Civil War: Russia (1994-1996)

Tatyana A Karaman. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Chechen quest for independence began in 1991, when Chechen nationalists came to power in Chechnya and declared its sovereignty from the Russian Federation. In 1994, after several unsuccessful attempts to unseat the nationalist government, Russian president Boris Yeltzin resorted to what hoped to be a quick and victorious war. Contrary to these expectations, however, the Russian troops met fierce resistance from the Chechen fighters and from the Chechen population. After almost two years of continuous fighting and approximately 30,000 in casualties, the Russian administration ended the conflict by agreeing to withdraw its troops and to postpone a final decision on the Chechen independence until December 31, 2001. Despite the agreement, however, the Chechen nationalists continued their demands for independence supported by a series of terrorist attacks. In retaliation for terrorist attacks, on October 1, 1999, Russian ground troops entered Chechnya for another military campaign that became known as the Second Chechen war.

Country Background

The Russian Federation entered the First Chechen war (1994-1996) as a newly established democracy overwhelmed by economic hardship, political instability, and the rise of nationalist feelings. On August 24, 1991, the Russian Federation proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union and started the process of forming a democratic political system and market economy to replace the socialist political institutions and planned economy of the Soviet era. By the outbreak of the war, Russia had emerged as a presidential republic characterized by a strong executive branch, a weak parliament, and a multiparty political system. President Boris Yeltsin, who was popularly elected by more than 57 percent of the electorate in the first democratic presidential election on June 12, 1991, headed the executive branch. The legislative powers of Russia were vested in the two newly formed chambers of the Federal Assembly: the Federal Council (upper chamber) and the State Duma (lower chamber). In accordance with the new Russian Constitution (1993), Yeltsin’s presidential powers were significantly greater than those of the Russian legislature. However, it did not prevent the legislature from providing opposition to Yeltsin and his cabinet.

The 1993 parliamentary elections were contested by thirteen political parties, eight of which passed a 5-percent threshold and received seats in the State Duma. None of the parties had a clear majority in the parliament. Russia’s Choice, the major reformist coalition and Yeltsin’s supporter, performed better than any other party in single-mandate districts and received a total of 66 seats in the Duma (more than any other party); however, it lost the party-list election and could hardly compete with the conservative opposition. As a result, an odd coalition of ultranationalists (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), Communists (the Communist Party of the Russian Federation), and agrarians (the Agrarian Party) took control of the legislature and posed a real threat to Yeltsin and his reforms.

Many experts attribute the good performance of the conservative parties in the 1993 parliamentary election to a general disillusion among the Russians with economic reforms undertaken by Yeltsin and his cabinet. Wishing to transform Russian socialist planning into a market economy, Boris Yeltsin enlisted help of one of his supporters, young economist and politician Yegor Gaidar. In June 1992, Yeltsin appointed Gaidar acting prime minister, and Gaidar’s team started one of the most ambitious economic reforms, known as a “shock therapy.” It included liberalization of prices, legalization of private business and private ownership of land, introduction of free trade and commercial banking, massive privatization of state-run enterprises, and radical cuts in military spending. The impact of these changes on the public was severe. By the end of 1992, real income had fallen by 47 percent; the inflation rate reached an unprecedented 2,600 percent; and GDP declined by 14 percent. Absolute poverty and unemployment, practically unknown during Soviet times, became a fact of everyday life. As a result, economic reform and its advocates became extremely unpopular with the majority of Russians.

In addition to economic devastation, Yeltsin and his cabinet had to deal with the rise of nationalist feelings among the members of the federation. In 1991, when the Russian Federation declared its independence from the Soviet Union, it comprised 89 constituent units populated by more than 100 various nationalities. By 1993, several of those units had either openly declared their independence from Russia (for example, Chechnya and Buryatia) or expressed a desire to secede from the federation (for example, Tatarstan). Initially, the Yeltsin administration, overwhelmed by the difficulty of economic transition, decided to ignore the problem of rising nationalism. However, by the end of 1994, the conservative opposition openly criticized the president for mishandling the situation, charging him with ruining the federation. In response, Yeltsin decided to get tough on attempts to secede, hoping that he could fight a quick, popular, and victorious war against the breakaway republic.

Conflict Background

Officially, the Chechen war started on December 11, 1994, and lasted until August 25, 1996. Overall, it was a disastrous war, with 30,000 casualties, most of them civilian. The Russian forces accounted for approximately 48,000 troops. Estimates of the Chechen forces vary widely (from 1,000 to 10,000 fighters). The Russian government fought the Chechen war to stop Chechnya from seceding from the Russian Federation. The Chechen separatist forces fought the war in an attempt to establish an independent Muslim state of Ichkeria (Chechnya).

At the end of the Soviet era, Chechnya was a part of the Chechen-Inquish Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechen nationalists came to power in Chechnya and declared sovereignty. However, their proclamation was not supported by the Inguish part of the republic. As a result, the Chechen-Inquish Republic split into two parts: Chechnya and Ingushetia. Ingushetia remained a part of the Russian Federation, whereas Chechnya declared its full independence from Russia in 1993.

Sources: Human Development Report 2002; Marshall, Jaggers, Gurr 2004; World Bank 2004
War: Chechen separatists vs. government
Dates: December 1994 to August 1996 October 1999-present
Casualties: 1994-1996: 30,000 (1994-1996]; 1994-2004: 50,000-250,000 estimated
Regime type prior to war: 4 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 4 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $7,687.77 (1994)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US$9,995.91 (2001)
Insurgents: Chechen separatists
Issue: Secession
Rebel funding: Drugs, Soviet aid
Role of geography: Rebels used urban combat in cities and guerrilla warfare in mountains.
Role of resources: Russian oil pipelines in Chechnya made Chechnya vital to Russian Federation.
Immediate outcome: Government defeat with postponement of resolution of independence for five years
Outcome after 5 years: Continuous conflict, pro-Russia government
Role of UN: No peacekeepers; condemned terrorism
Role of regional organization: OSCE was active.
Refugees: 365,000
Prospects for peace: Unfavorable
Table 1: Civil War in Russia

In November 1991, Boris Yeltsin sent federal troops to Chechnya to stop the secession. However, the Supreme Soviet (the legislative branch of the Soviet era) did not support Yeltsin’s decision, and the troops had to withdraw. Unable to deploy federal troops, the Yeltsin administration made several attempts to unseat the nationalist government of Chechnya, but none was succesful. As a result, the Russian administration lost control of the situation in Chechnya, whose nationalist government gained popularity and strength. By 1992, according to the Russian Interior Ministry, 250 Russians had been killed in Grozny (the capital of Chechnya), and about 300 had disappeared without a trace (Yanchenkov 2000). By 1994, thousands of Russians had abandoned their homes in Chechnya and fled to Russia.

The Insurgents

The Chechens are one of more than forty ethnic groups that have historically populated the Caucasus (Kavkaz), a predominantly mountainous territory expanding from the mouth of the Kuban River on the Black Sea to the Apsheron peninsula on the Caspian Sea. Chechens are the largest ethnic community of the North Caucasus. They account for about 2 million people, approximately 900,000 of whom live in the territory of present-day Chechnya. Together with the neighboring Inquish, the Chechens constitute the Vainakh people (Vainakh means “our countrymen”). The first written records of Chechens, who called themselves the Nokhchi, go back to the early Middle Ages. During that time, together with other Vainakh tribes and Caucasus peoples, Chechens attempted to establish two independent states. The territory of the Chechen and Dagestani mountains comprised the Sirir kingdom, and the North Caucasian plains and foothills were part of the Alanian state. However, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the territories of the Northern Caucasus were repeatedly invaded by the Tatar-Mongol troops, and Chechens were forced to retreat to the mountains, where they remained until the fall of the Golden Horde.

The highlander legacy left an important mark on the Chechen culture. On the one hand, living in mountain communities prevented an emergence of different classes among the Vainakh. They have never known either slavery or serfdom, and every man was a warrior. Local rule by feudal lords was limited in scope and based on popular support by essentially free people. On the other hand, the long history of mountain life proved to be an obstacle to establishing a state once the Chechens repopulated the plains. The primary loyalty of Chechens was to their families and clans, and none of the clans wanted to see members of another clan rise to power. As a result, the Vainakh people resorted to inviting princelings of their highland neighbors to rule them and have never had a ruler of their own.

The first close association between the Chechens and the Russians took place in the mid-sixteenth century. During this time, the Russian tsar’s policy focused on a peaceful colonization of the region. This was successfully accomplished by the end of the seventeenth century, when Chechen communities officially recognized Moscow’s rule. However, in the mid-eighteenth century, Russia changed its policy, choosing an open military expansion to the North Caucasus. This change led to widespread resistance among the Chechen population. The resistance movement was led by Sheikh Mansur, who hoped to establish a single Muslim state in the North Caucasus.

Although Sheikh Mansur never achieved his main goal, his armed resistance to Moscow’s colonial rule served as an aspiration for many future generations of the Chechens. It took the tsarist army more than a century of active conflict before they were able to suppress the Chechen resistance and bring Chechnya under Russian administrative rule. In the late nineteenth century, as a part of the tsar’s policy, the Russian administration began to deport Chechens from their homeland to Turkey, starting another wave of active resistance.

Soviet rule of the twentieth century was just as alien to the Chechens as the earlier rule of the Russian tsars. The Bolsheviks took control of the North Caucasus in 1921, creating the Chechen Autonomous Region in 1922. In 1934, the Soviet regime unified Chechnya and Ingushetia in the Chechen-Inquish Region. In 1936, the Soviet Federal government granted the Chechen-Inquish Region the status of autonomous republic. However, Soviet domination of the Chechens did not last. In 1942, the republic was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Chechen and Inquish units of the Soviet Army defected and collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviets. The Soviets treated this collaboration as an act of treason and dismantled the Chechen-Inquish Republic once it was back under Soviet control in 1944. The inhabitants of the dismantled republic were deported to the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (Kazakhstan) and to Siberia. It was not until 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, that the republic was reestablished and Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland. However, a total reconciliation between the Russians and Chechens has never taken place. The Russians continued to believe the Chechens to be treacherous and unreliable people, while the Chechens continued to believe the Russians to be colonial invaders and continued their hopes for independence.

The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to open a window of opportunity for Chechen nationalists, who declared independence on November 1, 1991. Dzhokhar Musayevich Dudayev, the leader of the movement for Chechen independence and the first separatist president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was a child of the Chechen deportation who spent his first thirteen years in Kazakhstan. In 1957, he and his family returned to Chechnya, where he finished night school and qualified as an electrician. To continue his education, Dudayev entered the Tambov Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots, which he finished in 1966. In 1968, Dudayev joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and continued to advance steadily in his military career. In 1987, he received the rank of major general and assumed command of the strategic Soviet air base at Tartu, Estonia. In May 1990, Dudayev retired from his military career and returned to Chechnya, devoting himself to politics and to establishing a sovereign Chechen state. Dudayev’s aggressive nationalist views earned him recognition among other proponents of Chechen independence, placing him at the head of the movement.

Although Dudayev and his supporters were unanimous in their strong anti-Russian sentiments and in their desire for an independent Chechnya, they were much less unified on the role of Islam in the future state. Even though Islam came to the region in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was not widespread in Chechnya until the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. During that period, Islam served as a unifying force among the mountain peoples in their resistance of Russian rule— most notably in 1834, when Imam Shamil was able to unite a part of the North Caucasus region, including Chechnya, in gazavat (a holy war of Muslims against infidels) against the Russian troops. Since that time, Islam has remained an important part of the Chechen culture, and not even Soviet rule could eradicate Muslim beliefs among the Chechens. However, of the many forms of Islam, only its modern Sunni version has been adopted in Chechnya. In addition, many pre-Muslim customs have retained their importance in the Chechen culture. As a result, even though Dudayev and his supporters declared that they sought to establish an independent Muslim state of Chechnya, there was little effort to make everyday life conform to Islamic standards. Furthermore, in his interview with Time magazine, Dudayev stated that, by starting a military campaign against Chechnya, Russia forced Chechens into Islam, even though they were not ready to accept Muslim values (Zarakhovich 1996).


Chechnya is situated on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Its total territory is only about 5,800 square miles (approximately three-quarters the size of New Jersey). However, the republic encompasses topographically distinct regions. The southern part comprises densely forested mountains. By contrast, the northern part of Chechnya is composed of plains and lowlands. The western part of Chechnya comprises the Terek and the Sunzha valleys. It is the main agricultural region of the republic. Grozny, the capital of the republic, lies in the central part of Chechnya. Gudermes, the second largest city, is located on the Sunzha River 22.3 miles east of Grozny.

By virtue of Chechnya’s topography, the war involved urban warfare as well as mountain warfare. The Russian army, heavily armed with tanks, artillery, and aircraft, was at a disadvantage in both types of warfare. In contrast, it allowed the Chechen separatist troops to compensate for their small numbers and lack of artillery by engaging in predominantly infantry combat.

In urban combat in Grozny and other major cities, the Russian army needed a manpower advantage of at least 5:1 (mostly infantry) to secure every building they took and to continue to advance. However, this had not been foreseen by the Russian general staff. As a result, the first assault on Grozny lasted for two months instead of the estimated two hours. The successful use of antiarmor ambushes allowed the Chechens to inflict heavy loses on the Russian troops and force them to retreat repeatedly to the outskirts of the city to regroup. In a single New Year’s Eve attack, the Russians lost about 70 percent of their 230 tanks. By destroying the first and last tanks in a column, Chechen guerrillas trapped the rest of the column in the city’s narrow streets and then showered them with gasoline and petrol bombs.

In mountain warfare, the Chechen separatists were also at an advantage. Superior knowledge of the terrain allowed them to compensate for their lack of heavy artillery. In thickly forested mountain regions, they made effective use of booby traps and the mining of roads. At nighttime, separatists would sneak between two Russian units stationed opposite each other and start firing, causing the Russians to fire at each other. In addition, the local population provided the rebels with food and shelter out of sympathy or fear.


The Russian troops were not only more numerous but also more technologically advanced than the Chechen fighters. For example, in the December 31, 1994, attack on Grozny, the Russians employed 230 tanks, 454 armored infantry vehicles, and 388 artillery pieces. By contrast, the Chechen rebels had only 50 tanks, 100 armored infantry vehicles, and 60 artillery pieces (Cassidy 2003). To compensate for their disadvantes in manpower and weapons, the Chechens employed guerrilla warfare tactics against the Russian troops. Here, their main objective was to avoid a direct battle and to draw the Russians into the center of the city, where their rear could be attacked and destroyed. In addition to guerrilla warfare at home, the Chechens used terrorist tactics outside Chechnya, where hostage taking attacks became their most common tactic.

The first serious terrorist attack took place in June 1995, when the Chechen separatists led by Shamil Basayev carried out a hostage-taking raid in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovs (Stavropol Krai). During the raid, the Chechens rounded up several hundred civilians and moved them to a busy local hospital, where they were held hostage along with the hospital staff and patients. After securing their positions, the separatists demanded that the Russian government withdraw federal troops from Chechnya and begin direct negotiations with Dzhokhar Dudayev. The siege lasted for almost a week, despite the Russians’ attempts to seize the hospital and free the hostages, of which there were more than 1,000. Finally, direct negotiations between Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin and Basayev resolved the situation by allowing the Chechens to leave the hospital using 150 hostages as cover. In the course of the standoff, 129 civilians were killed, and 415 were wounded. In January 1996, Chechen separatists under the command of Salman Raduev raided the town of Kizlyar, taking hostage more than 2,000 civilians and, under their cover, retreating to the village of Pervomaiskoye in Dagestan. The attackers held their positions for two weeks, executing forty-one hostages and completely destroying the village (Pravda 2002).

In response to the Chechen tactics of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, the Russian force employed massive aerial and artillery bombardment of Grozny (Chechnya’s capital) and other population centers, as well as isolated air strikes of smaller rebel units in the mountains. However, this strategy was unsuccessful against the widespread rebels. In addition, massive aerial and artillery bombardment of Grozny resulted in extensive civilian casualties and destruction of property, which in turn led to a significant increase in anti-Russian sentiment among the civilian population. Angered by the indiscriminate Russian attacks, many of the civilian sympathizers, including women and teenagers, either joined the rebels or willingly helped them. As a result, the Russian troops could not rely on the support and loyalty of the local population and in many cases suspected them of collaboration with the rebels. The so-called white stockings, all-female sniper units, became especially infamous among the Russian troops. They were armed with sniper rifles and were said to shoot exclusively Russian officers. The Russian press often claimed that, alongside the Chechen women, those units contained female snipers from the Baltic States, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Russia. However, no official data support either the existence of the units or their multiethnic makeup (Nikulina 2000).

In addition to antagonizing the local population, Russian heavy bombardment of Chechen population centers led to the critical reaction of the international community. An especially tense situation developed between the Russian Federation and Turkey, which Russia suspected of providing direct financial and military aid to the Chechen separatists (Daniszewski 2002). Although Turkish officials have never publicly denied or confirmed these accusations, members of Turkish extremist groups were open about their sympathies and even engaged in terrorist activities on the Chechen side. On January 16, 1996, a group of Chechen rebels and pro-Chechen Turkish gunmen led by Turkish extremist Mohamed Tokdzhan hijacked the Russian ferryboat Avrasiya in the Turkish port of Trabzon on the Black Sea, taking hostage more than 150 passengers, most of whom were Russians. The hostage takers stated that their actions were in support of the hostage-taking operation carried out by the Chechen rebels in the Dagestan village of Pervomaiskoye and demanded that the Russian federal government stop the war and start negotiations with the Chechen separatists. After three days, the hostages were released unharmed, and the attackers surrendered to the local authorities.

Shortly after the declaration of independence, Dudayev issued a decree creating a new Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic. According to the decree, all military personnel and weaponry located in the territory of the republic were transferred to the direct command of President Dudayev. In May 1992, the Russian Federation agreed to transfer to Dudayev’s command 50 percent of all weaponry remaining in the territory of Chechnya (Kop’ev 1997). However, the Russian Ministry of Defense failed to evacuate the remaining weaponry and military equipment quickly; as a result, by the summer of 1994, the newly formed Chechen military had control of more than 80 percent of all weaponry and equipment located in Chechnya’s territory (Kop’ev, 1997). This included 42 tanks, three MiG-17s, and two MiG-15 jet fighters, more than 250 low-flying aircraft, 139 artillery systems, about 50,000 rifles, and more than 150,000 grenades.

To protect Chechnya’s newly proclaimed independence, mandatory military service for all male Chechen citizens ages 19-26 was established in 1992. In addition, the presidential directive of February 17, 1992, offered amnesty to any Chechen citizen who would desert from the Russian army and join the Chechen forces. Altogether, six military drafts took place in the period from 1991 to 1994. By 1994, the Chechen military included 2,000 men in the Presidential Guards, 3,500 men of the joint forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Department of State Security, and about 13,500 enlisted personnel, of which 1,500 were in fighting readiness and the rest in various stages of military training.

Causes of the War

The causes of the Chechen war are numerous and complex. It is commonly suggested that the war was the outcome of long-standing animosity between the Chechens and the Russians. Indeed, the history of the relationship between these two peoples is characterized by continuous Chechen attempts to free themselves from Russian domination and by Russian efforts to suppress these attempts. As a result, once the collapse of the Soviet Union presented another opportune moment, the Chechens attempted to secede from the Russian Federation. However, at the end of 1980s, tensions between Moscow and Grozny were at their lowest, at least on the surface. In 1989, for first time in the Chechen history, a Chechen native, Doku Zavgaev, became a first secretary of the Chechen-Inquishen regional committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1991, another Chechen, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was elected speaker of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, while Salambek Khadjiev became soviet minister for the chemical and oil-refining industry.

The Chechen-Inquish Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was growing and becoming more industrialized. In little more than thirty years after the reestablishment, the population of the republic had risen to 1,275,500 people (USSR Population Census 1996). There are no separate data for people residing in the territories of Chechnya and Ingushetia, but the estimates for 1989 were 1.1 million and 170,000, respectively (Cherkasov, 2004). The ethnic composition of the permanent residents of the Chechen-Inquish Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1989 was as follows: Of the total population of 1,274,000, 734,000 were Chechen, 163,800 Inquish, 293,800 Russian, 14,800 Armenian, and 12,600 Ukrainian (USSR Population Census, 1989). Although there are no exact data on the specific ethnic composition of Chechnya in 1989, it can be estimated that “of 1,984 thousand permanent residents, about 715 thousand were Chechens, 25 thousand were Inquish, and 269 thousand were Russians” (Cherkasov 2004). Grozny, the capital of the Chechen-Inquish Republic, grew into a major industrial city with almost 490,000 residents, of whom approximately 260,000 were Russians, the second-largest ethnic group after the Chechens.

The rural areas of the Chechen-Inquish Republic remained predominantly underdeveloped, however. Always suffering from the lack of arable land, the rural population had a much lower standard of living than the urban population, who were employed predominantly in the chemical and oil-refining industries. According to Soviet statistics, by the mid-1980s there were already tens of thousands of unemployed in the rural areas of the republic (Chechnya.Ru n.d.). In 1989, Doku Zavgaev promised to reduce the level of unemployment among the rural population by developing new jobs in food and food processing; however, this promise remained unfulfilled, and in August 1991 the number of unemployed in the republic reached 100,000 people, or approximately 20 percent of the population (Chechnya.Ru n.d.)

This economic stagnation caused many rural residents to move to Grozny, where they fueled increasing nationalist sentiments. In addition to the impoverished rural population, the Chechen nationalist opposition was supported by emergent black market elites, lured by the possibility of privatization of the Chechen oil refining industry after secession from the Russian Federation. The final source of support of the nationalist movement came from the Muslim clergy, who hoped that secession from the Russian Federation would lead to the establishment of an Islamic state.

In 1990, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a politician and former Soviet air force general, headed the Chechen nationalist movement. In 1991, he became a chairman of the executive committee of the National Congress of the Chechen People, a nationalist opposition organization. Shortly after that, on August 22, 1991, Dudayev carried out a successful coup against the Communist government of the Chechen-Inquish Autonomous Republic. In October, he was elected president of the newly declared Chechen Republic. Within one month of the election, Dudayev unilaterally declared absolute Chechen independence.

In response, the legislature of the Russian Federation refused to recognize either the legitimacy of the Chechen presidential election or the republic’s independence. Moscow’s unwillingness to grant Chechnya independence was based on its fear of a domino effect as well as the strategic importance of the republic for Russia. Beginning in October 1991, crushing separatist aspirations became one of the main concerns of the Russian administration, as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Buryatia also claimed independence. As a result, allowing Chechen independence would encourage a further disintegration of the Federation. In addition, its geographical location made Chechnya of extreme importance to the Russian Federation, for two reasons. First, access routes to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea run from the center of the federation through Chechnya. Second, vital Russian oil and gas pipeline connections with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan also run through Chechnya.

In November 1991, President Yeltsin issued emergency rule in Chechnya and sent Russian Interior Ministry troops to Grozny in hopes of deposing Dudayev. However, Yeltsin’s actions were not supported by the Russian Supreme Soviet, and the troops had to be withdrawn soon thereafter. From that point until the summer of 1994, the Russian Federation adopted a policy of support and cooperation with the opposition of Dudayev. In January 1993, a Russian delegation visited Grozny to discuss power delineation between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic; however, Dudayev was not invited to participate. In late 1993, the Chechen Provisional Council, led by Avturkhanov, Mayor of the Nadteretnyj District of Chechnya, emerged as the opposition leader. Other groups opposing Dudayev’s policies joined with the council. Although the Provisional Council lacked any real power outside of the Nadteretnyj district, the Russian Federation saw it as a new partner and refrained from any further negotiations with President Dudayev. In negotiations with Moscow, Avturkhanov agreed to reintegrate Chechnya into the Russian Federation and to overthrow Dudayev. Armed with the military and financial support of the Russian government, the Chechen Provisional Council attempted an unsuccessful coup in Grozny, in November 1994. Once it was clear that the opposition would not be able to overthrow Dudayev, Yeltsin and the Russian Security Council resorted to direct military involvement.


Conflict Status

Officially, the first Chechen war ended on August 31, 1996, when Alexander Lebed, the head of the Russian Security Council, and President Aslan Maskhadov signed the Khasavyurt Agreements. According to the agreements, the Russian side had to withdraw all federal forces from Chechnya by December 31, 1996, and a final decision on the question of Chechnya’s independence was postponed until December 31, 2001. However, owing to continuing terrorist attacks, demands for independence, and the inability or unwillingness of the Maskhadov administration to enforce the rule of law in the republic, the relationship between Chechnya and Russia has not been normalized. Paramilitary forces led by warlords continued to operate freely in the territory of the republic, kidnapping Russians and foreigners for ransom. In December 1998, one New Zealand and three British telecommunications engineers working in Chechnya for a British company were abducted and killed. In addition, Chechen warlords carried out a number of incursions into Dagestan and Stavropol Krai, abducting and killing civilians.

Finally, on August 2, 1999, a group of Islamic extremists led by Shamil Basayev and Jordanian-born militant Khattab crossed into neighboring Dagestan and in five days captured the villages of Rahata and Ansolta in the Botlikhsky district. During this attack, some 108 Dagestani civilians were killed, and hundreds more were wounded. More than 31,000 civilians were forced to evacuate, and 4,236 families lost their homes. Basayev called the attack the opening act of a crusade to liberate the entire North Caucasus region. In response, the Russian Federation carried out a counteroffensive, quickly recapturing the villages. In September 1999, a series of middle-of-the-night explosions took place in Moscow, Volgograd, and Buinaksk apartments, killing more than 300 people. The Russian government attributed the attacks to the Chechen separatists, and the public demanded retaliation. In late September, the Russian air force began bombing targets within Chechnya; on October 1, Russian ground troops entered Chechnya and marched toward Grozny. In response, President Maskhadov declared a ghazevat (holy war) against the Russian troops, issued a martial law, and drafted all eligible men. This started the military campaign that became known as the Second Chechen war.

The Second Chechen war was much more successful for the Russian side, whose initial objective was to create a pro-Russian security zone in the northen part of Chechnya. By October 5, federal forces had taken contol of about two-thirds of the northern Chechnya, securing its positions up to the Terek River. On October 15, the commander of the federal forces in the Caucasus, General Viktor Kazantsev, announced that the security zone had been successfully created and that his forces would move to the second objective of the operation, the elimination of militant forces throughout Chechnya. In late October, Russian troops started a surface-to-surface missile strike on Grozny and air bombing of the second largest city in the republic, Gudermes, heavily fortified by the Chechen forces. On November 12, 1999, Gudermes fell to the Russian troops. By the end of November, the Russian forces had almost completely encircled Grozny, taking under their control all but the southern approaches to the city. On November 26, 1999, Valery Manilov, deputy chief of staff of the federal army, announced that the second phase of the operation was almost complete and that the final phase—the elimination of Chechen paramilitary groups in the mountains and restoration of law and order—was about to begin. In December, Russian authorities issued a warning to all residents of Grozny to leave the city by December 11—the starting day of a full-scale attack on the city. Intense fighting over Grozny lasted until early February 2000, when federal troops forced the Chechen fighters to leave the city and retreat to the southern mountains.

On June 8, 2000, President Putin issued a decree imposing direct rule of Chechnya and appointed Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov to head the temporary administration of the republic. In response, President Maskhadov returned as a guerrilla leader and denounced Kadyrov as a traitor. Until his death in 2005, Maskhadov was viewed as a primary leader of the Chechen separatist movement, who carried out organized resistance against the Russian forces and orchestrated several assassination attempts on Kadyrov. The Russian authorities named Maskhadov the second-most-wanted terrorist and placed a $10 million bounty on his capture.

On October 23, 2002, a group of 50 Chechen militants, 32 men and 18 women led by Movsar Barayev, occupied a Moscow theater in the Dubrovka area of Moscow, taking hostage about 900 theatergoers and theater staff. After securing the building, the hostage takers demanded the complete withdrawal of the Russian troops from Chechnya within a week. They also agreed to free the child hostages if they (the militants) were allowed to meet with the press. The reporters were allowed in, and the attackers released 200 people, most of whom were women, children, and Muslims. However, the further negotiations with the rebels attempted by several members of the Duma were not successful, and no clear official policy was determined by the Putin administration. Finally, on the early morning of the third day, Russian special forces stormed the building, suspecting that the hostage takers had started executing hostages. During the storming, an unidentified narcotic gas was used to subdue the hostage takers, all of whom were killed.

Altogether, 129 hostages died in the takeover; 2 were shot by terrorists, and the others died through a combination of the gas, lack of food and water, and lack of adequate medical treatment following the raid. On the afternoon of the same day, in a televised address President Putin publicly apologized for the hostages’ deaths, asking forgiveness for not being able to save everyone, thanked the special forces for their bravery in rescuing almost 750 people, and stated that the siege “proved that Russia cannot be brought down to its knees” (Glassner and Baker 2002). However, the public reaction to the storming was mixed. Public polls conducted in Moscow showed that city residents were split over the support of the use of force, whereas people living outside the city limits mostly supported the government’s actions (Public Opinion Foundation 2002). Also, a number of anti-Chechen-war demonstrations took place in Moscow during the siege. In response, in a joint effort, President Putin banned antiwar protests, and the Duma passed a bill limiting press coverage of antiterrorist operations. In addition, the Duma rejected a proposal to create an independent commission to investigate the handling of the crisis.

On March 23, 2003, a new Chechen constitution was passed in a referendum. The Russian authorities claimed that the referendum commanded almost 88 percent turnout, with more than 96 percent voting in favor of the constitution. The new constitution firmly declared Chechnya part of the Russian Federation, stating specifically in Chapter 1, Article 1, that “[t]he territory of the Chechen Republic is one and indivisible and forms an inalienable part of the territory of the Russian Federation” (Constitution of the Chechen Republic 2003). On March 24, 2003, President Putin praised the referendum as a positive step toward normalization of the situation in Chechnya and added that it “resolved the last serious problem relating to Russia’s territorial integrity” (BBC 2003). Following the referendum, a new presidential election was held. The result of the election was that Kadyrov became the new Chechen president, reaffirming his commitment to preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

External Military Intervention

There has been no external military intervention by any state. The Russian Federation insisted that the war in Chechnya was a matter of Russian internal affairs and strongly opposed any third side’s intervention in the conflict. However, foreign mercenaries, mainly from Arab countries, and Wahhabi volunteers took an active part in the conflict. Arab mercenaries appeared in Chechnya as early as 1994, when the Jordanian commander Khattab brought approximately 200 ex-Afghan fighters to train newly recruited Chechen forces. Khattab quickly earned the rank of second in command and became known as “the king of mercenaries.” During the Second Chechen war, Russian officials attributed to the Arab mercenaries and Wahhabi volunteers the operation of a large set of training camps in Chechnya and in Dagestan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. According to Russian officials, these training camps included suicide bomber camps and were financed by radical Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda (Allenova 2004). However, other sources argue that the Russian government heavily exaggerated the degree of involvement of Arab mercenaries and Wahabbi volunteers in the conflict (Dunlop 1998).

Conflict Management Efforts

Although the international community mainly ignored the Chechen problem prior to the war, it made several attempts to monitor and manage the conflict once it started. In March 1995, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reached an agreement with the Russian government to establish a permanent OSCE presence in Chechnya. The OSCE’s assistance group in Grozny existed from late April 1995 until late October 1999, when it pulled out for security reasons. During this period, the group was actively involved in documenting abuses of human rights, providing humanitarian relief, and taking part in negotiations between the sides.


Although by ratifying the constitution of 2003, the Chechen electorate confirmed the republic’s status as an inalienable part of the Russian Federation, fighting between the federal troops and the Chechen separatists continued, and terrorist attacks carried out by Chechen militants remained a major threat to Russian national security. On May 12, 2003, two suicide bombers drove a truck full of explosives into a government administration and security complex in Znamenskoye, in northern Chechnya, killing 59 people and wounding many others. Only two days later, on May 14, 2003, two female suicide bombers killed at least 16 people and wounded 145 in a suicide bomb attack during a religious festival in the town of Iliskhan-Yurt, east of Grozny. On June 5, 2003, a female suicide bomber ambushed a bus carrying Russian air force officers and pilots in Mozdok (North Ossetiya), near Chechnya, and blew up the bus, killing herself and 18 other people.

To appeal to Chechen militants and to prevent further terrorist attacks, on June 6, 2003, the Duma approved a partial amnesty for Chechen separatists who were willing to disarm. President Putin stated that this measure would stabilize the situation inside the Chechen Republic as well as reduce the threat of further terrorist attacks (Duma News 2003). However, two parties in the Duma, the liberal opposition Yabloko and the ultranationalists, opposed the amnesty. Sergei Mitrokhin, the deputy chairman of Yabloko, publicly called the amnesty a public relations stunt and stated that, under the condition of continuous fighting, the amnesty had no chance of promoting peace ( 2003). The West’s reaction to the amnesty was negative as well, mostly due to the fact that the amnesty provided protection to Russian solders accused of committing crimes against civilians in Chechnya.

Only a month after the Duma passed the amnesty, on July 5, 2003, two women suicide bombers killed 15 and injured 60 people at an open-air rock festival at Moscow’s Tushino airfield. On August 1, 2003, another terrorist attack took place in Mozdok in North Ossetiya. This time, a suicide bomber killed at least 50 people at the town’s military hospital. Starting in December 2003, Chechen militants increased their activity in Moscow and other Russian cities. On December 5, 2003, Chechen militants were tied to an explosion on a commuter train in the Stavropol region that killed at least 36 people and injured more than 150. On December 9, 2003, a female suicide bomber exploded her bomb in the center of Moscow near Hotel Natsional and the State Duma building, killing at least 6 people and injuring 11 others. On February 6, 2004, a deadlier attack took place in Moscow’s subway—a rush-hour explosion on a commuter train killed 41 and injured 70. The situation inside the Chechen Republic remained highly unstable, with Maskhadov continuous attempts to overthrow Kadyrov’s pro-Kremlin administration. Finally, on May 9, 2004, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was killed and Russia’s top military commander in the North Caucasus critically injured by explosive devices detonated under their seats on Grozny’s Dinamo stadium during a military parade celebrating the 59th anniversary of the Russian victory in World War II. Following Kadyrov’s death, Aslan Maskhadov announced in a radio interview that his forces were ready to switch to offensive tactics, specifically the targeting of Russian military sites. On June 22, 2004 (the sixty-third anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, when the Soviet Union was occupied by Nazi Germany), open fighting erupted between separatist forces and federal troops in Ingushetia (bordering Chechnya in the south) after Chechen militants launched coordinated attacks on security, administrative, and policy buildings in the cities of Nazran, Ordzhonikidzevskaya, and Karabulak.

On August 29, 2004, a presidential election was held in Chechnya. The participation was 85 percent, with 73.48 percent of the votes cast for Alu Alkhanov, a Russia-supported candidate. Maskhadov and other Chechen rebels refused to accept the results of the election and vowed to assassinate the new president. Just two days after the election, the Chechen separatists carried out one of their cruelest attacks. On the morning of September 1, the first day of school throughout the Russian federation, a group of 30 armed Chechen terrorists seized Beslan’s Middle School Number One, taking 1,300 hostages, most of whom were schoolchildren seven to eighteen years old. The terrorists moved all hostages to the school gym, mined the gym and the rest of the school building with explosive devices, and threatened to execute 50 children for every one of their own killed in a rescue operation. The Russian officials said that they would not use force to free the hostages and agreed to start negotiations with the attackers. The Russian side was represented by pediatrician Leonid Roshal, for whom the hostage takers asked specifically. However, on September 2, negotiations between Roshal and the attackers reached a stalemate, with the hostage takers refusing even to allow food and water to be delivered to the children. To support the Russian side in negotiations, Ruslan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia, volunteered to talk to the hostage takers. As a result of his negotiations, the attackers agreed to release to him 26 nursing mothers and their infants but refused to make any further concessions. Soon after that, two explosions took place in the school, but the federal forces were given orders not to fire. The next day, the hostage takers allowed federal security troops to remove bodies from school grounds. However, when medical workers and security troops arrived at the agreed-upon pickup point, the attackers fired, and two large explosions took place in the school. One of the explosions broke the gymnasium’s wall; a group of about 30 hostages tried to escape while being fired upon by the hostage takers. At this point, the Russian troops were given orders to storm the building. The assault lasted for more than two hours, during which the hostage takers activated the rest of the explosives, completely destroying the gym and setting the rest of the building on fire. In the siege, 331 civilians died, including 156 children and 11 solders. Shortly after the siege, Shamil Basaev claimed responsibility for it and stated that he personally had trained the hostage takers. He also stated that the bloody outcome and the death of so many children was on Putin’s hands and that the attackers would have let the hostages go if their demand for an immediate end to the war in Chechnya had been met (BBC News 2004).

Even among the separatist leadership, not everyone was willing to accept the blame for the Beslan tragedy. In his official statement, on September 23, 2004, Aslan Maskhadov unconditionally declared that neither he nor separatist forces under his command had anything to do with the Beslan attack. However, he noted that the Beslan tragedy and similar acts came as “a consequence of and reaction to the genocidal war of the Russian government against the Chechen nation, during which the Russian army has killed 250,000 people, including 42,000 children” (Maskhadov 2004). In addition, Maskhadov called on the international community to create an international tribunal to investigate crimes committed by both sides during the war.

In its turn, the international community uniformly condemned the terrorists’ actions. On the first day of the attack, President George W. Bush offered “any form” of support to Russia. In addition, the Russian Federation asked for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the evening of the same day. The members of the council condemned the attack and demanded “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages of the terrorist attack” ( 2004). German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder publicly stated that the sole responsibility for the tragedy should be placed on the terrorists. However, many other European leaders did not agree with Schröder and demanded an explanation from the Russian government on the handling of the situation. Specifically, it was believed that the use of flamethrowers by the Russian security forces and shelling by Russian tanks led to the high number of casualties among the hostages. In response, Putin rejected any allegations against the federal security forces and promised to get even tougher in the fight against terrorists. The results of the domestic investigation of the Beslan events, however, confirmed the use of tanks and flamethrowers in the assault. Nevertheless, according to the deputy prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Kolesnikov, neither the flamethrowers nor the shelling caused any casualties among the hostages (Kommersant 2005).

Although the Beslan tragedy shocked the Russian public and the international community and caused disagreement within the leadership of the Chechen separatist forces, it did not put an end to the conflict. Fighting between the federal troops and the Chechen militants led by Aslan Maskhadov continued, especially in the southern region of the republic. On March 8, 2005, the Alfa and Vympel special force units of the Federal Security Service (FSB) carried out an operation in the village of Tolstoi-Yurt, located twenty miles north of Grozny. According to Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the federal forces in the North Caucasus, during the operation the special forces exploded a bunker, killing Aslan Maskhadov (Jamestown Foundation 2005). Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the assassinated president, welcomed the news, stating that with Maskhadov’s death the separatist forces would lose their potency and popular appeal (Kommersant 2005). However, Shamil Basayev called on all Chechens to continue their resistance and announced that Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, a field commander and former head of Chechnya’s Islamic Court, was elected the new leader of the separatist forces.

In August 2005, in his interview with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (Kavkaz Center 2005), Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev stated that, indeed, Aslan Maskhadov’s death was a great loss to the Chechen resistance; however, in no way did it signify an end of that resistance. On the contrary, it would serve as an inspiration to those who are alive in their struggle against the Russian occupiers. When asked about the prospects for the end of the war, Sadulayev stated that the Chechens would never end their resistance and submit to the Russian rule; that instead they would continue to fight until the total independence of the republic was attained (ChechenPress 2005). This unyielding position of the Chechen separatist leadership, combined with the equally unyielding resolve of the Putin administration to preserve the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, leaves a little hope for a complete end to the conflict in the near future.

Indeed, as this article was written, pro-Chechen militants launched another major attack. On October 13, 2005, they targeted the city of Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic in Southern Russia. During the attack, the militants occupied the policy and other governmental buildings and took civilian hostages. In response, President Putin sent 1,500 regular troops and 500 special forces to retake the city. At least 90 people were killed, including 72 rebels, 12 police, and 12 civilians.