RT: In 1996, Russia lost a war against a then breakaway region of its own country. The campaign, that lasted for 20 months, produced a devastating number of casualties on both sides and completely devastated the rebellious republic which surprised everybody by forcing Moscow to capitulate.
Russia’s defeat looked sensational: Chechnya’s population, economy, and military potential were only a fraction of the central state’s resources, and yet a coalition of Chechen warlords managed to secure a position that allowed them to dictate their will to a nuclear superpower for years to come. Some even argued that it was the end of Russia’s military and political strength. One of the most detailed books on the Chechen War published in the West at the time had quite a telling title, ‘Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power’.
In the end, no such prophecies came true, but Russia’s weakness came as a shock to everyone even though it was obvious that the newly emerged country was shaken badly by the recent dissolution of the USSR. Nonetheless, if we look closely at how the war progressed, it will become clear why Moscow’s defeat was to be expected and almost inevitable.
When power was up for grabs
Even though Chechnya became part of Russia back in the 19th century, it was never a quiet place. Riots and uprisings took place every now and then, mostly on religious grounds, as time went by. In the mid-20th century, during World War II, Stalin tried to solve the problem of the restive mountainous region the way he preferred – by deporting both Chechens and the Ingush people to Central Asia.
The mass exile had catastrophic consequences. Thousands died in transit and upon arrival due to harsh conditions. Only in 1957 were its victims finally allowed to return home, following the Georgian dictator’s death. it was a terrible collective trauma the Chechens never quite recovered from.
In the 1980s, Chechnya remained one of the USSR’s less developed republics. For a long time, it had been important as a supplier of oil, but the resources began running low. Nonetheless, it was home to some considerable processing and transportation infrastructure, and the USSR kept financing it as part of its overall industrialization program.
The government mostly invested in Grozny and the northern regions, which is where the majority of Russians working in the industry lived. Chechens, on the other hand, resided mostly in rural areas in the south, impeded by a language barrier and some repressive policies that were still in place in the republic. Thus, by the mid-1980s, Chechnya already had a large number of undereducated and underprivileged young people with no prospects for a better future.
The Soviet Union invested not only in the industrial development of its provinces, but also in education and training programs for the local workforce in science, administration, education, and economics. The idea was to nurture and foster local leadership circles the Soviet state could rely on. This is where the communist ideologists fell into a trap they did not foresee. In the majority of provinces, the local establishment chose to stay loyal to their ethnic roots and was not eager to abandon them for the sake of the joint Soviet project.
One of the paradoxes of the USSR was that it inadvertently empowered those people who brought about its demise by implementing its egalitarian ideas of equal rights and opportunities for all. In reality, this policy only increased the desire and ability in each republic to claim sovereignty when the opportunity presented itself. By the end of the 1980s, all of the Union’s republics were pretty much on a breakaway course. The overall tendency was only fueled by the prolonged economic crisis and dwindling support for the socialist ideology.
Chechnya was no exception. It all had started quite innocently when people united forming historical, ethnographic, cultural, and environmental societies and groups. Politics made its way onto their agenda much later. Such outfits grew and evolved until they were able to organize massive demonstrations.
The movement soon found its leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a second-tier writer nurtured by the Soviet state which had given him a good education and had helped him build a successful career in publishing. Yandarbiyev re-emerged in the 1990s as a visionary of an Islam-flavored independent Chechnya. The situation was spiraling out of control as the central government was losing its grip.
The government-appointed regional head at the time, Doku Zavgayev, did not see clearly what was going on in the republic. He believed that everything on the political scene was defined and decided in Moscow. Meanwhile, Yandarbiyev was riding a wave of popular support – he was a brilliant speaker, and nationalism appealed to the masses. It was his idea to establish a Congress of Chechen nationalists and to declare the republic’s independence.
The All-National Congress of the Chechen People was indeed established and convened for the first time in Grozny in November 1990. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the only Soviet general of Chechen origin, made his first public appearance at that meeting. Like Yandarbiyev, Dudayev was a great speaker with serious leadership skills and a nationalist who wanted to build a sovereign Chechen state.
The Chechen economy was completely depended on Russia, but the radical nationalists didn’t put much thought into what the future would look like. Dudayev’s promises of drinking camel milk from taps of gold were naïve at best, but he believed in his own stories.
In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, Dudayev secured Yandarbiyev’s support and declared independence. Soon, he won the elections, becoming the first president of Chechnya. The elections were a farce, as Dudayev was the only well-known candidate running for office and his followers totally controlled the voting process. He immediately proceeded to organize his own armed forces. The demoralized Soviet police and KGB put up no resistance, and Dudayev started capturing the huge former Soviet Army arsenals, getting hold of over 40,000 small arms.
Soon, Dudayev destroyed all the government structures that refused to pledge their loyalty to him, from the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Soviet (a lawmaking body) to the police. His power was limited only by the warlords, who were entering the Chechen political stage for the first time. Chechnya had plenty of strong-minded people who began forming their own private armies.
Shamil Basayev was the most notorious of them. In the autumn of 1991, he carried out a terrorist attack, hijacking a Russian civil aircraft. He flew it to Turkey and demanded to have a press conference in lieu of a ransom. Ruslan Gelayev was another ill-famed warlord. Before the collapse of the USSR, both Basayev and Gelayev were nobodies, but the times of change brought them to the forefront of Chechen politics.
Both commanded armed groups several hundred people strong, with weapons they had acquired in various hot spots of the former USSR where, in 1992 to 1993, they fought as soldiers of fortune of a sort. They were the two most well-known leaders. Most others commanded a few dozen people or even fewer – the ‘natives’, as they were called – and committed various crimes for money. Dudayev himself funded his operations through an oil smuggling scheme, bribing Russian officials on a scale Al Capone couldn’t even dream of.
The Russians living in Chechnya were increasingly targeted by robbers, and many were forced to leave. Mainly they were industry specialists who came to Chechnya back in the Soviet days. Wealthy by local standards, they had no clan ties crucial to the Chechen social structure, so they were easy prey for bandits. The scale of violence against Russians bordered on ethnic cleansing: an estimated 2,000 people were killed, and many fled. For a time, bank fraud, forgery, Wild West-style robberies of passing trains and so on, were rampant. In addition, Dudayev and his circle were simply appropriating social welfare payments coming from Moscow.
Still, Dudayev was only the first among equals. He had considerable clout among the warlords, but his authority was not indisputable. If other ‘field commanders’, as they were called in Russia, disagreed with him, they could easily sever ties with their boss. This limited Dudayev’s negotiating capacity during his talks with the Kremlin. In theory, Moscow could strike a deal with him, but that was not the case with the rest: Yandarbiyev was obsessed with independent Chechnya and Islam, while other warlords would ignore any agreement they did not like. In any case, Dudayev’s own ambitions were enough for any talks to break down.
Some Chechens didn’t approve of state-building with the local mafia at the helm. But a mere attempt to organize a big demonstration in Grozny in 1993 ended with Dudayev’s fighters crushing it and razing the Grozny police department to the ground, killing over 50 people in a day.
After that massacre, the anti-Dudayev opposition organized its own militia in northern Chechnya, which had been traditionally more loyal to Russia. The opposition forces, which included the warlords who for various reasons had broken away from Dudayev, were led by Umar Avturkhanov, a former Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs official. Dudayev controlled Grozny and southern mountainous regions, while the opposition controlled the northern villages and towns around the regional centre.
Moscow unofficially supported the opposition and Yeltsin’s administration favored dealing with Dudayev’s fighters, but Russia was sliding into chaos and Chechnya was simply not a priority. That same year, 1993, Yeltsin was fighting his own parliament: with tanks firing in the streets of the capital, Chechnya just didn’t register as that big of a problem. But when Yeltsin consolidated his power, he started thinking about what to do with the mutinous republic.
The most straightforward option was to provide the opposition with support in the form of money, arms, and advisors. But the best Avturkhanov’s fighters could do was maintain the status quo. Dudayev’s troops were promised guns, prestige, and an opportunity to get rich off the criminal schemes. All Avturkhanov could promise was to restore the legal economy when they won, and a potential chance that the retired would get their benefits back and universities would reopen. So the majority of go-getters naturally took Dudayev’s side, while the opposition was comprised of either those with a strong moral code or the field commanders who broke away from Dudayev and couldn’t rejoin him for various reasons.
The talks between Russian officials and the rebel leaders about the future status of Chechnya bore no fruit. Moscow was ready to make major concessions, granting Chechnya as much autonomy as possible, but adamant about keeping it as part of Russia at least nominally. And that was exactly what Dudayev couldn’t agree to under any circumstances. He was too heavily invested in the idea of Chechnya’s happy independent future. He personally believed in it and was surrounded with even more radical supporters.
In autumn 1994, Moscow came up with a plan to conduct a covert op against Dudayev. The FSK – the Federal Counterintelligence Service (ex-KGB, soon-to-be FSB) – recruited 80 Russian army officers to man tanks that were supposed to support the opposition infantry in its push against Grozny.
The operation was carried out on November 26 and ended in a complete failure. With no experience when it came to planning army offensives, the FSK came up with what boiled down to tanks entering the city posing as part of the opposition forces. The intelligence was poor, and there was no coordination training. Soon after the troops entered the city and the fighting started, the opposition infantry ran. Only a few units stayed, only to meet a horrible end.
But the worst part was that the tanks were lost – destroyed with grenade launchers – and some 20 tank crew members got captured. After that, there was no point in pretending to be uninvolved any more. At the Security Council meeting in Moscow that followed, Yeltsin made a hasty and emotional decision to launch a military campaign against Chechnya.
Thunder & fury
The state of the Russian army at the beginning of the war in Chechnya can be safely described as disastrous. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Armed Forces, combat training in many units had essentially come to a standstill. Supplies were extremely scarce and often not sufficient for physical survival. The already miserable wages were sometimes delayed for as long as six months, so the officers had to turn their units into construction or farming crews. Naturally, all of this was detrimental to the actual military training, and though there were still units where officers tried to sustain a high level of combat effectiveness, they did so only through sheer enthusiasm and patriotism. On top of that, most units had to deal with outdated equipment.
Overall, the morale of the troops was extremely low. For the most part, only units renowned for their strong traditions, namely airborne troops and special forces, were still capable of putting up a good fight. Even the KGB’s (the FSK at that point) elite units fell on hard times. The counter-terrorist Alpha Group was seen as insufficiently loyal to Yeltsin, while Vimpel, a special forces sabotage unit, was effectively disbanded due to its unwillingness to participate in the brief civil war between the president and the parliament in 1993.
All these problems were exacerbated by inept military planning. Yeltsin sought to end the campaign as quickly as possible, no matter the cost. As a result, the army was given very little time to plan, gather intelligence, and prepare troops for the operation. The offensive in Chechnya was organized haphazardly. The campaign was, in fact, a repeat of the failed November operation, except on a much larger scale. Even the operation’s commander was changed after the actual fighting had already commenced. General Anatoly Kvashnin, who ended up leading Russian troops during the Battle of Grozny, was appointed to this position only a few days before the assault.
The operation started on December 11, 1994. From the very beginning, troops encountered fierce resistance from civilians. The soldiers were not prepared to use weapons against them and, as a result, they began to take their first casualties before they even set foot in Chechnya, in the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Mobs tried to set vehicles on fire or kidnap soldiers separated from their squads. Technically, the first soldier to die, 19-year-old Vitaly Maslennikov, was killed outside Chechnya, in Ingushetia.
In Chechnya, troops began to engage in increasingly intense fighting, as columns converged in Grozny. That was where the insurgents intended to make a stand as well. Up to 10,000 of Dudayev’s fighters – his personal guard, major warlords’ units, and a whole lot of ‘natives’ – were defending the city. Dudayev’s deputy, Aslan Maskhadov, who was in charge of defense, put together a rather sensible plan that relied on small mobile groups armed with anti-tank grenade launchers. Although he could not have known it at that moment, the Chechen plan proved very effective against the tactics chosen by General Kvashnin.
Russian officers were instructed not to enter backyards and not to open fire unless their lives were in danger. Their goal was just to hold the city center. As a result, the offensive of December 31, 1994 to January 1, 1995 turned into a chaotic bloodbath. After Russian troops entered Grozny, the columns came under fire from Chechen flying squads.
Although the inept initial plan was quickly discarded by almost all tactical commanders, by the time it became clear how grave the situation had become, some units had already advanced deep into Grozny and were encircled. The units that had the worst of it were the 131st Maikop Brigade, which drove almost all the way through Grozny and was ambushed at the railway station, and the 81st Samara Regiment, which was trapped near the ‘Presidential Palace’ – the former Communist Party headquarters, where the Chechen command was located.
January 1 was marked by frantic fighting in the streets in an attempt to rescue the trapped troops. But the Russian army lacked personnel trained for street fighting. Besides, too many mistakes had been made the day before. As a result, the Samara Regiment took heavy losses during the battle, with its commander and chief of staff wounded. As for the Maikop Brigade, they were hit hard and routed at the railway station. Almost all of their vehicles were destroyed, while Brigade Commander Colonel Savin was wounded several times and eventually killed in close combat.
But there was one unit that stood out from the rest – that commanded by General Lev Rokhlin. Although his group was the smallest, Rokhlin ignored the original plan from the get-go and opted for classic assault tactics instead. His troops managed to fight their way deep into the city, gain a foothold there, and avoid getting annihilated. So, after the first attacks failed, Rokhlin was put in charge of most of the troops still fighting in Grozny.
In addition, reinforcements arrived in Grozny – joint units consisting of marines, motorized rifle troops, and a fresh, well-trained and well-armed airborne regiment. With renewed zeal, Russian forces stormed the city, sweeping away the resistance with fire. The problems hadn’t been solved, but now commanders could at least improvise, adapting tactics to the battle conditions, and use heavy weaponry.
After two weeks of heavy fighting, the Russians encircled the center of Grozny from three sides and drove the insurgents into the southern part of the city. However, the city was not fully cleared of their presence until the end of February 1995. It was a proverbial Pyrrhic victory: almost 1,500 Russian soldiers had been killed since December, mostly in and around Grozny. The number of casualties among militants and civilians, many of whom had been taken by surprise by fierce street fighting, remains unknown. How many civilians perished during the battle for Grozny remains a matter of speculation, but based on the number of bodies found later, one can put the death toll at around 1,000.
Before the war, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said that the Chechen capital could be captured “in a few hours with a single airborne regiment” – a phrase still used in Russia to illustrate overconfidence and incompetence.
However, the war did not end with the battle for Grozny. In the spring of 1995, the conflict spilled over into the plains and foothills of central Chechnya. Due to lack of equipment and training, Russian troops could not act in a precise and discreet manner. The Chechen militants, on the other hand, were able to blend in with the population and tried to make civilians become targets of Russian attacks: every unintended casualty earned them new recruits.
As a result, the populace suffered enormously: the militants saw them as a tool, while the Russian soldiers suspected treachery from every corner. This kind of paranoia led to a tragic episode that shook the village of Samashki in western Chechnya in the spring of 1995. The Russian troops spent a long time trying to persuade the village elders to surrender their weapons, while the elders insisted there were no separatists hiding in the village.
When they realized the elders would not budge, the troops launched a military operation and stormed the village. After a tank exploded on a mine and twelve Russians were killed, the enraged soldiers combed the village, firing at anything that moved. The operation ended with dozens of civilians and militants killed, and it was often impossible to distinguish one from the other: a common tactic used by the terrorists was to drop their weapons and pose as peaceful farmers caught in the crossfire.
Over the course of that spring, separatist resistance in the Chechen flatlands was quelled, and the fighting shifted to the mountainous areas in the south. Dudayev’s units were on the verge of defeat: they had lost almost all their heavy weapons, suffered severe losses, and retained control over just a handful of areas in the mountains. Out of desperation, they tried to blackmail the Russians with the lives of their prisoners: Ruslan Gelayev executed the soldiers he had captured, but when his ultimatum to stop the bombing was not met, the militants themselves believed that their situation was hopeless.
What came in June, however, changed the course of the war dramatically.
Time of terror
Shamil Basayev, the strongest of the independent field commanders, was the mastermind behind the plan that allowed Dudayev to continue the war. Basayev devised a complex plan that involved taking hostages. He assembled a force of nearly 200 men armed to look like an infantry battalion, loaded them into several trucks disguised as army vehicles, and on June 14 departed for the Stavropol region in Russia’s south.
The theater of operations was very poorly contained. At one of the police checkpoints along the road, Basayev said that the convoy was transporting the bodies of dead Russian soldiers from Chechnya. The convoy was accompanied by a vehicle painted to look like a police car, and the fighter sitting in it had been an actual policeman before the war, so the convoy was allowed through without inspection. Most likely, the terrorists were planning to seize an airport in Mineralnye Vody, a popular tourist resort: in the summer, it was full of people.
However, the convoy was detained near the town of Budyonnovsk – the traffic police officers there were not convinced by the story about the dead soldiers’ bodies. Basayev agreed to go to Budyonnovsk to provide ‘explanations’. There, his men first murdered the overly vigilant policemen and then started a massacre in the city streets. Basayev’s group marched through Budyonnovsk, shooting everyone in sight and taking hostages at random. The local police fought back desperately, but could not stand against two hundred terrorists. The people wounded in the indiscriminate gunfire were taken to the local hospital. Medical personnel from all over town and the relatives of the victims hurried there.
In a tragic turn of events, it was the same hospital that Basayev captured a couple of hours later, taking more than a thousand people hostage. From the hospital, he communicated his demand for journalists to be brought outside the building. When the reporters didn’t arrive, he shot several more people. Following this, Basayev was given the media coverage he wished for, and issued his demands to the Russian government.
The crisis headquarters for the rescue of the hostages consisted of two ministers and the head of the FSK. Not a single anti-terrorism specialist was involved. The officers of the Alpha Group (a special forces unit specializing in counter-terrorism) were given explicit orders to get inside the hospital at any cost. They led the assault and even reached the windows of the first floor of the hospital. However, the corridors and the wards were packed with hostages, whom the terrorists used as human shields. The Alpha commanders had to abort the operation in order to avoid a massacre. That broke the spirit of the people in charge of the crisis and, without even trying to consider alternative ways of rescuing the people, they went from one extreme to the other: now, all of the terrorists’ demands were to be met unconditionally.
Negotiations followed, and they involved Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and a number of human rights activists. As a result, the militants were given safe passage back to Chechnya, along with a number of hostages that volunteered to travel as part of the convoy. Ultimately, Basayev was able to withdraw almost his entire unit (with the exception of two dozen terrorists killed by police officers and Alpha snipers). Most importantly, the Russian authorities agreed to lengthy negotiations with the political leaders of the separatists. Basayev returned to Chechnya triumphant. In total, his men killed about 130 people in Budyonnovsk.
The negotiations were held from the latter half of June to October 1995, with a poorly observed truce in place. Although officials representing the Russian authorities and armed forces (including the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, General Anatoly Romanov) and representatives of the Chechen militants (especially Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet army officer who knew how to talk to the media) were engaged in continuous negotiations, the best they could agree on were prisoner exchanges.
During this period, random skirmishes broke out between the two sides. The Chechens mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare: ambushes, roadside bombings, and surprise attacks on checkpoints and garrisons. There was one simple tactic repeatedly used by the terrorists: a small unit fired at a checkpoint to get the soldiers to call for reinforcements. The convoy sent to help would be the real target: the Russian military used predictable routes to transport equipment, so the Chechens set ambushes. After attacking and damaging the convoy, the militants would retreat from the battlefield. Generally, there were few casualties in any given battle, but such skirmishes were frequent, and sometimes the terrorists delivered crippling blows to the Russian military.
On October 6, a car carrying General Romanov was attacked and blown up in a road tunnel in Grozny. The general survived the attack, but to this day he remains paralyzed, unable to walk and talk. After the attack, hostilities resumed, but the battles were chaotic and unsuccessful. Amongst Russians, the war in Chechnya was highly unpopular. Adding fuel to the fire was Yeltsin’s habit of announcing ceasefires whenever he considered it politically expedient – despite the fact that these ceasefires were rarely observed.
Meanwhile, Chechnya remained in a state of permanent turmoil. The republic tried to rebuild its infrastructure, but the warlords quickly discovered a new business – kidnapping people and selling them as slaves or demanding ransom. For example, Akhmed Zakayev, who now lives in Western Europe, was reported by his comrades-in-arms to have run an entire private concentration camp where he kept kidnapped Russian specialists and ‘leased’ them out for work.
Furthermore, Dudayev’s men were prone to spy mania. People from the DGB (Dudayev’s version of the KGB) once detained a group of social activists from Ukraine. They were never seen again.
An entire kidnapping industry was developing in Chechnya, and anyone could go missing while traveling on forest roads or in the mountains.
In January 1996, another major hostage crisis happened, this time orchestrated by Salman Raduyev. Also a Chechen warlord, Raduyev was jealous of Basayev’s notoriety, but lacked his talents as a tactician. He prepared an assault on a military airfield in the city of Kizlyar, Dagestan, but the attack failed. Refusing to give up that easily, the terrorist seized the city hospital, copying Basayev. The situation was especially traumatic for the pregnant women in the maternity ward: the militants had them taken to the same room as all other hostages – including the women about to give birth. With threats, Raduyev was able to get buses and safe passage to Chechnya.
This time, the Russians organized a pursuit, and Raduyev’s unit was eventually surrounded in the village of Pervomayskoye, near the border with Chechnya. Following a poorly-planned operation, some of the hostages were killed and Raduyev’s unit suffered very heavy losses, but the warlord himself got away.
The losses sustained during the attack on Kizlyar forced the Chechens to give up mass hostage-taking for a while. Another important thing was that this time, Raduyev’s men attacked a town in Dagestan. While the people of Dagestan previously sympathized with the Chechens, the attack disillusioned many residents of the neighboring republic.
A rushed ending
The war was growing more and more chaotic. The Russian Joint Group of Forces was too small to maintain any real control over Chechnya, and the Chechen loyalists were too weak to have the task entrusted to them. As a result, the Russian military and the dissident fighters went in circles: the army cleared one village after another, and later, after they left, the separatists occupied these same villages again.
The troops lived in horrible conditions. “Our everyday reality, described in a few words: nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep and nothing to sleep on,” lamented a sniper of the 245th Motor Rifle Division. Both sides would occasionally deal painful blows to one another: Chechen ambushes and land mines would take the lives of Russian troops, after which artillery fire and infantry raids with armored vehicles would ‘restore the balance’.
In April, the Russians managed to kill Dzhokhar Dudayev with an airstrike – his location was tracked using a telephone call. Dudayev’s death meant little, however: the militants had almost no chain of command (in the sense a European army would), and there were multiple candidates ready to replace him.
That same spring, the Chechen fighters ambushed a convoy of the Russian 245th Motor Rifle Division and led a bloody attack on Grozny. In the meantime, the Russians captured the village of Bamut in western Chechnya, hitherto inaccessible to the military, and defeated a guerrilla unit in the village of Goyskoye, where the militants had been holding a group of kidnapped people sold into slavery.
In a word, the battles were fierce, bloody, and led to little or no progress. The Chechen Republic was rapidly falling apart: villages fought over time and time again ended up in ruins, Soviet industrial behemoths lay in shambles, and even the once mighty system of oil refineries and pipelines had been reduced to naught. Only the Baku-Novorossiysk oil pipeline remained more or less intact: it was too valuable to be sacrificed.
Both sides suffered heavy losses. However, there was a fundamental difference in how society perceived the mass casualties. In Chechnya, advocates for peace could not raise their voices for fear of being executed as traitors – in fact, the terrorists would brag about murdering the ‘collaborators’. In Russia, the war was deeply unpopular, and it hurt the ratings of President Yeltsin, who was planning to seek re-election in 1996.
That is why, in 1996, the Russian government took a series of political steps. In May, Yeltsin had a face-to-face meeting with Dudayev’s successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. He was an ultranationalist, more radical than even Dudayev, and a religious fanatic to boot – there was very little hope of reaching an agreement with him. However, Yeltsin was in desperate need of some tangible evidence that the war was ending, while Yandarbiyev wished to appear as the leader of a recognized state.
Hence, the meeting in the Kremlin was nothing but a theatrical performance with zero substance – nobody was expected to observe the ceasefire agreement signed there. In fact, Yeltsin kept the Chechen delegation in Moscow for a couple of days as hostages of sorts, while he flew to Chechnya and met with soldiers to announce the end of the war.
Meanwhile, the Chechens were preparing the final act of this bloody drama.
On August 6, large groups of Chechen fighters entered Grozny, Argun, and Gudermes, clashing with Russian troops.
Some of the worst fighting took place in the regional centre. Russian troops and units of the Interior Ministry were stationed in the city as a network of small garrisons, and now most of them were under siege. The Chechen militants employed their usual tactic: assaulting the outpost with heavy fire, and then ambushing the troops sent to the rescue.
Chechens previously identified as Russia sympathizers were mercilessly executed. Captured policemen were killed in the most brutal ways – paying the ultimate price for their loyalty to Russia. Moscow’s soldiers also suffered serious losses. However, the militants quickly got bogged down in the fighting. After recovering from the initial shock, the Russian command went on the counter-offensive, with assault teams marching through Grozny once again. The militants had little chance of winning in direct combat, and the fire of heavy weapons gradually wore them down.
On August 15, 1996, one of Russia’s most prominent political leaders, Alexander Lebed, arrived in Chechnya for negotiations. Lebed was popular, he placed third in the first round of the 1996 Russian presidential election and helped Boris Yeltsin beat the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, in the runoff election by endorsing him and then taking up the post of secretary of the Security Council in his administration.
Now, Lebed had to broker a peace deal and end the war no matter what it took. The fighting was still underway in Grozny, and Russian troops were still desperately trying to exhaust the enemy, but this course of action wasn’t leading Russia anywhere. On August 31, Lebed and Maskhadov drafted and signed the Khasavyurt Accord in Khasavyurt, Dagestan (a republic in the Caucasus east of Chechnya). The accord signified Russia’s de facto capitulation in this war. Moscow effectively agreed to withdraw the troops from Chechnya and to suspend any decision-making on the status of the republic until 2001.
The problem with the Khasavyurt Accord was that it didn’t solve any of the problems that had caused the war. All it did was put the conflict on hold, giving the conflicting parties a break, nothing more.
However, at the time, Lebed was quite sure that this was what he was supposed to deliver and that it was what the entire country longed for: an end to the prolonged bloody war during an economic crisis so deep it was worse than the Great Depression.
As ethnic groups, Russians and Chechens didn’t feel they had much in common, so most Russians felt at the time they’d rather let the Chechens have it their way and move on. It wasn’t because the Russian Army was defeated in the war – it wasn’t. It did suffer great losses, but they were comparable to the losses of the enemy: about 5,000 troops were killed on each side during the 20 months of action. The loss of life among the civilian population was much higher. There are no reliable records, but most estimates agree on a total number of about twenty to thirty thousand people, both Chechens and Russians. Russian society wished for the unending trauma to finally stop more than anything, with very little exception.
At that time, publicly saying that the right thing to do was to win the war, even if it meant more casualties, would have been effectively equal to committing political suicide.
The mood was very different among the Chechen commanders, who had just scored a major victory. They didn’t have any longing for a peaceful life and were in fact good for nothing except commanding a force that consisted of armed gangs. The republic’s economy was ruined, but that didn’t bother them at all. Prominent field commanders, such as Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev, were quick to issue statements that they were not going to stop and would continue to disrupt peace in other republics of the Caucasus.
The ideology was supplied by radical groups from the Middle East that had been infiltrating the region, including Al-Qaeda, which was yet to reach its peak of notoriety. Jihadi leaders from the Arab world, such as Saudi-born Emir Khattab (Samir Saleh Abdullah Al Suwailim), were quick to take advantage of the situation and use Chechnya as a base to recruit and train terrorists from all over the Caucasus. A series of terrorist attacks on Russian soil was soon to follow. Those field commanders who were less concerned with ideology went on to kidnap people for ransom, trade in illegal drugs, and so on.
One of the gruesome symbols of that war was a train-mounted facility with unidentified remains of the victims of the conflict: mostly civilians and some Russian soldiers. A team of Russian military forensic pathologists was working on the remains until, in July 1999, two junior team members were kidnapped for ransom. The rest of the experts left Chechnya. In 2000, when Russian troops re-entered Grozny, the train was still parked where it had been left, with a total of 154 decomposed bodies.
Much of the narrative about the First Chechen War attempts to explain what happened through the prism of it being the workings of some corrupt politicians making money off the people’s suffering or the stubbornness of some power-hungry Russian political and military leaders who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. The reality, however, was different.
The Russian government simply failed to come up with any coherent strategy for Chechnya. Instead, it kept producing one short-lived plan after another, and none of them lasted longer than a few months. All Yeltsin’s administration attempted to do was to produce a quick solution and move on. Between 1993 and 1996, Moscow tried all sorts of options. It held negotiations, supported local opposition, sanctioned a covert military operation, sent in troops, then engaged in more negotiations and even tried to get Dudayev assassinated. After all these measures failed, it ended the matter by putting it on hold in the hope that down the road some new administration might think of a more consistent and viable plan and even stick to it.
There were plenty of people who were wise enough to see, in 1996, that the Khasavyurt Accord was no peace deal but rather a ceasefire agreement. As one GRU officer put it back then, “instead of a wildfire situation, we got ourselves a peatland fire situation.” The Khasavyurt Accord didn’t contain any solutions to the problems that had triggered the war. Chechnya remained a devastated republic run by warlords. For three more years to come, the conflict stayed on the back burner and simmered until a new war broke out in 1999.