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Chechnya: How Russia Lost

Taken together, the books considered here do much to clarify the causes and the course of the war. The fundamental irritant was, obviously, the longstanding Chechen claim to independence from Russia, asserted unilaterally by Jokar Dudaev, a former Soviet general who styled himself Chechnya’s president in 1991. But this would not in itself have justified an invasion. True, there was at first a genuine fear in Russia that other Russian republics might follow Chechnya’s lead. But as the years passed none did, so this argument lost much of its force. And Dudaev’s demands for independence were accompanied by a continued attachment to Russia: what he wanted was for Russia and Chechnya to be sovereign partners in some greater union, as they might have been had Chechnya been a full union republic within the Soviet Union, and not merely an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

From time to time Russia complained about Chechnya serving as a base for organized and disorganized crime. This was fair enough. Under Dudaev the republic had little functioning government, and its economy operated entirely outside Russian law. The main industries were smuggling, fraud, and banditry, with trafficking in arms the main local speciality. That said, it was far from obvious that insuring Chechnya’s subjection to Russia would have done much to solve the crime problem. On the contrary, the Chechen gangs found their main customers, protectors, and business partners within the Russian banks, the Russian army, and the Russian government. Curbing crime in Chechnya could only have been achieved by rebuilding local institutions of government: and Russia, with its own government rotting from top to bottom, was in no position to sponsor any such venture.

The Caspian oil fields had a part in Russian thinking about Chechnya, though perhaps less of one than conspiracy theorists have suggested. Oil would have to be transported from the Caspian region to distant markets somehow, and Chechnya straddled one obvious pipeline route. Dudaev was mainly excited by exaggerated notions of how much Chechnya might earn from oil transit fees. Russia saw things more with respect to geopolitical power. The more completely it could lock up control of pipeline routes, the more beholden to it the countries of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan would become.

The personality of Dudaev himself was continuously provocative. Mr. Lieven found him “psychologically unstable, with strong features of both paranoia and megalomania, in the clinical sense.” The Kremlin hated him. Mr. Yeltsin’s staff helped precipitate the war by denying Dudaev a meeting with their boss in 1994, even though Dudaev himself was signaling wildly that such a meeting might be the occasion for him to moderate his position and reach some kind of accommodation with Russia.

But as Ben Fowkes remarks in his short but perceptive introduction to Russia and Chechnia: The Permanent Crisis, a collection of essays by various writers, the striking thing about Russian policy between 1991 and 1994 was the consistency with which Russia resisted taking action to subdue Chechnya and topple Dudaev. As late as August 1994 Mr. Yeltsin was saying that “forcible intervention in Chechnia is impermissible…. There will be so much turmoil and blood that afterwards no one will forgive us.”

The main Russian effort went into encouraging other Chechen factions to overthrow Mr. Dudaev, giving them money and weapons to do so. The Kremlin’s favorites were Doku Zavgaev, a dour ex-apparatchik who ran the local Communist Party between 1989 and 1991; Umar Avturkhanov, who formed a “Provisional Council” for Chechnya in 1994; and Salambek Khajiev, an urbane bureaucrat who served as a puppet prime minister for the Russians in 1995. This strategy was not obviously futile: Mr. Dudaev’s incapacity to govern was making him unpopular at home. But the Russians could not bring themselves to back the one opposition figure who might conceivably have seized power from Dudaev and held it. This was Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen-born politician who had helped lead the revolt of the Russian parliament against Mr. Yeltsin in 1993, thus making himself scarcely more welcome than Mr. Dudaev was in the eyes of Mr. Yeltsin.

It was only in the final weeks of 1994 that Mr. Yeltsin decided that Chechnya had to be crushed. Fatigue and emotion may have had a part in his decision. From all appearances he was drinking heavily around this time: on August 31, 1994, at a ceremony in Berlin to mark the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany, he tried to conduct a police band and to lead a sing-along of Russian folk songs. He may have had problems with his heart; in September he was too drunk or ill to manage a meeting with the Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, during a stopover at Shannon airport. The more uncertain Mr. Yeltsin’s grip on events, the more he was hostage to the circle around him—which was dominated at this time by an unprepossessing clique of hawks and bruisers, led by Alexander Korzhakov, head of the presidential guard.

The immediate occasion for the invasion of Chechnya came on November 26, 1994, when one of the Kremlin’s covert operations, an attempt by groups opposed to Dudaev to storm Grozny, the Chechen capital, went badly wrong. Russian soldiers taking part in the attack were captured. Dudaev threatened to execute them. In deciding how to react, Mr. Yeltsin had before him Russian intelligence reports which, because they came mainly from the anti-Dudaev opposition, offered wildly disparaging accounts of the Dudaev camp’s fighting capacities. Yeltsin had an absurdly optimistic view of his own army’s abilities, which came straight from the fertile imagination of his corrupt and lazy generals. His advisers were talking admiringly of the American invasion of Haiti, an action which had removed an unpleasant government at little immediate cost and boosted the popularity of President Clinton. A “small victorious war” in Chechnya, they thought in the Kremlin, might do the same for Mr. Yeltsin.3

Mr. Yeltsin ordered the invasion. But what he got was a big humiliating mess. It was not that the Russians were playing some deep game that went wrong, or that the Chechens were brilliantly armed and organized, or that inexperienced journalists covering the assault mistook for absolute chaos the bloody confusion inherent in any battle. The Russians, as all the books under review confirm, sent thousands of untrained, unpaid, underfed, underequipped, badly led conscripts into the first assaults on Grozny. They had no battle plan to speak of, or at least none that was communicated to those doing the fighting.

Mr. Yeltsin was so ashamed or frightened of what he had done that when fighting began he disappeared for a fortnight, claiming to be in urgent need of a sinus operation. By the time he reappeared in public his army was preparing to force the rebel fighters out of Grozny by blowing the city to pieces with aerial bombing and battlefield rocketry and blowing thousands of civilians to pieces in the process. To this day, with no money from Chechnya or Russia to reconstruct it, the center of Grozny evokes images of Dresden or Hiroshima in 1945. A visit there is a salutary experience for anybody tempted to think well of Mr. Yeltsin. (Since the Chechens have taken to kidnapping and ransoming any foreigners that come their way, however, educational visits are not, for the moment, recommended.)

The sheer weight of numbers and firepower that razed Grozny might well have allowed the Russian army to prevail in all Chechnya. By May 1995 the Chechen fighters were at a low ebb, holding on to just two towns of any size, Vedeno and Shatoy. Both these fell to the Russians in the first fortnight of June. But then the Russians made their biggest mistake save for that of invading Chechnya in the first place. They took fright when a young Chechen warlord, Shamil Basaev (later Chechnya’s prime minister, a job from which he resigned in July), led a raiding party into a town called Budennovsk, in the adjacent Russian region of Stavropol Kray. Mr. Basaev’s men seized a hospital with a thousand hostages inside. Russian troops responded with their customary finesse, killing at least 120 hostages in their failed attempts to storm the building. After that the Chechen troops were given safe passage out, and the Russian government, thinking the Budennovsk raid might be the start of a terrorist campaign in other parts of Russia, agreed to a truce and peace talks.

Hindsight allows this to be seen as the turning point of the war. The Chechens gained the breathing space they needed to rebuild their forces and reinfiltrate their own territory. The bluff succeeded because Russia had lost confidence in its capacity to judge the Chechens’ strength. In effect, Russia was paying a second time for the catastrophic failures of its military intelligence in 1994, which had so grievously underestimated the Chechen capacity to resist invasion. By the time of the Budennovsk raid the Chechens genuinely were weak—but the Russian government was treating them as though they were strong.

The final year of the war, a succession of insincere peace talks and scarcely observed cease-fires, was marked by two main events: the Russian army’s assassination of General Dudaev in April 1996, and the Russian presidential election won by Mr. Yeltsin in June. Both events helped to bring peace closer. The Russians had so demonized Dudaev that killing him amounted to a sort of consolation prize, and made Russian military defeat far more bearable. The approach of the election put Mr. Yeltsin under pressure to find a settlement for Chechnya, since those voters who did not dislike the war itself certainly disliked the Russian inability to win it.

In May Mr. Yeltsin called the Chechen war the “greatest mistake” of his first term, and arbitrarily declared it to be “over.” A peace treaty providing for a Russian withdrawal was signed on August 23, by which time the Chechens had retaken Grozny almost without a fight. Evasive and unprincipled to the last, Mr. Yeltsin left it to his security adviser, Alexander Lebed, to negotiate the Russian withdrawal. Mr. Yeltsin withheld his approval of the deal for almost a month—waiting to see whether he could take the credit for it or whether Mr. Lebed should be handed the blame.


That Russia was defeated in Chechnya seems beyond argument. But to say Chechnya “won” would be misleading in all but the narrowest of senses. Its economy and industry were destroyed. So were its towns and villages. At least 20,000 people, and possibly twice that number, were killed. A hard-line Chechen nationalist might pronounce all those things a price worth paying—which was certainly Dudaev’s view. But a price worth paying for what? The Chechen “victory” has probably yielded Chechnya no more in the way of useful sovereignty than the republic might have enjoyed, damage-free, by agreeing to remain within the Russian Federation.

The leaking of power from federal to regional levels in Russia may well prove to have been, along with the introduction of democracy, the main political development of the Yeltsin period.4 The corruption and incompetence of the federal government has provided both the motive and opportunity for the regions to capture power. And if at least some regions display a capacity to learn from one another’s mistakes, this devolution of power offers one of the few hopeful indicators for the future of Russian governance. Collectively, the regional governments of Russia have become more powerful than the Russian federal government. They pass laws and regulations covering taxation and privatization, industrial policy and agriculture, and investment and trade, which ignore or contradict federal laws. Many republics have enacted constitutions infringing or contradicting the Russian federal constitution. The only thing really demanded of regional leaders is that they do not go out of their way to challenge explicitly the authority of Mr. Yeltsin or the overriding sovereignty of Russia. Since neither that authority nor that sovereignty weighs very heavily upon them, they have little incentive to challenge either one.

Perhaps the possibilities for real regional autonomy within Russia were not quite so obvious in 1993 and 1994, when regional governments were still learning to flex their muscles. But they were clear enough to Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Tatarstan, who, like Dudaev, resisted signing the new Federation Treaty on which Mr. Yeltsin insisted. Unlike Mr. Dudaev, Mr. Shaimiev eventually agreed to sign, but he also secured from Mr. Yeltsin a “power-sharing agreement” which guaranteed Tatarstan—in effect, Mr. Shaimiev himself—a free hand to run its affairs more or less as it chose. Tatarstan has been collecting the powers and attributes of statehood ever since. Most recently it has been flirting with the notion of a “Tatar” citizenship linking the Russian citizens of Tatarstan with the diaspora of ethnic Tatars beyond. Had Mr. Dudaev signed the Federation Treaty on Chechnya’s behalf, he too might now be president of a republic with its own flag, its own language, its own economic policies, and its own constitution—a part of Russia in theory but a law unto itself in practice.

Instead, Chechnya has endured terrible suffering from which it has emerged with a great deal of praise for its fighting spirit but not much else. Aslan Maskhadov, the former army commander who was elected Chechen president last year, seems to be as fair and decent a leader as the would-be country could expect in the circumstances. But it is not clear what he can hope to do. Economic development will not come until social stability has returned; and social stability will not return without economic development. Anarchy threatens.

Anatol Lieven believes that the Chechens still have “many of the characteristics of a ‘primordial ethnic nation,”’ that they are a “nationality with no identification with the state and society in which they live, and no motivation whatsoever to conform with its laws.” If one takes that view, then their current condition may be viewed as almost inevitable, and there is no point in wishing on them some more tedious and bourgeois model of society. But if one agrees with Thomas de Waal and Carlotta Gall that “for all their warlike traditions, Chechens are no different from anybody else in wanting a peaceful future for their children, jobs and stability,” then the current plight of Chechnya is a tragic one.

One thing that might help Chechnya would be an offer by Russia to recognize its independence. Then, at any rate, Chechen leaders would have no alibi for failing to provide something in the way of normal government. There would be less cause for young Chechen men to be carrying guns and to be swaggering about in fatigues in the hope that fighting might resume. Most of all, it would be easier for a legally recognized Chechen government to persuade other countries to help it find and pay its way in the world: at present Russia is dissuading other countries from recognizing Chechnya and from dealing directly with its government.

But Russia is in no hurry to help Chechnya in any way: and why should it be? There is consolation to be derived from Chechnya’s suffering. Moreover, the 1996 peace deal provides for any agreement on Chechnya’s status to be deferred until 2001. And until then Russia has plenty of other things to worry about.

Indeed, it is a feature of Russian political life that there is always something else to worry about. Events move on before anybody ever takes responsibility for anything. Blame for failures, where assigned, is symbolic and quickly purged. That has certainly been the case for those who brought about the invasion of Chechnya, as terrible a failure as anything done wilfully in Russia this decade. The head of the Russian security services at the time of the Chechen invasion was Sergei Stepashin. Few would dissent from Mr. Lieven’s judgement that Mr. Stepashin’s “personal intrigues and total misreading of Chechen military potential [were] directly responsible for the intervention.” But last year, after enjoying various sinecures, he returned to the government as minister of justice. This year Mr. Yeltsin promoted him to be minister of the interior.

Sergei Shakhrai, who was nationalities minister in 1994 and as such mainly responsible for government policy toward Chechnya, served until June this year as Mr. Yeltsin’s representative at the constitutional court. Pavel Grachev, who as defense minister took charge of the invasion, held on to his position for two years afterward. He has since been given a lucrative job as adviser to the Russian arms-export monopoly, Rosvooruzheniye.

As for Mr. Yeltsin himself, he has been muttering about running for a third term as Russian president—though the depth of the current Russian financial crisis suggests that he may be very lucky to finish his second term. Since the dust settled around the peace deal he has scarcely referred to Chechnya at all. So far from being haunted by the war he ordered, he seems scarcely to remember it. François Mitterrand once said that the quality most valuable to a politician was “indifference.” In Russia amnesia has become equally valuable, if not more so.


Not Bad, Just Sad February 18, 1999

  1. 3

    The source of this detail is Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the Defense Committee of the Duma, the lower house of the Russia parliament, who spoke by telephone to Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Kremlin’s security council and a crony of General Korzhakov’s, on November 30, 1994. Gall and De Waal quote Yushenko as saying: “On the telephone Lobov [said] ‘It is not only a question of the integrity of Russia. We need a small victorious war to raise the President’s ratings.’ …Clinton in Haiti could perform a successful operation and his ratings immediately jumped up. I was not able to convince Lobov that Chechnya was not Haiti.” As Gall and De Waal point out, the phrase “a small victorious war” was a particularly unhappy one. It was used in 1904 by Vyacheslav Plehve, the Russian interior minister, who thought such a war would help avert revolution. Russia picked a fight with Japan, was defeated, and the revolution of 1905 followed directly.

  2. 4

    The term “region” is used here, for simplicity’s sake, to cover all the entities of the Russian Federation. Strictly speaking, the 89 entities (including Chechnya) divide into regions, republics, autonomous oblasts, and cities. Chechnya was—and still is, in Russian eyes—a republic within the Russia Federation. At first the republics, which were officially the homelands of specific minorities such as the Chechens and the Tatars, enjoyed more autonomy than other federal subjects did. They began electing their presidents in 1991, when the “regions” all had governors appointed by President Yeltsin. Since 1996 all regional governors have been elected too, giving them the same political authority as the presidents of the republics. There is little to choose now between the powers of a strong regional governor and those of a republic’s president.

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