Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim land located in southeastern Russia on the Caspian Sea. Historically, it served as a buffer zone between Russia to the North and Turkey to the South. In the mid-nineteenth century, while advancing for expansion, imperial Russia conquered Chechnya and deported thousands of its locals to Middle Eastern lands.
After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Chechens made several attempts to gain independence but all in vain. Chechnya became part of the newly-formed USSR in 1922, and in 1936, Joseph Stalin formed the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, with Grozny as its capital.
Later, during World War II, millions of Chechens were deported to Central Asia under the allegations of supporting and collaborating with the Nazi Germans, and hence the republic was abolished. However, it was restored in 1957 after Chechens were permitted to return to their homeland by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet’s first secretary.
Chechen Declaration of Independence
As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechnya declared independence. However, unlike other republics (like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan), Chechnya didn’t attain the desired autonomy. Rather, it remained as a republic within the Russian Federation.
In December 1991, the local communist government in Chechnya was overthrown by Dzhozkhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician who earlier served as a general in the Soviet air force. Dudayev became President and formed an anti-Russian autocratic state.
Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, who allowed the disintegration of the USSR, was not willing to tolerate the liberation of the state from the Russian Federation. Moreover, he feared that the secession of Chechnya could result in a domino effect of independence movements in the republics within the Russian Federation. This combined with the need to get access to valuable oil resources in Chechnya prompted Yeltsin to dispatch internal troops to Grozny. However, it proved futile as Dudayev’s forces forced them to withdraw.
In June 1992, the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic was split into two parts i.e. Republic of Ingushetia which joined Russia, and the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
Political Conflict in Chechnya
The years from 1991 to 1994 were also marked by the political conflict in Chechnya. The factions supporting Dudayev and his opponents remained engaged in a civil war throughout this period. The opposition even attempted a coup d’état in March 1992, followed by another in 1993, both of which were made unsuccessful by the Dudayev government.
Moscow provided the pro-Russian factions in Chechnya the financial support and military equipment to counter Dudayev and his loyalists. Russia even sent its troops to assist opposition groups to launch attacks on Grozny in mid-October and November 1994. Dudayev’s National Guard forces not only made those attacks unsuccessful but also succeeded in capturing some Russian army personnel.
The Onset of the First Chechen War
On November 29, Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave an ultimatum ordering the Dudayev government to disarm and submit to Moscow. However, Dudayev and his men in Chechnya refused to do so and so Yeltsin decided to go for the attack in the hope to restore “constitutional order.”
By December 1, the Russian forces began bombing both the military sites and Chechnya’s capital, Grozny. Ten days later, on December 11, the Russian troops entered Chechnya intending to preserve Russia’s territorial integrity. Russia’s Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev was confident of toppling the Dudayev government within a few hours in “a bloodless blitzkrieg”, which ended before December 20.
The Russian Invasion
The Russian troops, which invaded Chechnya on December 11, launched a three-pronged attack from the west, east, and north intending to capture Grozny. When the Russian armored forces entered Chechnya, they had to face improvised roadblocks and recurrent ambushes by Chechen militias.
On 31 December 1994, the Russian ground forces launched the assault on Grozny, which had already experienced heavy bombing by the artillery and the Russian air force. The Chechens, however, did not surrender despite heavy casualties and a lack of military equipment. The Chechens’ continuous resistance forced the Russians to switch their tactics, and so they initiated heavy artillery bombardment in addition to fierce house-to-house fighting.
The massive destruction and thousands of deaths eventually forced both sides to declare a ceasefire on February 8, 1995. The Chechen forces started pulling out of Grozny. However, the federal forces continued heavy artillery bombardment accompanied by cluster bombings. By June 1995, Russians had gained control over most of the republic.
On June 14, under the command of Shamil Basayev, a Chechen separatist group attacked the Russian city of Budyonnovsk and took around 2000 civilians hostage. They issued an ultimatum for a truce and a safe passage back to Chechnya. The Russians responded by attempts to storm the hospital but failed. More than 140 civilians were killed during the crossfires. Thus, on June 19, all combat operations in Chechnya were seized.
This ceasefire also did not last long as in December 1995, the Chechens recaptured Gudermes, a town located in the vicinity of Grozny. On January 6, 1996, the Chechen separatists under the leadership of Salman Raduev took around 3000 civilians hostage in Kizlyar, Pervomayskoe, and Dagestan. The hostage was followed by the attacks on Russian military bases and installations in an attempt to put pressure on Russian troops for safe passage back to Chechnya.
The Russian forces claimed to conduct a successful hostage rescue operation with only 15 to 41 casualties. Nonetheless, the attacking Chechens including their leader, Raduev, succeeded in returning to Chechnya. On April 21, 1996, Dudayev was eventually killed in a Russian laser-guided missile attack.
Another temporary ceasefire was signed by Chechen Acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Yeltsin, but the armed forces did not hesitate to conduct combat operations. After Yeltsin secured his second term as President on July 3, Chechnya no longer remained his priority. The separatist factions in Chechnya took advantage of this and launched a surprise attack on Grozny on August 6.
3rd Battle of Grozny
In this final attack on Grozny, more than 1,500 Chechen fighters, led by Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev, and Ruslan Gelayev, faced around 12,000 Russian troops deployed in and around Grozny. The Chechen fighters managed to isolate these federal forces stationed in the city into small pockets to diminish the chances for reinforcement and escape.
The captured weapons were used by the Chechen fighters to inflict heavy casualties on the federal forces. The attack caused the deaths of thousands of civilians, while many more were trapped in the bombarded city. Finally, on August 20, a ceasefire was ordered by Russian General Alexander Lebed, and direct talks with the Chechen leaders were initiated. Soon, all the Russian forces began to withdraw from the city.
Ten days later, on August 30, 1996, the head of the Russian Security Council, General Lebed signed the Khasav-Yurt Accord with the Chechen Prime Minister, Aslan Maskhadov. With the Khasav-Yurt Accord, the first Chechen war finally came to an end as the federal forces completely withdrew from Chechnya.
The first Chechen war, which ultimately ended with a Khasav-Yurt Accord, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people from both sides. The General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces claimed the Russians’ death toll to be 3,826. However, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia estimated the number of killed Russian military troops to be 14,000.
On the other hand, Médecins Sans Frontières asserted that 50,000 Chechens out of a population of 1,000,000 became victims of the war. Some other sources claim the numbers to be even higher. Many civilians and soldiers were even reported missing during the war.
The conflict showed that it didn’t take long for a nationalist movement to take shape of a full-fledged war. The execution of the first Chechen war and its conduct were not according to international rules; both sides had resorted to forms of terror to attain their goals. The anti-imperial struggle for independence was named “terrorism” by Russia while calling its own bombardments and invasion of Chechnya “counter-terrorism”.
Despite a ceasefire, Moscow did not recognize Chechnya’s independence; it was granted de facto independence until 2001. The agreement, however, did not last long and was followed by another brutal war that started in 1999 and left a lasting impression on history.
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