The Chechen Wars Cast a Long Shadow
A new history of Russia’s two wars in Chechnya is essential reading
The TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launcher is a nasty reminder of the Chechen wars. The weapon is an anti-personnel, anti-fortification system that uses fuel-air explosives. It can literally tear the air from someone’s lungs.
The Kremlin used it extensively during the second Chechen war — which lasted from from 1999 to 2009. It was one of many brutal tools of a counter-insurgency strategy that saw Chechnya “returned” to the Russian Federation after winning de facto independence in 1996.
According to Mark Galeotti’s new book Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994–2009, it’s “worth questioning just how much of a victory this really was for Moscow.”
Galeotti is a Russian security analyst and professor at New York University. In the book, he asks — the terrible cost in lives and wealth aside, just what kind of bargain did Moscow make with Grozny to end the conflict?
That is, if the war ever really ended.
Galeotti’s book — part of publisher Osprey’s Essential Histories series — is not an exhaustive account of every battle fought during the two Chechen wars. Readers looking for detailed maps and accounts of small unit actions should look elsewhere.
But for those interested in the political history of the war — and details of the overall strategies employed by all sides — this is an excellent resource.
He describes some military matters in depth, and the book includes fascinating anecdotes — such as how the lack of accurate maps forced Russian soldiers to raid bookstores for travel guides.
The first Chechen war between 1994 and 1996 led to a humiliating defeat for the Russian army and then-Pres. Boris Yeltsin. Many soldiers — underpaid and badly treated by their superiors — saw the restive mountain republic as not worth dying for.
The Russian experience in Afghanistan was still fresh. But military leaders forgot or deliberately ignored the war’s counter-insurgency lessons.
Chechens who fought against the Russian army were sometimes former Soviet soldiers, including Dzhokhar Dudayev — the young republic’s first post-Soviet leader.
Others were police officers and civilians with no prior combat training. They carried small arms, light weapons and had few heavy artillery. They had no air force.
Despite the lack of equipment, the old soldiers and cops were ready to fight for an independent Chechnya. This combination of experience and high morale was more than the Russian conscripts could handle.
Systemic corruption also weakened the Russian military. It was an enemy just as dangerous as the Chechen guerrillas.
Galeotti describes how the intersection of corruption, opportunism and Chechen patriotism led to a Russian defeat. But this is secondary to his book’s main concern — which is an analysis of intra-Chechen ideological and political struggles during and between the wars.
That struggle, Galeotti explains, was not without precedent. Even during the 19th century wars of independence — which the Chechens lost — brothers from a single family often fought on opposite sides.
This infighting resurfaced with a vengeance after Chechnya won its independence. Factions fought each other for control of the state, which went a long way toward destroying Chechen military discipline, and later contributed to the country’s military defeat.
Islamism swept through the region — and the dream of a greater “Caucasian Emirate” took hold of some groups. But the Islamists’ overreached by launching a failed invasion of Dagestan, which helped provoke domestic support in Russia for a new war.
Both sides resorted to brutality, torture and arbitrary executions. Chechen terrorists targeted civilians in Russia, and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin extended a hand to pliable Chechen leaders.
“On the one hand,” Galeotti notes, the Russians “were ruthless in their control of the Chechen population, but on the other, they eagerly recruited Chechens, including rebel defectors, to a range of security units.”
The Kremlin’s focus on enlisting collaborators proved decisive, and defections from the Chechen side rose exponentially. Two clans that had fought the Russians in 1994 — the Yamadayevs and Kadyrovs — struck a bargain with Moscow in 1999.
Russian troops overran Grozny. After 2000, the war evolved into an insurgency.
The Kadyrov patriarch, Akhmad, died during an explosion at a Victory Day parade in 2004. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, concluded the grand bargain with Moscow, and his family is still in charge of the region to this day.
But the intra-Chechen struggle continued, even as the second Chechen war wound down and Russian troops withdrew. Assassins linked to Kadyrov have killed the three leading members of the Yamadayev clan after it dared to maintain its independent power base following the war.
Forced disappearances, murders and other human rights violations persist throughout the country. On Dec. 4, a battle between police and an insurgent cell broke out in Grozny — demonstrating that the conflict is far from settled.
The struggle now extends to Ukraine. Chechen volunteers are fighting on both sides of the conflict, and they’re taking their old feuds with them.
Putin’s image as a tough leader arose from his prosecution of the second Chechen war. Former separatist commander Igor Girkin, alias “Strelkov,” served in Chechnya. As did several other Russian militants associated with the separatists, according to the United Nations and the Russian civil rights organization Memorial.
One unit of separatist fighters in Ukraine, the Vostok Battalion, has even named itself after a disbanded counter-insurgency unit that was once active in Chechnya. Many of the Russian formations said to be active in Ukraine have bases in the northern Caucasus.
They are, after all, the units with the most experience in insurgencies.
The so-called Death Battalion — composed of former insurgents who defected to the Russian side in the second Chechen war — fights alongside the pro-Russian separatists, despite Grozny’s prohibition on such activities.
A group of emigres for whom the war against Russia never ended fight on the Ukrainian side. Veteran commander Isa Munayev was their nominal leader and target of a vicious propaganda campaign in Chechnya. Kadyrov accused him of being a CIA agent, a deserter, a coward, and “a drunkard.”
Munayev died in Ukraine on Feb. 1.
He once commanded Chechen forces in Grozny. He delayed, but could not stop, the Russian army’s capture of the city in 2000. He proudly described himself as “Putin’s worst enemy” and led two militia battalions comprised of both Chechen emigres and Ukrainian nationals.
“[The Russian army] killed all those who were dear to us,” he said shortly before his death. “There is no one in Chechnya who hasn’t suffered at the hands of the Russian army.”
This statement is close to the truth, though it was often Chechen-on-Chechen violence that people experienced on top of any Russian abuses. Munayev was aware of this. He once indicated that he no longer regarded the “Kadyrovtsy” as fellow Chechens.
Galeotti doesn’t predict what will happen to Chechyna under Kadyrov’s rule. But he suggests that there’s little chance of conditions improving, and little danger of another major conflict taking place for the foreseeable future.
Since 2013, Syria has been the most attractive destination for the would-be jihadists of the north Caucasus. Some Chechens fighting in Syria have left to fight Russians in Ukraine, but not many. These men are even less interested in returning home to join up with the remnants of the “resistance.”
Kadyrov has made it quite clear what will happen to such people. Less than two weeks after the Dec. 4 attack in Grozny, arsonists burned the homes of the suspected attackers’ families.
The war’s legacy still shadows Russia and Chechnya.