 August 1996, the Khasavyurt Accord was signed, it established that the federal forces need to leave Chechnya until 31 December 1996 and also recognized Chechnya’s autonomy; but the issue about Chechnya’s constitutional status was more or less put aside.
The Second Chechen war started with Chechen attacks, led by field commanders Shamil Basayev and Amir Hattab, in Dagestan with a goal to add its territory to Chechnya. In order to control the Chechen Islamists, the Russian Armed Forces were also involved, who had to fight with the Chechen forces suffering losses. The Russian army’s attack in Dagestan and military campaign against it created a wide resonance in Russian society. In September 1999, the Second Chechen war was initiated with bomb explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinanksk and Volgodonsk.
Russian authorities blamed Chechens in the cause of it, but there were many importance nuances, which indicated that the explosions were actually organized by the Russian Federal Security Service.
The second Chechen war actually started on 26 August 1999, when Russian Air Force started to perform large-scale air strikes on Chechnya, thus answering on the Islamist attack in Dagestan. But the full-scale warfare started on 1 October 1999, when the Russian army entered the Chechen territory and by using overpowering force predominance, including large-scale air and artillery attacks, began the occupation of Chechnya. On the same day, President of Russia, Vladimir Putin proclaimed the authority of President of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, and of Parliament of Chechnya as illegitimate and announced that Russia is taking control over Chechnya.
During the first months of the war, Russian Forces delayed Grozny’s occupation to later and concentrated on gradual occupation of the rest of Chechnya. In December 1999, Russia’s attack on Grozny began and with that the third Grozny war started, which official ended on 6 February 2000 (battle with separate Chechen soldier groups in the city continued for the next couple weeks). In May 2000, Moscow announced that the war in Chechnya has ended. A month later, President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, appointed Akhmad Kadyrov (he joined Russian side in 1999) as the leader of the Chechen government. In 2004, after Kadyrov’s death, Alu Alkhanov was appointed as the President of Chechnya. In 2007, Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, became the President.
After the second Chechen war, the conflicts did not end, the Chechen soldiers, who had practically lost against the Russian superiority, continued the guerrilla war against Russian forces and Chechens, who were loyal to the latter. The following period is characterised by the constant Chechen attacks, as well as various hostage crises. The most known of them is the hostage crisis that happened in September 2004, in a school in Beslan (North Ossetia), where, in the result of Russian special forces attack, 334 from approximately 1100 hostages, captured by the Chechen soldiers, lost their lives. On 15 April 2009, The Russian government announced that the antiterrorism operation has ended, but there were still Chechens, who were against Russia, that were hiding in the North Caucasus mountains.
Due to its special geographic location, Chechnya has always been in Russia’s interest range and there have been various military conflicts that happened between Russia and Chechnya in the period of several centuries. The direct causes of the first Chechen war can be found in the existing situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Chechens used the newly developed geopolitical situation to create their own independent state. In August 1991, Chechen politicians created the so called National Congress of the Chechen people and announced its independence from Russia. The new state was named the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Dzhokhar Dudayev was elected President; he was the commander of the 326th Heavy Bomber Aviation Division that was based in the territory of Estonian SSR during the Soviet time. Russia did not recognize the newly founded state, but also did not perform any actions to control it, excluding the fact that a lightly armed squadron of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was set to Grozny and disarmed after its arrival. Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attitude in Russian society was negative regarding any kind of use of armed force. Situation in Russia was not stable and that is why in the nearest time, there were no further military actions implemented against Chechnya.
Dudayev had no influence in Chechnya and in stead of tackling economic and social problems, he was forced to fight for the political influence. In the period until the first war, the situation in Chechnya worsened every day. In the first year of the self-proclaimed Republic, unemployment reached 40%–50% and Chechnya became a nest for organized crime, where different kind of fraud and illegal business, including human trafficking, bloomed. The internal political battles led to the fact that in 1993, Dudayev dismissed the Chechen Parliament and created an authoritarian regime.
In October 1993, Russian power elite decided to start tackling the sensitive Chechnya issue. In April 1994, it was decided to overthrow Dudayev by using a secret operation. Russia created a united Chechen opposition, who had to overthrow Dudayev’s regime in an armed way. In the end of November 1994, these attempts suffered a failure and the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin made a decision to implement military operation against Chechnya.
Also, in the period between the wars, the situation that existed in Chechnya did not encourage the state’s strengthening. The large division between the secular Chechen nationalists that were represented by the President of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, and the Islamists that were in the majority created a large instability in the self-proclaimed state. The organized potential of Islam that united Chechens during the first Chechen war, split many clans during the peace time, the states most influential forces were divided in many fractions. Crime was very high in Chechnya, field commanders did not obey Maskhadov, who, because of power issues, was not able to implement the necessary events in social, economic and foreign policy areas; many of the commanders were involved in the criminal business activities. In the end of 1998, Maskhadov officially had lost any authority, even though he tried to unite the influential Chechen commanders by using different methods, and the state remained divided.
The direct causes of the second Chechen war were attacks led by Chechen field commanders Shamil Basayev and Amir Hattab in Dagestan, as well as September 1999 bomb explosions in apartment building in Russia’s largest cities, in the result of which, approximately 300 people lost their lives. Russia blames Chechens in the implementation of the act of terrorism, but at the same time, several suspicious circumstances indicated on the possibility that the bomb explosions were actually organized by the Russian Federal Security Service, with the goal to dispose Russian society against the Chechens and gain their support to start another war. The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, successfully used the support of the shocked and frightened society to expand the new military campaign, this time planning to fully occupy Chechnya. By starting the second Chechnya war, Putin gained the increase of his popularity in the Russian society.
The 50 000–70 000 strong Russian joint task force composed of various units of the Russian Armed Forces’ Land Forces, Airborne Troops, Air Forces and Naval Infantry, as well as of units of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs took part in the first Chechen war. The fact that naval infantrymen of the Northern Fleet and Pacific Fleet were involved in the warfare to certain extent proves that Russians had serious problems with manning the units. Meeting difficulties in finding combat ready units, the supreme command of the Russian Armed Forces was forced to find army units for the warfare all over Russia. In its turn the Chechen Republic had approximately 6000 soldiers.
The number of Russian troops involved in the second Chechen war was considerably larger – approximately 100 000 soldiers, which was about 10 times more than Chechens. During the conflict, many Chechen commanders, who until the last moment were strict Russian opponents joined the Russian side. For example, Dzhabrail Yamadayev, who, after joining the Russian side, commanded battalion Vostok that was established by the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
Both Chechen wars were ones of the bloodiest post-Soviet conflicts. The cruel warfare and the number of war crimes committed by both sides, especially the Russian Armed Forces, led to a large number of refugees and losses among the civilian population. It is estimated that due to the first Chechen war, approximately 500 000 people left as refugees. For example, in August 1996, from Grozny’s population of 400 000, there were only 70 000 citizens left. The number of civilians that lost their lives was around 40 000. Many Chechen cities and villages were completely destroyed. In the academic literature, Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, is frequently compared to Dresden in 1945.
Both wars, especially the first one, were crucial to the Russian Armed Forces, concerning the soldiers that were lost. It is estimated that in the result of the first Chechen war, Russia lost around 7500 soldiers, but in the second war approximately 4500 soldiers. In both wars, Chechen troops lost far less fighters than Russia; in the first Chechen war there were 4000 fatalities, but in the Second Chechen War around 3000 fatalities.
The first Chechen war ended with an actual Russian defeat, which had extremely negative consequences on the Russian society’s attitude towards the state policy and towards Russian Armed Forces as such. This conflict damaged the Armed Forces prestige. The mandatory military service became highly unpopular, it was proved by the fact that the number of draftees in 2000, who escaped the mandatory service, increased by 50%. The soldiers involved in the Chechen war, were poorly equipped and they frequently suffered in battles because of incompetence of their commanders. This also led to large number of casualties. Alcohol abuse was also very popular. Frequently, the Russian commanders made decisions, while being under the influence of alcohol and which had respective consequences on the course of the warfare. The morale of the soldiers was low, but those, who in the result of the warfare became disabled, became society’s outcasts and received almost no help from the state. Similarly, as after the Afghanistan war, between the Chechen war veterans there were seen various psychological problems that led towards alcoholism and drug addiction. These problems remained also after the second Chechen war, but despite that fact the outcome of it was successful for Russia.
The second Chechen war especially stood out with the large number of war crimes. The Russian Armed Forces tactic that expressed as large-scale artillery and air attacks on the populated areas that might or might not have Chechen soldiers, was widely used during the first Chechen war, but in the second Chechen war it was already the main combat tactic in order to escape the difficult street battles that would also take a huge loss of the live force (at the cost of civilian lives). In many situations, the artillery and missile attacks were directed at civil aims on purpose, acknowledging that mainly will suffer civilians. For example, on 21 October 1999, a missile that was shot from the operationally tactical missile complex Tochka, hit the market square in Grozny and killed more than 140 civilians. Every city or village, citizens of which gave any kind of help to the Chechen soldiers, was simply destroyed. It is even unnecessary to note that such type of warfare only encouraged new people to join the Chechen side.
During the both wars and also after the second Chechen war, there were filtration camps founded by Russia, in which the refugees were checked in order to find Chechen soldiers, who were trying to blend with the refugees. The existence and activity of such camps was strongly against the universal norms of human rights, the testing methods included physical and mental influence as well as the keeping of the investigated people in inhuman conditions.
After the active phase of the conflict, antiguerrilla operations were extremely brutal and very frequently completely innocent people were killed, on the basis of suspicion or simply for revenge due to the successful attacks of the Chechen soldiers. Especially stood out the security service founded by Akhmad Kadyrov, the men there were called Kadyrovtsy. This paramilitary unit that consisted of 4000 men, was the second largest right after the Russian Armed Forces contingent. It fought against Chechen rebels by using brutal methods, for example, frequently kidnapping people and later shooting them. Such type of terror was used not only against the ones involved with Chechen soldiers, but also against people, who were not involved with the Chechen resistance movement.
It only strengthened the guerrilla movement against Russia. Young men frequently joined the guerrilla groups to not be killed during the antiterrorism operations or in order to get revenge for their lost friends and family members; blood revenge in Chechnya is a strong part of the local citizen culture.
After the murders of the essential Chechen field commanders, the Chechen national resistance movement gradually weakened. The goal of resistance changed between the remaining soldiers after jihadism ideas discharged; it was motivated with religious fanaticism and no longer with nationalism.
In 2007, the leader of Chechen resistance, Dokka Umarov, announced the foundation of the Caucasus Emirate, abandoning the idea of a national Chechnya. The implementation of the acts of terror went alongside with the religious fanaticism, it was not a common feature of Chechens before the second Chechen war, especially the attacks of women suicide-bombers (they were also called the black widows, as mostly the suicide-bombers were the wives of the dead Chechen soldiers), which was something completely new.
In July 2006, the acts of terrorism continued, even after the death of the Chechen field commander, Shamil Basayev, who was pretty fighting-minded. The most notable of them was the explosion in Moscow’s metro in 2010, in the result of which 27 people lost their lives, as well as the explosion organised by the terrorist suicide-bomber in the Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011, where 37 people were killed. During the last couple years, in Chechnya and also in other Caucasus republics, the terrorist group Daesh has gained a huge influence, its supporters also work in the North Caucasus region.
Nowadays, Chechnya is a relatively peaceful region, but it is still considered to be a ticking time bomb. Due to the high level of unemployment, corruption and other similar factors that raise big dissatisfaction between the local citizens, the potential separatism tendencies are high in the whole North Caucasus. The stability of the current Chechnya regime, with Ramzan Kadyrov as the leader, is mainly dependent from the resources received from Moscow. In the period between 2008 and 2012, Russia has given Chechnya financial resources in the extent of at least 120 billion USD. The rich Chechen funding can be seen in the architecture of the buildings in the modern Grozny’s centre that consists of several modern skyscrapers, as well as the mosque that was called after Akhmad Kadyrov. Ironically, Russian ruling elite still had to give Chechnya a considerable autonomy in order to keep its control over it, but in the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov never hesitated to show his loyalty to Vladimir Putin.
Cīrihers, Kristofs. Postpadomju kari. Nemieri, etniskie konflikti un valstiskums Kaukāzā. Rīga, Zvaigzne ABC, 2007.
Galleoti, Mark. Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994–2009. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014.
Politkovskaya, Anna. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya. Chichago, Chichago University Press, 2003.
Used internet sources:
Chechen Wars 1994 & 1999;
First Chechnya War - 1994-1996;
Russian Strategy in the Chechnya Wars;
Second Chechnya War - 1999-2006;
The Chechen Campaign;
Россия — Чечня: цепь ошибок и преступлений;