BOOK REVIEW: The lessons Russia learnt in Chechnya

By bne IntelliNews April 22, 2015

Nicholas Watson in Prague -


As Russia begins a new period of military adventurism, it’s an opportune time to review what happened when the country previously waged war in its backyard, so Mark Galeotti’s “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994–2009” is a timely piece of work. Not least because many of the lessons that the Russians learnt to their heavy cost in Chechnya appear to have been applied to Crimea and East Ukraine.

At first glance, it might seem the Russians are headed towards another disaster. As Galeotti begins his highly detailed yet very readable work: “In effect, it lost: a nation with a population of 147 million was forced to recognize the effective autonomy of Chechnya, a country one-hundredth its size and with less than one- hundredth of its people. A mix of brilliant guerrilla warfare and ruthless terrorism was able to humble Russia’s decaying remnants of the Soviet war machine.”

Yet history does not repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain once remarked, it does occasionally rhyme.

Two times go to war

Before getting into the meat of the two Chechen wars, Galeotti establishes the history of the Chechen people – a mountainous, feud-ridden raider people that were “politically fragmented but culturally united” – and their first real, unhappy contact with ethnic Russians in the 18th century. Russian attitudes towards the Chechens, Galeotti describes, were “complex, a mix of fear, hatred and respect".

To the Russians, the Chechens were better left alone, their territory of no real interest or economic value to Imperial Russia. But once the real prize in the Caucasus, Georgia, was annexed in 1801, secure routes to its newest possession began to matter and so the Imperial court in St Petersburg decided it was time to extend its rule to the North Caucasus. Thus began the complex relationship that continues today.

Through 150 years of battles, victories, rebellions and other assorted setbacks and skirmishes – “generation after generation rose against Russian rule, only to be beaten back down” – Russia’s brutal attempts to bring Chechnya to heel culminated in the 1944 Ardakh, or Exodus. Stalin, worried that the Chechens might take the opportunity to rise up against the Soviets while it was preoccupied with fighting the Nazis, took the decision to deport the entire Chechen population over a single night of February 23, in Operation Lentil, scattering 480,000 (of whom 200,000 died) across Central Asia and Siberia. The Chechens were only allowed to return to their homeland in 1956, after Stalin’s death.

All remained relatively quiet until Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms inevitably rekindled dreams of independence. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya was still formally part of the Russian Federation, though it became de facto independent. This state of affairs was enough to convince nationalist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev that Moscow had no stomach to fight to keep Chechnya within the federation, so immediately after winning a referendum in October 1991 held to confirm him as president, he declared the republic independent.

Russia under the late Boris Yeltsin rejected out of hand any independence moves and after several failed attempts to convince the Chechens of the dire consequences of its actions with small-scale incursions, on November 20, 1994 he signed Presidential Decree No.2137, ‘On steps to re-establish constitutional law and order in the territory of the Chechen Republic’. And so kicked off the First Chechen War (1994-1996), which ended in humiliating defeat for the Russians.


The main problem the Russians encountered, Galeotti identifies, was essentially two-fold: the federal troops dispatched to fight in the First Chechen War were part of “a war machine whose gears were rusty, whose levers were broken and whose fuel was sorely lacking". Unreformed and largely unfunded, it was “an exhausted fragment of the old Soviet armed forces”, whose poorly trained, motivated and equipped troops were geared towards fighting mechanized wars on the plains of Europe or China. “The painfully won lessons of Afghanistan had often been deliberately forgotten or ignored by a high command that thought it would never again be fighting a similar war. Likewise, the last specialized urban-warfare unit in the Russian military had actually been disbanded in February 1994.”

The asymmetrical war left the Russian army resorting to indiscriminate firepower to fight an unseen, highly nimble enemy that was expert in using the lay of the land to its advantage. In the process, of course, while rebels were dying, others were signing up.

The First Chechen War ended with the Khasav-Yurt Accord signed between Russia and the new rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in 1996, which shelved the question of Chechnya’s constitutional status, but instead recognized Chechen autonomy and ordered a full withdrawal of all federal forces by December 31.

There followed a period of ‘hot peace’, 1996–99, until the unknown Vladimir Putin arrived on the scene. Keen to reassert central control and drag Russia back to becoming a world power, he needed a “high-profile triumph, some dramatic opportunity to prove that the Kremlin was now occupied by a determined and powerful leader.” Chechnya seemed ideal. This time, though, Russia and its military was a different beast and prepared for the coming guerrilla war. “By 1999 the military and political leadership had learnt many of the lessons of their initial humiliation.”

After a series of mysterious bombs that exploded in apartment buildings in Moscow – which some believe were intended to ‘soften up’ the Russian public for the expected casualties – a bombing campaign began that created more than 5,000 refugees. “Draining the sea” of guerrillas, in Mao’s strategy, the borders were then sealed and three times as many men, both regular troops and special forces, that were used in the 1994 war were sent in. By April 2000, Grozny had been retaken and while there were still up to 2,500 rebels scattered around the country, “they posed relatively little serious challenge to federal control".

Ambushes continued, accompanied by persistent human rights abuses, though with puppet Akhmad Kadyrov appointed as head of the Chechen government it was going to be largely his problem to deal with on a day-to-day basis – until he was assassinated in 2004 and his son, Ramzan, who is rumoured to be causing so many headaches for the president today, eventually took over in 2007.

Throughout this tale, Galeotti intersperses his narrative with a cast of muftis, brigands and warlords who appear straight out of a Rudyard Kipliing novel: a Russian conscript who used the conflict to burn ‘the anger out of me’; Maskhadov, a brilliant
 guerrilla commander who couldn’t quite master Chechen politics as well; and the innocent civilians, caught between the brutal occupiers and their puppets and the increasingly Islamist Chechen guerrillas.

The region continues to feel the effects of the historical subjugation of Chechnya, often in attacks in Moscow, but also today in neighbouring Ukraine, where a resurgent (or desperate, whoever you listen to) Russia is using its newfound military might to redraw the post-Cold War borders of Europe and project power across the Continent.

The main differences between the first and second Chechen wars were in Moscow’s preparations made beforehand, a willingness to adapt to Chechen tactics – such as by creating special ‘storm detachments’ for urban warfare and using Chechens to fight Chechens – and a more sophisticated overall strategy. And this neatly encapsulates the current strategy in Ukraine, which fell into two parts: a highly organized and planned Crimea operation, and a rather more ad hoc war on the cheap in the east of Ukraine. Both took many lessons learned from the Chechen wars and applied them to different effects. The Crimea operation was a resounding success, though East Ukraine is a much more fluid and broader conflict, and has mired Russia in a conflict in which, as Galeotti has written in bne IntelliNews, “defeat is unthinkable, but victory – without a massive escalation – appears unwinnable".

For the Chechens, Galeotti sees more than a glimmer of hope. “Looking beyond Kadyrov, there is no reason why the Chechens could not take advantage of the autonomy he has carved out within the Russian Federation and build for themselves the kind of country they want to see – and to be able to do so without another round of murderous war and rebellion.”

“Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994–2009”. By Mark Galeotti, Osprey Publishing (2014).



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