Exit Strategies

Russia's Long War


On Monday, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Moscow subway, killing 39 people. On Wednesday, more bombings killed another twelve Russians, including nine police officers. These are the latest in a series of attacks on the Russian Federation by Muslims. The Russian victims, who live in a modern city and go about on the subway, are much like us, and there are many who are apt to see this conflict as part of a "Clash of Civilizations" with Islam, a piece with the global war on terror and America's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Charlie Szrom of National Review Online, for instance, couselled that we remember that "we remain locked in a global struggle with an enemy that seeks to continually harm American interests." But pace the conservatives, to understand the attacks in Moscow, we ought to look not to the Koran but the history of the North Caucuses. Russia's attempts to conquer the region have been bloody and futile and have created as much of a psychological crisis as they do a humanitarian one. 

The fact of the matter is, while Europe and America were foolish enough to bring Muslims into their countries, the Chechen situation is closer to that of the Palestinians, who have been displaced and oppressed by a foreign power. But unlike the Palestinians, nobody taken seriously among the Chechens has ever questioned Russia's right to exist or claimed anything more than the lands his people are currently living on.  

The origins of the Chechen people are obscure, though they may have been living in the same area for 10,000 years. Their close kin are the Ingush and the two ethnicities speak mutually intelligible tongues.  Despite this, the two groups, called the Nakh together, seldom intermarry and have split apart over the years. While the Ingush voted to remain within the Russian Federation in 1991, the Chechens declared independence. There are 900,000 Chechens in Chechnya, another 250,000 in the Russian Federation and 1.5 million worldwide.

Chechen society is built around the teip, which literally means something like "clan" and ties a Chechen in with his extended family and a piece of land. The region has over 150 teips with a few of these groups priding themselves on their ancestral purity. The more placid Chechens of the North are a plains people and the rambunctious mountaineers of the South traditionally formed the base of resistance to Russian rule. They are known for their strict conception of honor, concern with blood ties and a fierce independent streak.

Chechnya was animist until two or three centuries ago when Islam began making inroads. The form of the religion that took here was Sufism, a moderate and mystical faith that makes far fewer demands on the believer than traditional Islam. Leaders have tried and failed to impose Sharia law on the Chechens, who smoke and dance and generally let their women go uncovered.  

Still, if one is to say that the Chechens have traditionally been secular, it must be understood that this means only that religion hasn't been as big of an influence on them compared to other Muslim peoples. For when Russians have invaded, leaders haven't hesitated to preach holy war. By 1961, however, the Soviet Union had closed down every single mosque in Chechnya.  There's a story that ignorance of the faith was so great that in 1991 President Jokhar Dudayev urged his fellow countrymen to follow their religion and pray three, that is not five, times a day.

In past centuries this exotic people has fascinated members of the Russian elite. According to one book on Chechnya,

Some of the more free-thinking Russians who came down to the Caucasus to fight the long-running colonial war regarded the mountain people as at best gallant savages. For these children of the Romantic era, like the poets Pushkin and Lermontov, service in the Caucus was equivalent to a Victorian English officer's time on the North-West Frontier; a place to escape the capital, live the simple life and encounter the primordial natives in all their wildness and simplicity.

Leo Tolstoy served in Chechnya from 1851 to 1853 and wrote his novella Hadji Murad based on a real historical character and his own experiences. In the story, a peasant soldier, Avdeev, is killed in a pointless skirmish started by the vanity of his commander in a forest of the Caucuses. The report on the incident incorrectly states that the Russians showed remarkable bravery in killing and wounding a hundred mountaineers during the attack. His family is informed that he died fighting for "his Tsar, his Fatherland, and the Orthodox Faith." Tolstoy shows sympathy both for the Russian soldier and his valiant enemy, but very little for the vain and pompous armchair generals and politicians who were responsible for his country's involvement in faraway lands. 

Murad features quite a few historical figures, among them Czar Nicholas I. Tolstoy sums up the colonial mentality in the following passage where the Czar is thinking about Poles, but which could have been written about Russian attitudes towards Chechens then or now.

Nicholas frowned. He had done much evil to the Poles. To justify that evil he had to be certain that all Poles were rascals, and he considered them to be such, and hated them accordingly in proportion to the evil he had done to them. 

Russian expansion into Chechnya began in the 18th century. The region was unfortunately stuck between Russia and the Christian kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia, the Ottoman Empire and Persia. In 1722 Peter the Great led an expedition from neighboring Dagestan and was pushed back by the natives. Eventually, however, the empire proved too strong and rule over the Caucuses was established. The first rebel leader from the region was Ushurma, who preached holy war against the Russians. He was captured in 1791 and died in a Russian prison three years later but remains a hero to the Chechens to this day.  

In 1817 troops were sent to decidedly conquer Dagestan and Chechnya. By 1820, Russian Commander-in-Chief of the Caucus Alexei Yermolov would declare the area permanently pacified and part of Russia. It was not to be. Only five years later the subjugated people would rebel. Yermolov remains the most famous general of the Caucasian Wars (1817-1864), having been immortalized in Pushkin's poem "The Caucasian Captive" in the line "Bow down, Caucasus, Yermolov is coming!" Moscow tried to keep a statue of the general in the Chechen capital Grozny, but the people kept blowing it up until in the 1980s, the government quit trying to honor the would-be conqueror.  

"First imam" of Dagestan Kazi Mullah fought the Russians until he was killed in the mountain village of Girmy in 1832. Only two in his camp survived, one being the legendary leader Imam Shamil. A second imam popped up and was killed and Shamil became the third in 1834.  He built something resembling a state in the 1840s and conscripted one man from each household to fight the occupiers. The imam surrendered in 1859 and was sent to St. Petersburg, where he ended up becoming something of a celebrity. Russian brutality was shocking even for the time. Historians have estimated that a between the 1820s and the 1850s, the population in the Northeast Caucasus shrunk from 200,000 to 130,000.

What are today Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia were in 1860 officially brought into the Russian empire. In 1877, Chechnya again rebelled and was put down during the Russo-Turkish war. That decade, black gold was discovered in Grozny. By the turn of the 20th century, the capital of Chechnya had become the second most important oil center of the empire. Chechnya was no longer simply in Russia's way, but now had value of its own.

The Chechens supported the Reds in the Russian civil war and hoped for independence with the fall of the Czar. The Communists at first seemed to have an enlightened nationalities policy but eventually proved worse than all previous regimes. Stalin, at that time the Bolshevik Commissar on Nationalities, allowed the creation of the Mountainous Autonomous Republic in 1921. Moscow, of course, wouldn't leave the region alone and kept trying to centralize power. In 1937 Stalin had 14,000 Chechens and Ingush, or around three percent of the population of the region, shot.  

Soviet brutality went beyond the worst crimes of the old monarchy. In 1944, the entire native Nakh population, half a million people, was deported to northern Kazakhstan, a project which required 100,000 soldiers and special operatives. A fifth of the displaced died in the first two years of exile. Those who survived were permitted to return by Nikita Krushkev in 1957. Until then, there was a systematic campaign to destroy the native culture -- names of cities were changed, books in Chechen or Ingush burned, and the statue of Yermolov mentioned earlier was erected in Grozny.  

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Chechens, still holding on to the memories of the deportations, declared independence. Boris Yeltson responded by sending to the Republic servicemen who were met by armed Chechen forces and turned back. For the next three years Chechnya had de facto independence as its president Jokhar Dudayev1 became bolder in his defiance of Moscow. It was a land defined by oil corruption and roaming armed gangs and with little Islamist influence.  

In the lead-up to the first Russian invasion of the '90s, Moscow tried to covertly overthrow the leader who was causing them trouble as they had done in Georgia and Azerbaijan two years earlier. They at first supplied helicopters and weapons and then soldiers to Dudayev's opposition. A hawkish and a dovish wing evolved in Yeltsin's circle. The former gained the upper hand in September 1994 when some of the more liberal advisers to the President's circle sent him a letter rebuking him for his drunken buffoonish behavior at a ceremony in Berlin. Yeltsin got upset and froze them out.

On November 26th, 1994 Russia contributed some of its own soldiers to the opposition to Dudayev when it tried to move in on Grozny. The battle was a fiasco and a conventional invasion kicked off two weeks later.  Eduard Vorobyov, First Deputy Commander of Russia's Ground Forces, resigned rather than lead the operation which he called a crime. The General Alexander Lebed predicted that Chechnya would be a new Afghanistan and said he would only lead into the region a unit made up of the sons of government leaders (if only we had such men in the American Army!). Three other top generals also urged a political solution and were dismissed. The Kremlin refused to listen and on New Year's Eve 1994, Moscow launched a full scale invasion of Grozny with the intention of bringing the Republic back into the fold. 

It would later be revealed they didn't expect the Chechens to resist -- tanks were supposed to roll into the capital and be used to force Dudayev to negotiate. The world, and the Russians themselves, were shocked when the Chechen guerrillas not only fought back but annihilated their enemies. There were 2,000 Russian casualties, about five percent of the entire invasion force, despite many Chechens bringing little more than swords and knives into battle. 

The Russians fought with the same level of stupidity, incompetence, brutality and inhumanity with which they implemented the policies of the Caucasian Wars a century and a half before. Technology had improved since then making the destruction more absolute, but otherwise the stories told of the 1994-1996 war could've come from Tolstoy's pen. After 21 soldiers were captured by Dudayev's forces in the late November operation mentioned above, Moscow, which was still taking the public position that they weren't militarily involved with the Republic, refused to claim them as their own. Dudayev made a statement to the effect that if he was assured they were Russian Federation soldiers they would be treated as prisoners-of-war, but otherwise would be considered mercenaries of the opposition and shot. The Russian Defense Minister publicly denied they were official soldiers and blustered that if a real invasion ever took place, Chechnya would be pacified in two hours! (Luckily, the soldiers still had value as POWs and were eventually released.)

A dovish parliamentarian visiting Grozny during the start of the war appealed to Yeltsin to stop the attacks, observing that Russian pilots didn't know what they were bombing. The ground forces were unprepared for urban combat and their tanks became mobile coffins. During the first month of the conflict, some Russian soldiers had so little food to eat that they resorted to hunting stray dogs. 

Despite all this, after the New Year's Eve disaster the Russians regrouped and aimed to take the city block by block. Only after two months did they succeeded at the cost of 27,000 civilian lives. It wasn't until the summer that they had taken the plains and were moving into the mountainous South.  

On June 14th, at their most desperate, the guerillas brought the war to the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, 100 miles north of the Chechen border.  Resistance leader Shamil Basayev and about 150 fighters held around two thousand people hostage in the hospital of the village and demanded the Kremlin withdrawal from their homeland and also give them a safe passage for themselves back to Chechnya. President Dudayev and his closest aids condemned the attack the next day. Unfortunately, Basayev wasn't taking orders from the President but acting out on his own. That day the conflict became more morally ambiguous as some Chechens adopted 21st century methods of jihad.  Of course, the Chechen people are no more responsible for this than Russians are for their soldiers who human rights groups have documented looting, raping and killing across the Northern Caucuses.  

Ten days after the crisis began, the authorities agreed to begin holding peace talks and let Basayev and his followers go. A tentative agreement was reached but by fall the two sides were fighting again. In October the top Russian general of the region was killed in a car bomb probably set by pro-Moscow Chechens or Russian security forces hostile to the peace process. 

While the Russians have tried to frame the Chechen wars as them battling religious extremism and terrorism, this doesn't explain similar, albeit less bloody, conflicts that the empire has had in recent decades with the Ignush, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Tatars, Georgians, and Poles. Islam can only be blamed for the fact that the Chechens have fought harder than the other colonized peoples, not for the fact that they've resisted Russification. As the British historian John Baddeley wrote of hostilities that broke out in the Caucuses in 1824,

The Russians, be it noted, assign religious fanaticism as the primary cause of this and all similar outbreaks; but in truth it was only secondary.  It was in the role of invaders, oppressors, conquerors-or, to use the current euphemism, civilisers-that they excited such bitter resentment; nor, to do them justice, did they ever attempt to proselytise.  On the other hand, zeal or the religion of Muhammad, though mighty the part it played henceforth, was but as air in a blow-pipe feeding a flame that already existed.  The Ghazavat [holy war] would never have been preached in the Caucasus had the Russians been peaceful and friendly neighbors.

President Dudayev was killed by an unknown branch of the Russian government on April 21st, 1996. Three weeks later his successor Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Yeltsin signed a peace deal that removed Russian troops from Chechnya but kept a pro-Moscow government in control in Grozny. The Russian President used the agreement to win reelection and less than a week later started hostilities again.  

In response, the Chechens decided to throw everything they had at taking back their capital. On August 6th, Basayev led 1500 fighters from across the province into the city and once again engaged in urban combat with the occupiers.  As many as 12,000 Russian soldiers were called in but couldn't hold on to Grozny.  For six days the Russians tried to take it back to no avail.  Finally, Alexander Lebed, the general who opposed the war from the start and said he would like to see the sons of privilege fighting it, was given control of the situation in his capacity as Special Envoy to Chechnya.  After some political infighting within the Kremlin he officially ended the First Chechen War.  

In the last battle for Grozny alone the Russians ended up with 500 dead, 182 missing and almost 1,500 wounded; during for the entire conflict 6,000 men of the Russian Army perished with three times as many injured.  More than five percent of the population of Chechnya also died or went missing.  Moscow was furious with Lebed for "loosing" Chechnya, but he defended his actions before being fired in October. 

In general I am fed up with making war. And then I know for sure that any war is first a deadlock and then a meaningless catastrophe. I know for sure that all wars, even if they are hundred-year wars, end in negotiations and peace. So, should one fight a hundred years and kill lots of people to come to a negotiated settlement? Perhaps we should start with it.

Indeed, the final result was close to what could've been signed back in 1991 had Russia decided to give up its imperial dreams: the Federal Army left Chechnya and it was declared that the status of the Republic was to be determined within five years. 

The Second Chechen War began three years later. 

Continued in

Part II



1 -- In the 1990s it was revealed that the Chechen president's grandmother, aunt and two cousins were among those killed on orders from Beria's men in 1944.  Interestingly, Dudayev was married to a Russian and had been a model Soviet Air Force general before emerging as the leader of the Chechen independence movement.