Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter brought down by Chechen fighters near the capital Grozny in 1994.

The First Chechen War, also known as the War in Chechnya, was a conflict between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, fought from December 1994 to August 1996. After the initial campaign of 1994–1995, culminating in the devastating Battle of Grozny, Russian federal forces attempted to seize control of the mountainous area of Chechnya but were set back by Chechen guerrilla warfare and raids on the flatlands despite Russia's overwhelming manpower, weaponry, and air support. The resulting widespread demoralization of federal forces and the almost universal opposition of the Russian public to the conflict led Boris Yeltsin's government to declare a ceasefire with the Chechens in 1996 and sign a peace treaty a year later. The official figure for Russian military deaths is 5,500, while most estimates put the number between 3,500 and 7,500, or even as high as 14,000. Although there are no accurate figures for the number of Chechen militants killed, various estimates put the number at about 3,000 to over 15,000 deaths. Various figures estimate the number of civilian deaths at between 30,000 and 100,000 killed and possibly over 200,000 injured, while more than 500,000 people were displaced by the conflict, which left cities and villages across the republic in ruins.

Origins of Chechnya[edit | edit source]

Chechnya within Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union[edit | edit source]

Following long resistance during the 1817−1864 Caucasian War, Russia finally defeated the Chechens and annexed their lands in the 1870s. The Chechens' subsequent attempts at gaining independence after the fall of the Russian Empire failed and in 1922 Chechnya was incorporated into Bolshevist Russia and later into the Soviet Union (USSR). In 1936, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1944, on the orders of NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria, more than a half million Chechens, the Ingush and several other North Caucasian peoples were deported to Siberia and Central Asia, officially as punishment for the collaboration with the invading German forces during the 1940–1944 insurgency in Chechnya; the Chechen-Ingush Republic was abolished. Eventually, Soviet first secretary Nikita Khrushchev granted the Vainakh (Chechen and Ingush) peoples permission to return to their homeland and restored their republic in 1957.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation Treaty[edit | edit source]

Russia became an independent nation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. While Russia was widely accepted as the successor state to the USSR, it lost a significant amount of its military and economic power. While ethnic Russians made up more than 80% of the population of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, significant ethnic and religious differences posed a threat of political disintegration in some regions. In the Soviet period, some of Russia's approximately 100 nationalities were granted ethnic enclaves that had various formal federal rights attached. Relations of these entities with the federal government and demands for autonomy erupted into a major political issue in the early 1990s. Boris Yeltsin incorporated these demands into his 1990 election campaign by claiming that their resolution was a high priority.

There was an urgent need for a law to clearly define the powers of each federal subject. Such a law was passed on 31 March 1992, when Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, then chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet and an ethnic Chechen himself, signed the Federation Treaty bilaterally with 86 out of 88 federal subjects. In almost all cases, demands for greater autonomy or independence were satisfied by concessions of regional autonomy and tax privileges. The treaty outlined three basic types of federal subjects and the powers that were reserved for local and federal government. The only federal subjects that did not sign the treaty were Chechnya and Tatarstan. Eventually, in the spring of 1994, President Yeltsin signed a special political accord with Mintimer Shaeymiev, the president of Tatarstan, granting many of its demands for greater autonomy for the republic within Russia; thus, Chechnya remained the only federal subject that did not sign the treaty. Neither Yeltsin nor the Chechen government attempted any serious negotiations and the situation deteriorated into a full-scale conflict.

Chechen declaration of independence[edit | edit source]

Meanwhile, on 6 September 1991, militants of the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (NCChP) party, created by the former Soviet Air Force general Dzhokhar Dudayev, stormed a session of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR Supreme Soviet with the aim of asserting independence. The storming caused the death of the head of Grozny's branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Vitaly Kutsenko, who was thrown out of a window or fell while trying to escape. This effectively dissolved the government of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union. In the following month, Dudayev won overwhelming popular support (as evidenced by the later presidential elections with high turnout and a clear Dudayev victory) to oust the interim administration that was supported by the central government. He was made president and declared independence from the Soviet Union.

In November 1991, Yeltsin dispatched Internal Troops to Grozny, but they were forced to withdraw when Dudayev's forces surrounded them at the airport. After Chechnya made its initial declaration of sovereignty, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic split in two in June 1992 amidst the Ingush armed conflict against another Russian republic, North Ossetia. The newly created republic of Ingushetia then joined the Russian Federation, while Chechnya declared full independence from Moscow in 1993 as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI).

Internal conflict in Chechnya and the Grozny-Moscow tensions[edit | edit source]

From 1991 to 1994, tens of thousands of people of non-Chechen ethnicity left the republic amidst reports of violence and discrimination against the non-Chechen population (mostly Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians). Chechen industry began to fail as a result of many Russian engineers and workers leaving or being expelled from the republic combined with the Soviet era's crippling of the non-Russian/Armenian/Ukrainian populace (Chechens, some Ingush and Nogais, Jews) through Russian-only schooling, heavy discrimination in the public sector of the workforce, and other similar measures (even as late as 1989, Checheno-Ingushetia was ruled by a bureaucracy of ethnic Russians). During the undeclared Chechen civil war, factions both sympathetic and opposed to Dudayev fought for power, sometimes in pitched battles with the use of heavy weapons. In March 1992, the opposition attempted a coup d'état, but their attempt was crushed by force. A month later, Dudayev introduced direct presidential rule, and in June 1993, dissolved the Chechen parliament to avoid a referendum on a vote of non-confidence. In late October 1992, Russian forces dispatched to the zone of the Ossetian-Ingush conflict were ordered to move to the Chechen border; Dudayev, who perceived this as "an act of aggression against the Chechen Republic", declared a state of emergency and threatened general mobilization if the Russian troops did not withdraw from the Chechen border. To prevent the invasion of Chechnya, he did not provoke the Russian troops.

After staging another coup d'état attempt in December 1993, the opposition organized themselves into the Provisional Council of the Chechen Republic as a potential alternative government for Chechnya, calling on Moscow for assistance. In August 1994, the coalition of the opposition factions based in north Chechnya launched a large-scale armed campaign to remove Dudayev's government.

However, the issue of contention was not independence from Russia: even the opposition stated there was no alternative to an international boundary separating Chechnya from Russia. In 1992, Russian newspaper Moscow News made note that, just like most of the other seceding republics except for Tatarstan, ethnic Chechens universally supported the establishment of an independent Chechen state. Again, in 1995, during the heat of the First Chechen War, Khalid Delmayev, an anti-Dudayev belonging to an Ichkerian liberal coalition, stated that "Chechnya's statehood may be postponed... but cannot be avoided". Opposition to Dudayev came mainly due to his domestic policy and personality: he once notoriously claimed that Russia intended to destabilize his nation by "artificially creating earthquakes" in Georgia and Armenia. This did not go off well with most Chechens, who came to view him as a national embarrassment at times (if still a patriot at others), but it did not, by any means, dismantle the determination for independence, as most Western commentators note.

Moscow clandestinely supplied separatist forces with financial support, military equipment and mercenaries. Russia also suspended all civilian flights to Grozny while the aviation and border troops set up a military blockade of the republic and eventually unmarked Russian aircraft began combat operations over Chechnya. The opposition forces, who were joined by Russian troops, launched a clandestine but badly organized assault on Grozny in mid-October 1994, followed by the second, larger attack on 26–27 November 1994. Despite Russian support, both attempts were unsuccessful. In a major embarrassment for the Kremlin, Dudayev loyalists succeeded in capturing some 20 Russian Army regulars and about 50 other Russian citizens who were clandestinely hired by the Russian FSK state security organization to fight for the Provisional Council forces. On 29 November, President Boris Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all warring factions in Chechnya ordering them to disarm and to surrender. When the government in Grozny refused, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to "restore constitutional order" by force.

Beginning on 1 December, Russian forces openly carried out heavy aerial bombardments of Chechnya. On 11 December 1994, five days after Dudayev and Russian Minister of Defense Gen. Pavel Grachev of Russia had agreed to "avoid the further use of force", Russian forces entered the republic in order to "establish constitutional order in Chechnya and to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia." Grachev boasted he could topple Dudayev in a couple of hours with a single airborne regiment, and proclaimed that it will be "a bloodless blitzkrieg, that would not last any longer than December 20."

The Russian war in Chechnya[edit | edit source]

Initial stages[edit | edit source]

On 11 December 1994, Russian forces launched a three-pronged ground attack towards Grozny. The main attack was temporarily halted by deputy commander of the Russian Ground Forces, Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, who then resigned in protest, stating that it is "a crime" to "send the army against its own people." Many in the Russian military and government opposed the war as well. Yeltsin's adviser on nationality affairs, Emil Pain, and Russia's Deputy Minister of Defense Gen. Boris Gromov (esteemed commander of the Soviet Afghan War), also resigned in protest of the invasion ("It will be a bloodbath, another Afghanistan", Gromov said on television), as did Gen. Borys Poliakov. More than 800 professional soldiers and officers refused to take part in the operation; of these, 83 were convicted by military courts and the rest were discharged. Later Gen. Lev Rokhlin also refused to be decorated as a Hero of Russia for his part in the war.

The Chechen Air Force (as well as the republic's civilian aircraft fleet) was completely destroyed in the air strikes that occurred on the very first few hours of the war, while around 500 people took advantage of the mid-December amnesty declared by Yeltsin for members of Dzhokhar Dudayev's armed groups. Nevertheless, Boris Yeltsin's cabinet's expectations of a quick surgical strike, quickly followed by Chechen capitulation and regime change, were misguided. Russia found itself in a quagmire almost instantly. The morale of the Russian troops, poorly prepared and not understanding why and even where they were being sent, was low from the beginning. Some Russian units resisted the order to advance, and in some cases, the troops sabotaged their own equipment. In Ingushetia, civilian protesters stopped the western column and set 30 military vehicles on fire, while about 70 conscripts deserted their units. Advance of the northern column was halted by the unexpected Chechen resistance at Dolinskoye and the Russian forces suffered their first serious losses. Deeper in Chechnya, a group of 50 Russian paratroopers surrendered to the local Chechen militia after being deployed by helicopters behind enemy lines and then abandoned.

Yeltsin ordered the Russian Army to show restraint, but it was neither prepared nor trained for this. Civilian losses quickly mounted, alienating the Chechen population and raising the hostility that they showed towards the Russian forces, even among those who initially supported the Russians' attempts to unseat Dudayev. Other problems occurred as Yeltsin sent in freshly trained conscripts from neighboring regions rather than regular soldiers. Highly mobile units of Chechen fighters caused severe losses to Russia's ill-prepared, demoralized troops. Although the Russian military command ordered to only attack designated targets, due to the lack of training and experience of Russian forces, they attacked random positions instead, turning into carpet bombing and indiscriminate barrages of rocket artillery, and causing enormous casualties among the Chechen and Russian civilian population. On 29 December, in a rare instance of a Russian outright victory, the Russian airborne forces seized the military airfield next to Grozny and repelled a Chechen armored counterattack in the battle of Khankala; the next objective was the city itself. With the Russians closing in on the capital, the Chechens began to hastily set up defensive fighting positions and grouped their forces in the city.

Storming of Grozny[edit | edit source]

Main article: Battle of Grozny (1994-1995)

A Chechen fighter near the burned-out ruins of the Presidential Palace in Grozny, January 1995.

When the Russians besieged the Chechen capital, thousands of civilians died from a week-long series of air raids and artillery bombardments in the heaviest bombing campaign in Europe since the destruction of Dresden. The initial assault on New Year's Eve 1995 ended in a major Russian defeat, resulting in heavy casualties and at first nearly a complete breakdown of morale in the Russian forces. The disaster claimed the lives of an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Russian soldiers, mostly barely trained and disoriented conscripts; the heaviest losses were inflicted on the 131st 'Maikop' Motor Rifle Brigade, which was completely destroyed in the fighting near the central railway station. Despite the early Chechen defeat of the New Year's assault and the many further casualties that the Russians had sustained, Grozny was eventually conquered by Russian forces amidst bitter urban warfare. After armored assaults failed, the Russian military set out to take the city using air power and artillery, At the same time, the Russian military accused the Chechen fighters of using civilians as human shields by preventing them from leaving the capital as it came under continued bombardment. On 7 January 1995, Russian Major-General Viktor Vorobyov was killed by mortar fire, becoming the first on a long list of Russian generals to be killed in Chechnya. On 19 January, despite heavy casualties, Russian forces seized the ruins of the Chechen presidential palace, which had been heavily contested for more than three weeks as the Chechens finally abandoned their positions in the destroyed downtown area. The battle for the southern part of the city continued until the official end on 6 March 1995.

By the estimates of Yeltsin's human rights adviser Sergei Kovalev, about 27,000 civilians died in the first five weeks of fighting. Russian historian and general Dmitri Volkogonov said the Russian military's bombardment of Grozny killed around 35,000 civilians, including 5,000 children, and that the vast majority of those killed were ethnic Russians. While military casualties are not known, the Russian side admitted to having 2,000 soldiers killed or missing. The bloodbath of Grozny shocked Russia and the outside world, causing severe criticism of the war. International monitors from the OSCE described the scenes as nothing short of an "unimaginable catastrophe", while former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called the war a "disgraceful, bloody adventure" and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called it "sheer madness".

Continued Russian offensive[edit | edit source]

Following the fall of Grozny, the Russian government slowly but systematically expanded its control over the lowland areas and then into the mountains. In what was dubbed the worst massacre in the war, the OMON and other federal forces killed at least 103 civilians while seizing the border village of Samashki on 7 April (several hundred more were detained and beaten or otherwise tortured). In the southern mountains, the Russians launched an offensive along the entire front on 15 April, advancing in large columns of 200-300 vehicles. The ChRI forces defended the city of Argun, moving their military headquarters first to completely surrounded Shali, then shortly after to Serzhen-Yurt as they were forced into the mountains, and finally to Shamil Basayev's ancestral stronghold of Vedeno. Chechnya's second-largest city of Gudermes was surrendered without a fight, but the village of Shatoy was fought for and defended by the men of Ruslan Gelayev. Eventually, the Chechen command withdrew from the area of Vedeno to the Chechen opposition-aligned village of Dargo, and from there to Benoy. According to an estimate cited in a United States Army analysis report, between January and June 1995, when the Russian forces conquered most of the republic in the conventional campaign, their losses in Chechnya were approximately 2,800 killed, 10,000 wounded and more than 500 missing or captured. However, some Chechen fighters infiltrated already pacified places hiding in crowds of returning refugees.

As the war continued, separatists resorted to mass-hostage takings, attempting to influence the Russian public and leadership. In June 1995, a group led by the maverick field commander Shamil Basayev took more than 1,500 people hostage in southern Russia in the Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis; about 120 Russian civilians died before a ceasefire was signed after negotiations between Basayev and the Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The raid enforced a temporary stop in Russian military operations giving the Chechens time to regroup during their greatest crisis and to prepare for the national militant campaign. The full-scale Russian attack led many of Dudayev's opponents to side with his forces and thousands of volunteers to swell the ranks of mobile militant units. Many others formed local self-defence militia units to defend their settlements in the case of federal offensive action, officially numbering 5,000–6,000 armed men in late 1995. Altogether, the ChRI forces fielded some 10,000–12,000 full-time and reserve fighters at a time, according to the Chechen command. According to a UN report, the Chechen separatist forces included a large number of child soldiers, some as young as 11 and including females. As the territory controlled by them shrank, the separatists increasingly resorted to using classic guerrilla warfare tactics, such as setting booby traps and mining roads in enemy-held territory. The successful use of improvised explosive devices was particularly noteworthy; they also effectively exploited a combination of mines and ambushes.

In the fall of 1995, Gen. Anatoliy Romanov, the federal commander in Chechnya at the time, was critically injured and paralyzed in a bomb blast in Grozny. Suspicion of responsibility for the attack fell on rogue elements of the Russian military, as the attack destroyed hopes for a permanent ceasefire based on the developing trust between Gen. Romanov and the ChRI Chief of Staff Aslan Maskhadov, a former colonel in the Soviet Army; in August, the two went to southern Chechnya in an effort to convince the local commanders to release Russian prisoners. In February 1996, the federal and pro-Russian Chechen forces in Grozny opened fire on a massive pro-independence peace march which had involved tens of thousands of people, killing a number of demonstrators. The ruins of the presidential palace, the symbol of Chechen independence, were then demolished two days later.

Human rights and war crimes[edit | edit source]

Human rights organizations accused Russian forces of engaging in indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force whenever encountering resistance, resulting in numerous civilian deaths (for example, according to Human Rights Watch, Russian artillery and rocket attacks killed at least 267 civilians during the December 1995 separatist raid on Gudermes). The dominant Russian strategy was to use heavy artillery and air strikes throughout the campaign, leading some Western and Chechen sources to call the air strikes deliberate terror bombing on parts of Russia. Ironically, due to the fact that ethnic Chechens in Grozny were able to seek refuge among their respective teips in the surrounding villages of the countryside, a high proportion of initial civilian casualties were inflicted against ethnic Russians who were unable to procure viable escape routes. The villages, however, were also heavily targeted from the first weeks of the conflict (the Russian cluster bombs, for example, killed at least 55 civilians during the 3 January 1995 Shali cluster bomb attack). The Russian soldiers often prevented civilians from evacuating from areas of imminent danger and prevented humanitarian organizations from assisting civilians in need. It was widely alleged that Russian troops, especially those belonging to the MVD, committed numerous and in part systematic acts of torture and summary executions on separatist sympathizers; they were often linked to zachistka ("cleansing" raids, affecting entire town districts and villages suspected of harboring boyeviki - the separatist fighters). Humanitarian and aid groups chronicled persistent patterns of Russian soldiers killing, raping and looting civilians at random, often in disregard of their nationality. Separatist fighters took hostages on a massive scale, kidnapped or killed Chechens considered to be collaborators, and mistreated civilian captives and federal prisoners of war (especially pilots). Both the separatists and the federal forces kidnapped hostages for ransom and used human shields for cover during the fighting and movement of troops (for example, a group of surrounded Russian troops took approximately 500 civilian hostages at Grozny's 9th Municipal Hospital).

The violations committed by members of the Russian forces were usually tolerated by their superiors and were not punished even when investigated (the story of Vladimir Glebov serving as an example of such policy). However, television and newspaper accounts widely reported largely uncensored images of the carnage to the Russian public. As a result, the Russian media coverage partially precipitated a loss of public confidence in the government and a steep decline in president Yeltsin's popularity. Chechnya was one of the heaviest burdens on Yeltsin's 1996 presidential election campaign. In addition, the protracted war in Chechnya, especially many reports of extreme violence against civilians, ignited fear and contempt of Russia among other ethnic groups in the federation.


Spread of the war[edit | edit source]

Chechen declaration of Independence[edit | edit source]

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