On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to the watching world that Russian military forces were orchestrating a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The offensive was the largest in Europe since World War II. However, this is not the first time that Vladimir Putin and the upper brass of Russian officials had invaded a neighboring nation. In 1999, the Russian Federation invaded the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in the Northern Caucasus. While tensions between Russia and Chechnya did not begin with Putin, Putin used the conflict to establish himself as Russia’s supreme leader.
The following post is by guest contributor Brenden Woldman
A Post-Soviet Chechnya and the First Chechen War
The road to Chechen independence began in the turbulent final years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union. Chechen leaders, led by Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev, took advantage of the turmoil by officially asserting their independence on September 6, 1991. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who supported the autonomy of Soviet states, was far from pleased with Chechnya’s assertion for self-determination, believing Chechen independence was an attack on Russia’s territorial sovereignty. To curb Chechnya’s ambitions, Yeltsin appointed “hawkish” anti-Chechen politicians in influential positions within his administration. After three years of mulling around the issue, Yeltsin ordered Russian forces to invade Chechnya on December 11, 1994, sparking the First Chechen War. To the surprise of Russian officials, the Chechen defense was much stiffer than anticipated, causing a steeper number of casualties and logistical losses. The war became an unfathomable slog that proved the ineptitude of the Russian military. After nearly two years of fighting, the Khasavyurt Accords were signed on August 31, 1996, ending the conflict. The Russian Army withdrew from Chechnya, and Yeltsin wallowed in embarrassment. Mikhail Gorbachev went so far as to describe the war in Chechnya as a “disgraceful, bloody adventure.”
The Rise of Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin was not a part of the Yeltsin administration during the First Chechen War. Putin initially worked for the Russian security agency, better known as the KGB, before working for the mayor of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak. Putin left Saint Petersburg and moved to Moscow, where he eventually caught the eye of the Yeltsin administration. Yeltsin’s close advisor and Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev initially hired the former KGB agent in 1997 to work for the administration before Yeltsin appointed Putin as the First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Staff on May 25, 1998. Two months later, Putin was selected as the director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, which served as the successor to the KGB.
When it came to Chechnya in the post-war years, Yeltsin alleviated some tensions by signing the Moscow Peace Treaty with new Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. However, the issue of Chechen independence was still not resolved. Moreover, Chechnya was proving to the Russians that the region was falling apart. Lawlessness and terrorist attacks continued to plague the new nation, as pro-Chechen terrorist groups began executing terrorist attacks and kidnappings of Russian political figures, such as Valentin Vlasov and General Gennadiy Shpigun, in Russia and along the Russian-Chechen border. The chaos in Chechnya made many Russians fear for their safety. Even moderates began to see Chechnya as nothing more than a land run on crime. The Russian government agreed, believing that allowing an independent Chechnya was a danger to Russia.
Prime Minister Putin and the Second Chechen War
As the new millennium approached, Yeltsin’s second and final term as president was ending. The President’s ill health, inability to maintain Russian democracy, and seemingly subservient attitude toward the West caused many Russians to view Yeltsin as unpopular and weak. Yeltsin knew that he needed a successor. According to Yumashev, he and Yeltsin discussed who should be the next leader of Russia. They agreed that the young Putin was a “superb candidate.”
On August 9, 1999, in one of his final dramatic decrees as president, Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and his entire cabinet. The fading Yeltsin immediately appointed Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister of Russia, claiming to the Russian public in a televised speech that Putin was the only person “able to consolidate society and, drawing support from broadest political forces, to ensure the continuation of reforms in Russia.” Since Putin would bring prosperity to Russia in the 21st century, Yeltsin called on “everyone who will come to the polling stations… and make their choice to have confidence in [Putin.] I think that he has sufficient time to prove himself.”
There was little time for Putin to ease into his new role. In the months before his appointment, hostilities in Chechnya were rising. Finding inspiration in the successes by the mujahideen in Kosovo, radical Islamic groups in Chechnya led by Ibn al-Khattab and Shamil Basayev began executing an insurgency in Dagestan in late August 1999, sparking the Second Chechen War. Russian military figures expected initially to respond in a limited fashion. The original strategy included inflicting heavy damage against the insurgents without risking Russian casualties by avoiding ground combat at all costs. However, this restrained strategy changed in September.
The Apartment Bombings
On the evening of September 4, a truck bomb detonated outside a five-story apartment building in Buynaksk, Dagestan, killing 64 people and injuring 100 more. The attack was gruesome but did not surprise or upset the Russian people. The attacks were against Dagestani citizens, not Russians. Five days later, the Russian populace would be shocked when the attacks came home. On September 9, a bomb exploded in the basement of an apartment building at 19 Guryanova Street in southeast Moscow. More than 100 people died, and 690 were injured. Russians were stunned. The war had come home. The following week saw an additional two more successful attacks in Moscow and an attack on the southern Russian city of Volgodonsk. Between September 4 and September 16, multiple apartment buildings were bombed, resulting in the deaths of approximately 300 people and injuring over 1,000 more.
Putin was mortified by the attacks and answered the Russian call for revenge. The newly-appointed prime minister vowed that “[Russia] will pursue the terrorists everywhere.” “Even if we find them in a toilet,” Putin asserted, “we shall kill them in the outhouse.” With Russians now fearful of a Chechen terrorist attack at home, Putin organized plans for a large-scale invasion of Chechnya that was far more systematic and organized than Yeltsin’s invasion attempt. Putin’s meticulous but robust response to the attacks contrasted with the view of the weak and inept Yeltsin. The Prime Minister’s popularity soared.
Official Russian accounts conclude that Chechen rebels executed the attacks to terrorize Russia. However, some scholars claim that the attacks were orchestrated by Putin, the Yeltsin administration, and the FSB to find an excuse to reinvade Chechnya and unite Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Whatever the case, one thing was for sure: the Russians were invading Chechnya again.
The Second Chechen War
The Russians’ already vigorous aerial campaign in late August intensified in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The campaign targeted major cities across Chechnya, including the capital of Grozny, with Putin justifying the zealous airstrikes as protective measures against Islamic militants. Putin’s reputation for being unmovable was confirmed when he declared that even in the face of reports that Chechen civilians were being killed, he would not negotiate a peace treaty until “Russia decided it would be useful.”
On October 1, Putin intensified the war again. Casting the invasion as an “anti-terrorist operation,” the Prime Minister asserted that not only the elected Chechen government was illegitimate, but the Khasavyurt Accords were declared null and void. Chechnya was now open to a full-scale invasion, and General-Lieutenant Gennadiy Troshev was tasked to execute Putin’s anti-terrorist crusade. Putin learned from the mistakes of the First Chechen invasion. Instead of using a half-measure strategy, the young prime minister used all the resources in his power to put down the Chechen threat.
Directing a force estimated to be 100,000 strong from the Kremlin, Putin ordered coordinated attacks by carpet-bombing Chechen cities followed by a massive ground invasion. The invasion inflicted heavy casualties against Chechen soldiers and civilians alike. Not only were over 100,000 Chechens displaced from their homes but tens of thousands of Chechen soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed during the first months of the war. By mid-October, Russian forces were on the outskirts of Grozny. By early December, Russian forces fully blockaded the capital. Fearing widespread destruction, Russian general Anatoly Kvashnin called for an evacuation of the city. When Chechen forces refused, they were bombarded upon. On Christmas Eve 1999, the siege of Grozny began. The constant bombings and artillery raids turned the city into ash. After two months of fighting where the capital succumbed to brutal urban warfare, Putin’s military had slowly but methodically captured the Chechen capital. However, this was at a devastating cost to the city. In 2003, four years after the battle for Grozny, the United Nations still deemed the city as “the most destroyed city on Earth.”
President Putin’s War
Ironically, Putin’s political successes coincided with his military achievements. A week after the assault on Grozny began, President Boris Yeltsin shockingly resigned from his office on December 31, 1999. According to the Russian Constitution, the prime minister takes his place if the president steps down. After being prime minister for less than six months, Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation. Putin’s popularity continued to rise after he became president, in part because he implemented heavy censoring of independent journalism and threatened any dissidents that portrayed his anti-terrorist campaign in Chechnya negatively.
With the presidential election in March 2000, Putin was the most popular candidate. Yeltsin’s successor relied heavily on the military successes in Chechnya to boost his popularity, believing his overall brutal response during the war would be well received by the frightened Russian populace. His assessment would be correct. The same month that Grozny fell, Putin won his first presidential election, winning 53% of the vote and beating runner-up Gennady Zyuganov by over 20%.
After Grozny fell, major military operations in Chechnya began to die. President Putin announced on May 8 that the Chechnya was henceforth under the control of Moscow, noting that “direct rule [in Chechnya] is needed to restore order.” In June, Putin appointed the pro-Moscow Akhmad Kadyrov as the interim head of the new Chechen government and gave him the responsibility of fighting off the remaining insurgents. The surviving members of the Chechen rebels fled major cities and continued the conflict as a guerilla war. However, the Chechen rebels would never overcome the Russian and pro-Russian Chechen forces. Putin reincorporated the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria back to Russia, and the war ended in 2009.
In less than a year, Vladimir Putin became prime minister, orchestrated a successful invasion of Chechnya, became president, won the presidency, and effectively conquered Chechnya. Much of the world universally condemned Putin’s actions. However, the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, allowed the Russian president to present himself as a fighter of international terrorism. With the 9/11 attacks so fresh in the cultural zeitgeist, many in the West, especially in the United States, rationalized the Chechen invasion as a necessary action to fight terrorism.
Twenty-three years after the invasion of Chechnya, Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine. In his speech on the precipice of the Ukrainian attack, Putin referenced his war on Chechnya, noting that his fight against terror began when he fought “separatism and gangs of mercenaries in southern Russia,” and “broke the back of international terrorism in the Caucasus!” Over two decades later, Vladimir Putin still uses the Second Chechen War, the war that solidified his rule in Russia, to defend and define his foreign policy decisions. Putin’s first invasion seems to dictate his current war.
- Ib Faurby, “The Battle(s) of Grozny,” Baltic Defense Review, February 1999, https://web.archive.org/web/20110927074010/http://www.bdcol.ee/fileadmin/docs/bdreview/07bdr299.pdf, 75.
- Jacob W. Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya” 8, no. 1 (2001), https://www.jstor.org/stable/24590174?read-now=1&seq=13#metadata_info_tab_contents, 54.
- “The Second Chechen War,” The History Guy (The History Guy, n.d.), https://www.historyguy.com/chechen_war_two.html.
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 56.
- Piers Edlund-Field, “The 1st Chechen War,” ASAP History (ASAP History, December 10, 2019), https://asaphistory.com/2019/11/24/12-11-the-first-chechen-war/.
- Steve Rosenberg, “The Man Who Helped Make Ex-KGB Officer Vladimir Putin a President,” BBC News (BBC, December 17, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50807747.
- Steven Rosefielde and Stefan Hedlund, in Russia since 1980: Wrestling with Westernization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 139.
- “Chechnya Profile – Timeline,” BBC News (BBC, January 17, 2018), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18190473.
- “Deadly Blast Hits Russian Parade,” BBC News (BBC, May 9, 2002), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1976776.stm.
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 57.
- David Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 41 – 77, Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 57.
- Rosenberg, “The Man Who Helped Make Ex-KGB Officer Vladimir Putin a President,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50807747
- “Biographies: Boris Yeltsin,” Wilson Center Digital Archive (Wilson Center, n.d.), https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/resource/cold-war-history/boris-yeltsin.
- Boris Yeltsin, “Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s Speech Announcing the Appointment of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister and His Support for Putin to Succeed Him as President.,” n.d. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/monitoring/415278.stm
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 58.
- Ibid., 58.
- Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, 7.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 58.
- Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, 19.
- Emil Pain, “From the First Chechen War Towards the Second,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8, no. 1 (2001): pp. 7-19, 10, Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, 28.
- “Russia Launches More Air Strikes Against Chechnya,” RTE: Ireland’s National Public Service Media (RTÉ, September 27, 1999), https://www.rte.ie/news/1999/0927/3532-russia/.
- Märta-Lisa Magnusson, “Prospects for Peace in Chechnya,” Searching for Peace in Chechnya – Swiss Initiatives and Experiences: Swiss Peace Annual Conference 2005, 2005, 6.
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 58.
- Paolo Calzini, “Vladimir Putin and the Chechen War,” The International Spectator 40, no. 2 (2005): pp. 19-28, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932720508457122, 22.
- Ksenia Sokolyanskaya, “Putin May Use Chechen War Playbook in Ukraine, Says Russian Human Rights Activist,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Putin May Use Chechen War Playbook In Ukraine, Says Russian Human Rights Activist, n.d.), https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-invasion-chechen-playbook-putin/31738597.html.
- “Russian Commanders Predict Chechen Forces Will Abandon Grozny,” CNN (CNN, November 22, 1999), https://web.archive.org/web/20060520103443/http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9911/22/russia.chechnya/
- “Programs from Our Own Correspondent: Scars Remain amid Chechen Revival,” BBC News (BBC, March 3, 2007), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6414603.stm.
- Sokolyanskaya, “Putin May Use Chechen War Playbook in Ukraine, Says Russian Human Rights Activist,”
- Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep, 20.
- Kipp, “Russia’s Wars in Chechnya,” 59.
- “Russia: Putin Announces Two Years Direct Rule from Moscow for Chechnya – Russian Federation,” Relief Web (Relief Web, May 8, 2000), https://reliefweb.int/report/russian-federation/russia-putin-announces-two-years-direct-rule-moscow-chechnya.
- Calzini, “Vladimir Putin and the Chechen War,” 21.
- Max Fisher, “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated,” The New York Times (The New York Times, February 24, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/putin-ukraine-speech.html.
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