Chechnya: The Russian Quagmire: Paul Bellamy Reviews the Performance of the Russian Armed Forces in the Chechnya Conflict

By Bellamy, Paul | New Zealand International Review, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

Chechnya: The Russian Quagmire: Paul Bellamy Reviews the Performance of the Russian Armed Forces in the Chechnya Conflict


Bellamy, Paul, New Zealand International Review


In August 1999, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a counter-insurgency operation in Dagestan followed by a massive military intervention in Chechnya. This second campaign was launched with much optimism that victory could be swiftly achieved. Above all, it was believed that there would not be a repeat of the costly first campaign (1994-96) that ultimately ended with a withdrawal of disillusioned Russian forces. However, such optimism has proved to be poorly founded, as Russia is yet decisively to defeat the Chechnyan fighters and to establish strong control over the republic. Indeed, many of the deficiencies evident in the first campaign have been witnessed in the second campaign, and are symptomatic of the overall decay of the Russian military.

A comparative analysis of the Russian campaigns in Chechnya is important. The campaigns have been influential in shaping post-Soviet politics. The first campaign led to much opposition to President Boris Yeltsin and was a major issue in the 1996 presidential election. More recently, the initial success of the second campaign encouraged support for Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister and helped him to win the 2000 presidential elections. A comparative analysis also helps to assess Putin's progress towards his goal of rebuilding the military, and whether painful lessons of the first campaign have been learnt. Moreover, the war has been publicised in light of the tragic events of 11 September as Russia has stressed the link between the second campaign and the international war against terrorism.

The Russian intervention in Chechnya during 1994 was encouraged by a number of key factors. Under President Jokhar Dudayev, Chechnya had declared itself independent in November 1991 despite Moscow's opposition. Yeltsin attempted to blockade the republic and cut it off from federal budget funds. However, Dudayev remained in power and Yeltsin became increasingly impatient. The republic's growing instability and lawlessness, the fear that other republics might follow Chechnya and declare independence, the need to control Chechnyan oil fields and pipelines, and the belief that the republic could be swiftly subdued encouraged this impatience. It was within this context that Russia was involved in a failed attempt to overthrow Dudayev in November 1994, and launched a full-scale intervention the following month.

Disastrous campaign

The first Chechnyan campaign was disastrous. Russian forces failed to subdue the rebellious republic and the conflict escalated. Chechnyan fighters in June 1995 attacked the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk and in June 1996 attacked Kizlyar, a provincial centre in Dagestan. Fighting only ceased in August 1996 after an agreement was signed by which Russia and the republic would have five years to determine Chechnya's status. It is estimated that 50,000 civilians, 20003000 Chechnyan fighters, and 3826 Russian personnel died during the war. (1)

Despite the 1996 peace agreement, tensions between Russia and the republic remained. In March 1999, Major-General Gennady Shpigun, the Russian Deputy Interior Minister, was kidnapped in Grozny, and the warlord Shamil Basayev led incursions into neighbouring Dagestan during August and September. Finally, Chechnyans were accused of being responsible for a series of bombs that exploded in Moscow and two other Russian towns that left over 300 dead. Russian forces undertook counter-insurgency operations in Dagestan from 2 August to 30 September 1999, and on 1 October launched a full-scale intervention in Chechnya.

The second campaign was meant to be swift and decisive but to date has proven to be neither. Grozny was stormed in December 1999-January 2000 and Russian personnel deployments peaked at 100,000 in January 2000. Since this time reductions have occurred as the campaign has moved from a large-scale intervention to win control of territory to a war against groups of Chechnyan fighters. …

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