Russian strategy in the Chechen-Russo War of 1994-96
By Abdullah Khan
"Weakness and Cowardice never saved anybody"
"Killing of Chechens by Russians is no more Russia's internal affair than the killing of Jews in Germany was Germany's internal affair"
"Moscow to the Islamists of Daghestan: Surrender or…. Be Exterminated"
The Caucasian-Russo conflict is a four-centuries-long conflict that began by the invasion of the strategically important city of Astrakhan in 1556 by Ivan the Terrible (Rashid 16). The invasion was followed by numerous military expeditions in Northern Caucasus. The Chechens, one of the various ethnic groups living in Northern Caucasus whose population reached 1.2 Millions in 1995 (Margolis 1), played an important historic role in resisting the Russian Tsarist invasion as well as the Bolsheviks' later. On October 27th 1991, and after almost one century and twenty-seven years since the Chechens surrendered to Tsarist Russia, the Chechen President Dzohar Dudayev declared Chechnya independent. The Russian response to the unilateral independence came through Yeltsin, who, after the failure of the Moscow-backed operation to seize Grozny in November 1994 and after the capture of 120 Russian "mercenaries" during the fight (Geibel 2), felt humiliated and ordered the Russian army to invade Chechnya on December 11th 1994.
This research raises a set of questions: What was the Russian strategy in the Chechen-Russo War of 1994-6? What were the aims of that strategy? Did the Chechen-Russo historical conflict affect the formulation of such strategy? Did the Russian strategy affect the Russian National Security? How did the moral force affect the path of the Chechen-Russo war? What was the Chechen military strategy in 1994-96 by which they confronted the Russians? What was the role of their moral force in combat? Did they have another strategy beside the military one? The importance of these questions arises from the effects of the failure of the Russian strategy in Chechnya on the very existence of Russia in Northern Caucasus and on the survival of the Russian Federation. If Russia was, again, defeated in the current Chechen-Russo conflict, which cannot be viewed except in the context of the 1994-96 one and also in the context of the historical one, its existence in Chechnya and in Northern Caucasus will be at stake. This will eventually lead to a serious crisis within the Russian political system. Russia is facing troubles not only in Northern Caucasus but also in the Middle Volga where Tatarstan refused to sign the treaty of the Russian Federal Government and where Bashkorstan declared its sovereignty (Bremmer and Taras 169- 171) and these actions, in addition to the situation in Northern Caucasus, impose serious threats on the very existence of the Russian Federation. The failure of the Soviet strategy in Afghanistan made the latter one of the final nails in the coffin of the passing USSR. The failure of the Russian strategy in Chechnya and, as result, its second defeat, will make the latter Russia's "tombstone" in Northern Caucasus.
"The concept of 'strategy' has proven notoriously difficult to define. Many theorists have attempted it, only to see their efforts wither beneath the blasts of critics" (Murray 1). Strategy was defined by Karl Von Clausewitz to be "the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war" (Clausewitz 241). For Clausewitz, strategy simply "forms the plan of the war" (Clausewitz 241). Liddle Hart defined it (strategy) as "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of the war" (Hart 321). Moltke defined strategy by a more general definition that bears military means as well as other means to fulfill the objective. Moltke said that strategy is the "practical adaptation of the means placed at a general's disposal to the attainment of the object in view" (Hart 320). Although the word "general" confined the definition to military affairs, Moltke did not confine "means" to military means only but left the word "means" to bear means other than the military ones. Indeed other means can be used to win a war rather than only military means and "in practice strategy operates in a much broader sphere" than the militarily-confined one (Murray 1). I shall mean by strategy in the research: the practical adaptation of means and resources to attain the final objective in a dispute. In simpler words, strategy is a plan to reach the final goal in a dispute. Strategy does not have to be linked to military means only but it can employ political, economic, informatory and even humanitarian "means".
Strategy is not only about material forces but it also deals to do with moral ones. Moral Force, defined as "the spirit that permeates the whole being of the war" (Clausewitz 251), is an important element of strategy that had a tremendous effect on the course of the Chechen-Russo war of 1994-96. Moral Force is one of the elements that proves that the success or the failure of a certain strategy is not only dependant on "mathematical relations of equilibrium and preponderance, of time and space, and a few lines and angels" (Clausewitz 242) but also dependant on several "immaterial" forces that are based upon the religious creed, cultural values and ideological beliefs.
National Security is an element of the strategic theory which is relevant to the Chechen-Russo conflict. It can be defined as "the confidence held by the great majority of the nation's people that the nation has the … [capabilities] and the effective [policies] to prevent its adversaries from … preventing the nation's pursuit of its national interests" (Sarkesian 4). National interests are the "the demands that are ascribed to the nation rather than individuals, sub-national groups, or mankind as a whole" (Wolfers 147). Keeping Chechnya within the Russian Federation is certainly a Russian national interest due to several political, security and economic reasons. In 1994, Chechnya's secession, politically, meant the failure of the Russian government headed by Yeltsin, who was facing serious corruption charges and who bombed the Russian Parliament less than one year earlier. It meant also the inevitable emergence of his extreme nationalist rivals (headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky) or his Communist ones (headed by Gennady Zyugov) to retain back the "Russian" lands and to restore the Russian Federation or even the "voluntary Soviet Union" (according to Zyugov). Economically, the rich oil and gas fields of Tengis (Kazakhestan) and the Caspian Sea (Daghestan) can be exported to Europe and the US through the Russian port of Novorossisk on the Black Sea. The shortest and the easiest available routes (passing through the Russian Federation) for both pipelines are through Northern and Central Chechnya. The pipelines will bring deals to cash-strapped Russia that worth more than $28 billion (Meire 1). If Chechnya is out of the Russian Federation, then international oil companies, who are not until today satisfied with the Ceyhan-Baku route, will look for other routes and Russia's economic dreams would wither away. From a security perspective, the success of the Chechens will probably lead to similar trials for independence in the multi-ethnic Northern Caucasus and therefore the survival of the Russian Federation would be at stake. Geopolitics is another important element of the strategic theory that affected both the Chechen and the Russian strategies in 1994-96. Geopolitics theories focuses on the "implications of climate, topography and natural resources for civilizations" (Dougherty and Pfaltzgraff 65). A geopolitical analysis of a certain conflict takes "into consideration history, culture, population, identity ad ethnicity" (Hassan 6). "The size and location of a nation are crucial determinants of the way its policy-makers think about strategy" (Murray 7).
"The value of the moral powers, and their frequently incredible influence, are best exemplified by history"
"Your marriages are unlawful, your children are bastards, while there is one Russian left in your lands"
"Freedom is their God and war is their love. They repay good for good and blood for blood"
The beginning of the historical Caucasian/Chechen-Russo conflict can be traced in the sixteenth century, however the major event that ignited the bloody conflict was when the Russian Tsar, Peter "seized Daghestan, along the Caspian Sea, in 1723" (Rashid 16). The Russian empress Catherine continued the imperial policy and sent "Count Platon Zubov to release the first stage of her Pan-Orthodox dream by which all Muslim lands would be conquered by Orthodoxy" (Fenari 3). The first organized resistance in the Caucasus was led by an Italian Jesuit Priest by the name of Elisha who converted to Islam during his trips in Anatolia and was well-known later to be the legendary Imam Mansur. He led the Caucasian resistance from 1783 to 1791 when the Russians captured him (Bennigsen and Wimbush 19). Mansur "unified practically the whole of North Caucasus, from the Chechens territory in the west to the Kumyk steppes in east" (Bennigsen and Wimbush 19).
After capturing Imam Mansur, the Caucasian resistance against the Russians continued under the leadership of Ghazi Mullah, an Avarian Dagestani Islamic Scholar who called for the replacement of the "Adat" (customary Caucasian laws which differs from tribe to tribe although they contain some similarities) with the Islamic law "Shariah" (Fenari 4). Ghazi Mullah succeeded for years in resisting the Russians but he was finally killed by them together with 58 of his disciples.
One of the two disciples who escaped the massacre was Imam Shamil, the leader of the famous thirty years Caucasian war against the Russians. "Shamil was no stranger to war with Europeans. While performing Hajj [Pilgrimage] in 1828, he had met with Emir Abd Al Qader, the leader of the Algerian resistance against the French, who shared with him views on guerrilla warfare" (Fenari 6). From 1829 to 1859, Imam Shamil and his followers launched a full scale resistance campaign against the Russians in the Caucasus and, with the exception of the Ossetians (Bremmer and Taras 113) whose majority were the historical allies of the Russians in the Caucasus, all of the Caucasian ethnic groups united under his banner. In 1858, the Ingush were driven from their villages by Russian occupiers and therefore they revolted and requested support from Imam Shamil, who came down from the mountains for their aid. Shamil was defeated and had to retreat to the mountainous villages where the Russian seized him. Several villages started to move to the Russian side rather than being put under siege and inevitably destroyed. In June 1859, Shamil was forced under Russian pressures to lay down arms and was finally defeated and banished. After capturing Shamil, resistance continued under Kunta Haji who died in a Russian jail in 1867, Sheikh Deni-Arsonov (a Chechen from Ken-Yurt who was killed by the Cossacks in 1918), and Imam Najmudin and Sheihk Uzun Haji who proclaimed liberated Chechnya and Northwestern Daghestan to be a "North Caucasian Emirate". However the resistance came to a temporarily halt when Imam Najmudin was captured in 1925 (Bennigsen and Wimbush 26). Revolts took place again in Chechen territories in 1929 and in 1930s when both Russian chiefs of Ingush and Chechen secret police were killed by the supporters of Kunta Haji (Bennigsen and Wimbush 26).
In 1940 and 42, two revolts took place in Chechnya. The first was led by Hasan Israilov (a famous Journalist) and the second was led by Mairbek Sharipov (a former Communist Party member) (Bennigsen and Wimbush 30). On 23 February 1944, the entire Chechen- Ingush population was deported to Siberia and Northern Kaskhestan with other "punished peoples" of North Caucasus, Middle Volga, and Crimea due to the accusation of "collaboration with the Germans". However, history records show that the Germans never reached Chechnya. The massive deportation included "408,000 Chechens, 92,000 Ingush, … and 200,000 Crimean Tartars" (Rashid 55). The Chechens were loaded up in train cars and each family was permitted to carry only twenty kilos of baggage (Kangas 1). The Chechens were rehabilitated under Krushchev in 1957, however trials for the Soviet opposition members (most of them were members of Sufi orders) took place in "1958, 1963, and 1964 in Makhash Kala, Grozny, and Nazran" and in 1975 V.G. Pivarov, a leading Soviet Sociologist wrote: "More than half of the Muslim believers in Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic are members of murid [Sufi] brotherhood"(Bennigsen and Wimbush 47). Noteworthy that until the 1970s the Chechen resistance to the Soviet rule was still operating although not as strongly as it was in the 1920s and 1930s. Also, since the last century, the resistance against the Russian/Soviet presence in Northern Caucasus, including Chechnya, was termed "terrorism" and its members were called "extreme fanatics" (Bennigsen and Wimbush 47).
Analysis of the Historical Background:
The Chechen-Russo conflict is deeply rooted historically. Historically, the Russian strategy was dominated by the use of force and extreme suppression. On the other hand, the strategies of the Chechens were affected by their culture. Acceptance to be led by a foreigner who was more religiously educated (like the Italian Imam Mansur or the Daghestanis Ghazi Mullah and Imam Shamil), relying on the Muslim nations for technical and logistic support (role of Emir Abd AlQader and Ibrahim Basha of Egypt who sent Egyptian army officers to aid Imam Shamil), and the absence of a significant role of the ethnic factor in the conflict (more than 300 Caucasian ethnic groups were united, most of times, against Russians) were results of the Islamic cultural impact on the Chechen strategy. The impact of history on the Chechen strategy was clear. The Chechens' decision of not surrendering, although the death of more than 70,000 Chechens during the war and the destruction of almost all the infrastructure of Chechnya, reflects the Chechen understanding of the historic 'lessons' and its impact on the Chechen strategic choice. Surrendering meant to the Chechens: 'humiliation' (as happened to Shamil and his followers) or 'deportation' (as in1944 after the revolts of Israilov and Sharipov) even if it was guaranteed by Russians to be a "respectful" surrender (Semirnov 8). Noteworthy that most of the Chechen commanders were born in Diaspora including Dzohar Dudayev (the former President) and Aslan Mas'adov (the current President).
The Beginning of a New War (1994-96):
On October 27th, 1991 the Chechen President Dzohar Dudayev announced the independence of Chechnya almost simultaneously with other independent Republics of the former Soviet Union. Dudayev was sure that Yeltsin, who issued a warrant for his arrest in 1991, will not permit Chechnya to Secede peacefully due to the economic, political and security reasons mentioned earlier in the research. He (Dudayev) engineered a certain strategy to confront the Russian one that aimed to topple his popular regime and abort the Chechen independence project. Within three years (1991-94), "the Chechen leader and his entourage had fostered the notion of Chechen independence, transforming the region from a Russian republic into a quasi-Muslim, well armed state, led by a committed core of dedicated fighters" (Finch 3).
The Russian Strategy in Chechnya (1994-96):
"We have won…we have defeated the rebellious Dudayev regime"
"Chechnya is the deepest disappointment of my own presidency"
"I am capable of finishing the whole issue in one week and I am ready to wipe out everything in Chechnya with bombs"
"The army deserves to be praised for what it did in the Caucasus. It adhered to the President's orders and avoided the previous mistakes"
The Russian military strategy was affected by the political disputes between the Kremlin and the Duma. The interference of politicians in the military strategy was criticized by Clausewitz who advised the civilian leaders not to interfere in strategic planning (Clausewitz 246). First Yeltsin ordered a direct interference by the Russian army in 1991 to arrest Dudayev. The Chechen national Guard confronted the Russian army which was called back immediately by the Duma (which was headed then by the ethnic-Chechen Ruslan Khasbalatov who did not want an independent Chechnya). After bombing the Duma in 1993, Khasbalatov's arrest, the wide authorities given to the Yeltsin in the new constitution and the large success of the nationalist extremists (led by V. Zhirinovsky) in the Parliamentary elections, the Russian strategy towards Chechnya was more clear and inclined towards a military resolution for the Chechen crisis.
The Russian started with a strategy that was based on a certain perception of Dudayev's government. That perception was that Dudayev had established an "illegitimate dictatorial rule [based upon] …bandit formations" (Galaev 1). The Russian thought that by financially and militarily supporting Dudayev's opposition they could solve the Chechen crisis. They refused to acknowledge the large support to Dudayev's independence policies (although the support for his personality was less enthusiastic). Therefore, they attempted to topple him through Chechen forces backed by Moscow and install figures like Beslan Gantemirov (Former mayor of Grozny who had a disrespected, questionable reputation among the Chechens and this was another Russian strategic mistake to back and support such figures) and Omar Avturkhnov, head of the so-called Chechen Provisional Council (Galagev 1). The defeat of these forces at the hands of the more committed and dedicated pro-independence fighters was the first failure of Moscow's strategy in Chechnya. Dudayev's men Captured 120 Russian soldiers who were later identified to be soldiers of the Kantemir Division whose leader "resigned protesting the use of his men as pawns" (Geibel 2). "The covert attempt failed and was soon made public and "this humiliating failure was probably the spark that ignited large-scale Russian military involvement" (Finch 2 and 12).
Building upon the same perception of Dudayev and the pro-independent Chechens, Yeltsin encouraged by his "power ministers' (ministers who have the armed forces at their disposal namely: Grachev, the Minister of Defense (MOD), Yerin, the Minister of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Federal Border Service (FSG), Lobov, the Secretary of the Security Council, Stepashin, the Chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB; formerly KGB), and Korzhakov, the Chief of the Presidential Security forces) (Finch 12) pursed a strategy of full-scale interference in Chechnya. As a last trial, Yeltsin gave Dudayev's men 48 hours to lay arms down and receive limited amnesty (Geibel 2), however the historical experience prevented the Chechens from surrendering to the Russians at any cost. Also, Dudayev and his men where more confident about their capabilities after defeating the Russian proxies. On December 11th 1994, "Russian forces entered Chechnya in a three-pronged attack, from north, west, and south" (Geibel 2) and another phase of the Chechen-Russo confrontation began.
The Russians military strategy was based on three main stages. The first stage aimed to advance with 3 army groups, from the east (through Daghestan, Kizlar), west (through Ingushia and North Ossetia, Valdikavkaz) and north (through the Russian-dominated Stavropol region, Mozdok) to encircle Grozny - the headquarters of the Chechen resistance - from the east, west and north and to leave the south for Chechen fighters to retreat through (Celestan 6 and Galaev 3). The second stage aimed to lock up the Chechen fighters in the Caucasus Mountains in south Chechnya and to install a Russian-backed government in Grozny. The second stage also aimed to destroy the resistance present in the low lands of Chechnya. The third and the final stage aimed to destroy the Chechen forces in the high lands of Chechnya on the basis of a "presumed" cooperation between the Russian army and the civilian highlanders (Galaev 4).
"Providing contemporary strategists with a general understanding" of the historical and cultural background of the region where they operate can be crucial to the success or the failure of a certain strategy (Murray 6). The geopolitical approach that addresses such issues (history, geography, and culture) was not taken into account when the Russian leadership formulated the beginning strategy. From the beginning of the operation the Russian strategic stages proved to be a failure. The Russian troops faced an enormous public resistance in North Caucasus even before reaching the Chechen borders and that what used to happen historically when the a North Caucasian nationality was attacked by Tsarist or Communist Russia. "On December 12th, the armored vehicle column on the Vladikavkaz axis was held up by the local populace" in the Ingush Republic where several Russian armored vehicles were set on fire and about 48 soldiers were taken as POWs by the locals (Geibel 3). The column in Kizlar, Dagestan was also faced and stopped by civilian protestors (Celestan 3). Therefore, both columns were delayed. The surprise factor was very much reduced and the dispersion of the Chechen forces on three fronts rather than one had failed. "The historical/[geopolitical] ignorance that dominated much of the Russian official thinking" was a main reason behind the failure (Gall and De Waal 203). The only column which was able to reach the Chechen borders was the one coming from Stavropol (where the majority of inhabitants are ethnic Russians and Cossacks), however it was confronted by fierce Chechen resistance. To avoid a full-scale new Caucasian war, the columns in the Kizlar axis and the Vladikavkaz one had to retreat to enter Chechnya from the north (through Stavropol). By late December, the Russians had reached Grozny, although the stiff - however incomparable - military resistance.
The aim of the war was that "Clausewitzian" aim to "to pin down the Chechen forces in a decisive battle, and destroy them" (Lieven 126). The Chechen forces from a Russian point of view were about "2500 criminals hiding from the Russian justice" (Galaev 3). The principle means of the Russians were massive, indiscriminate bombardment, massive mobilization of troops to enter towns and villages after air raids and ground bombardment and collective punishment to the Chechen civilians when collaboration with the Chechen fighters was suspected. These features proved to be disastrous to the Russian strategy as shall be explained further.
Massive bombardment was very clear in the battle of Grozny. The Russian artillery and air force units "released a barrage of mortars, Grad missiles, rockets and bombs destroying houses trees, roads and whole block of flat. Tank gunners on the hills fired round every three minutes for days end … and an observer counted 4000 detonations in a single hour…it was the heaviest artillery bombardment that anyone had seen since the Second World War" (Gall and Waal 219). The aim was "to reduce the number of buildings that could be used as fighting positions" (Celestan 4).
The bombardment was indiscriminate. The Russians did not discriminate between Chechen fighters and civilians or even between Chechens and ethnic Russians. By January 26, the bell tower of the Russian Orthodox Church was completely destroyed. "The Russians didn't care what they were hitting" Valentina Rudakova, an ethnic Russian who lost 'dozens' of Russian friends living in Chechnya, said (Gall and De Wall 220). On March 7th, 1994, and after almost three months since the Russian campaign started, the Russian nearly occupied Grozny, however at a very huge cost.
Briefly, on the Russian side, the "Russian forces lost tanks in Grozny more than they did in the battle for Berlin in 1945" (Gall and De Waal 18). "In the 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade…only 18 out of its 120 vehicles escaped destruction in the city fighting and almost all of the brigade officers were killed" (Celestan 4). On the Chechen side the main looses were civilian targets. There were about 27,000 Chechen civilians who were killed during fighting and Grozny, which was before called the 'bride of the Caucasus', turned into a "desert scene of rubble and burned out buildings" (Gall and De Wall 219).
Massive mobilization of troops was another feature of the Russian strategy in Chechnya which aimed to out number the few Chechen fighters (compared to the Russian troops) and therefore they can finish the operation as soon as possible. The Grozny-40,000-strong Russian army was facing about 2500 Chechen fighters in Grozny. "They just threw men in" says the Chechen Commander Shamil Basayev "it was senseless and without logic" (Gall and De Wall 18).
A third feature of the Russian strategy was the collective punishment of the population whenever they suspected collaboration with the Chechen fighters. The Russian interior ministry had set "filtration" (to filter out the pro-independence Chechens from the 'neutral' ones) camps in Mozdok and started a massive detention campaign as soon as it entered the Chechen territories. Massive detentions peaked in Grozny where about 1500 Chechen were reported to be missing in the early months of fighting. The Russian human rights organization 'Memorial' succeeded in documenting dozens of testimonies of Chechens who were held in Mozdok. "The testimonies were all the same: mass arrests from streets and bomb shelters, irrational and cruel violence, including vicious beating, mock execution, psychological and often physical torture to obtain confessions and life threatening conditions on the way to and in the camps" (Gall and De Waal 232). The campaign against the Chechen people peaked in April 8th 1995 when the Russian troops captured the small town of Samashki and killed 250 Chechen civilians in mass-executions, through hurling grenades into houses and by gunning down people in bedrooms (Celestan 4 and Gall and De Waal 245). ). Sergei Arutiunov, a Senior Fellow in the Russian Academy of Sciences, compared the massacre to that of "Khayton in Belarus, Lidice in Czechoslovakia", and that the name Samashki "sounds more sinister than My Lai in Vietnam" (Arutiunov 6). Major Raymond Finch, an officer in the American Foreign Military Studies Office wrote after the massacre: "Russian tactics were beginning to resemble those expressed by an American officer in Vietnam: 'In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.'" (Finch* 4). "Perhaps more than anywhere Samashki showed that the war was against the entire population of Chechnya" (Gall and De Waal 247). The same strategy was pursued all over Chechnya but was very clear in Bamut, Vedeno and Novogroznensky in addition to Samashki.
Conclusion of the Russian Strategy:
The Russian mass-bombardment strategy in Chechnya has its roots in the doctrines of Clausewitz "which dominated Western military thought and practice in the nineteenth century and the first seven decades of the twentieth century" (Lieven 126). Clausewitz claimed that the end of the war takes place after three main steps. The first step was the destruction of the military force. The second was the conquering of the country so as to abort any attempt to build a future military force by its people and the third was conquering the "will of the enemy" (Clausewitz 123). That meant forcing the people and the government of a certain country to submit completely. Massive-bombardment was one of the means by which the Russians aimed to accomplish the first two Clausewitzian steps. The consequences were disastrous to both the Russian army and the Russian national security.
The Russian military leadership did not care about the geopolitical facts that assured the presence of 200,000 ethnic Russians in Chechnya and a lot of them were living in Grozny. Rather than fighting the pro-independence Chechen fighters, Russia found itself fighting the whole Chechen nation (plus the sympathizers from North Caucasus and the Islamic world) because of the indiscriminate massive bombardment. Dudayev who was opposed by several 'respected' figures before the war, became a true national hero and the figures that used to oppose him rushed to become at his command. This is another historical phenomenon the Russian leadership failed to understand. Whenever there was a threat by Tsarist Russia or the Bolshevik one, North Caucasians always united, no matter what was between them, under one political, military and religious leadership. Imam Mansur, Ghazi Mullah and Imam Shamil are only few examples.
Massive Mobilization of troops also had its roots in Clausewitz's doctrines. According to Clausewitz, "the superiority in numbers is the most important factor in the result of combat" (Clausewitz 265). If we submitted to such assumption, then we have to add other important factors, which Clausewitz did explain (like the moral force and the military virtue), and which affect victory. The majority of the 40,000-strong army of Grozny, whether soldiers or officers, did not know what were they fighting for and did not care about it. Slava Naumov, a deputy commander of reconnaissance, said that he did not think about what he was doing, but all what he knew was that he was going to find the enemy to "be [a few] guards protecting the [Chechen] President [and] it turned out the opposite: there was a whole army of Chechens there" (Gala and De Waal 210). The same view is shared by a Senior Lieutenant in the Dzerzhinsky regiment of the interior ministry troops who added: "no one wanted that war" (Gala and De Waal 211). Beside that, the Russian army was a very corrupted army. Tens of thousands of criminal cases were reported within the armed forces every year and some soldiers were sleeping with their grenades near them not because they were fearing Chechens but because they were fearing their own colleagues (Gala and De Waal 237). Some of the Chechens succeeded in buying the arms from Russian soldiers. "The [Russian] army is selling weapons, which are killing its own men. But the soldiers are fully aware that the top leadership is making huge amounts of money from this war, so they are too" says one of the Chechen locals who succeeded in buying arms from two Russian soldiers (Gala and De Waal 241).
One of the factors that led to this low morale was the large number of officers, soldiers and untrained conscripts which was not easy to be monitored or funded and therefore the demoralization of morale and the exacerbation of corruption were indirect results of such large number of troops.
The humiliating defeat of the Russian army at the end of this war proved that a small number of dedicated fighters carrying morals and values can defeat a much larger army of a demoralized morale and corrupted leadership. Therefore, the Clausewitzian concept of the "superiority of numbers" cannot be taken generally without paying attention to the psychological and moral status of such large number of soldiers..
Collective punishment was the third mean that aimed to accomplish the third Clausewitzian step which is: conquering the will of the enemy. For Clausewitz, the enemy is composed of people and government and the will of both, according to him, must be conquered. Through collective punishment the Russians aimed for, and sometimes succeeded in, conquering the will of the people. After the Samashki massacre, neighboring towns and villages like Achkoi Martan capitulated (Gall and De Wall 246). Also, after Samashki, several villages made bilateral truces with the Russians and asked the Chechen army to leave, although they kept supporting Dudayev's government secretly (Lieven 129). However, the Russian did not succeed in conquering the "fighting" will of the Chechen government and army. On the contrary by pursuing such means, the Chechens retaliated in 'mainland' Russia and therefore the Russians indirectly threatened their own national security.
Before the massacres of Samashki (April 8th 1995) and Vedeno (June 6th 1995), there was not one Chechen attempt to strike in mainland Russia or to target Russian civilians. On the contrary, many Russian mothers visited Dudayev and Basayev in their headquarters and demanded the release of their sons (Russian soldiers who were captured during the war). Those soldiers were released and those mothers were grateful to the Chechen leadership and later established the core of the Russian opposition to the war in Chechnya (Gall and De Waal 214-19). But after June 6th 1995 (date of Vedeno's massacre and Vedeno is the home town of the Chechen Commander Shamil Basayev. During the massacre his sister, aunts and ten other members of the family were killed) the Chechens stroke inside Russia in Budennovsk (June 13th , 1995) and in the Russian base in Kizlar (Jan 9th ,1996). They also threatened Moscow through burring radioactive materials in the city and notifying the Russian media in November 1995 (although they announced that they will not resort to the chemical/biological option except when they face extinction by Russians). These threats to the national security were direct consequences of the Russian strategy in Chechnya. Indeed "the brutal your methods, the more bitter you will make your opponents, with the natural result of hardening the resistance you are trying to overcome" (Hart 357) and that was the case not only in Chechnya but also in Algerian war of independence and in the Vietnamese one.
The Chechen Strategy (1994-96):
"This is a centuries-old tactic of the mountain people strike and withdraw,
strike and withdraw …to exhaust them until they die of fear and horror"
"They fought like lions"
"We have no foreigners among our ranks, Muslims are one nation and Muslim countries are one homeland"
"Strategic thinking does not occur in a vacuum, or deal in perfect solutions; politics, ideology, geography shape peculiar national strategic cultures" (Murray 3). In the Chechen case, ideology, history and geography were very important determinants of the Chechen strategy. The Islamic creed and ideology provided the Chechens with a moral force that succeeded in reversing all rational predictions. History added to the moral force the desire for independence from, and the hatred to surrender to, the great power that humiliated them over centuries, Russia. Geography forced the Chechens to pursue a strategy of guerilla warfare, stiff resistance and to order withdrawals as the very last choice.
The Chechen strategy simply aimed for destroying the Russians will to fight. They understood that they couldn't match the Russians physically and therefore they depended on immaterial force (moral force) and Guerrilla warfare. They knew that if the Russians were not willing to fight, then they (Chechens) would get their security and 'unilateral' freedom. They hoped to get their 'full' freedom through future negotiations.
"Islam has remained a strong force among the Chechens. The Islamic University in Grozny was founded in 1991 and in 1994, 4000 Chechens made pilgrimage to Mecca" (Bremmer and Taras 103). Even during the massive bombing of Grozny, the Chechens would gather and perform their religious duties. At the beginning of Grozny's bombing, the Chechens were "in good spirits, flush with weapons and new volunteers" (Gall and De Waal 205). This what Clausewitz called the "national spirit of the army"(Clausewitz 253). Clausewitz concluded that in mountain warfare "where every one down to the common soldier is left to himself", the significance of the "national spirit" or "faith" would be very clear and that was the case with the Chechen army (Clausewitz 253).
The elite of the Chechen forces was the Islamic "Abkhaz" battalion which was led by the Commander Shamil Basayev and which fought the Russians in Abkhazia (Georgia) and Nagorno-Karabkh (Azerbaijan). The moral force was clear in the actions of the Abkhaz battalion, a group of 500 men who would arrive during fierce fighting "to sort it out…and [who] would leap straight over the barricades where other fighters were crouching" (Gall and De Waal 206). "As soon as they went in all hell would let loose, the fight would suddenly escalate. They were like firemen. Then they would move to the other place," says the photographer Patrick Chauvel who accompanied them during action. Moral force was also reflected in Masa'dov's words: "I can only wonder at the strength with which my men fight. The Russians attack us with planes, then artillery, then tanks, leveling the houses before them. Yet still my men emerge from the rubble to fight on…[we want] to show that not only that we want our independence, but that we are willing to die for it" (Loyd 2). Underestimating moral force made the Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev convince "the members of the Security Council that the operation was going to be a 'bloodless blitzkrieg' that would not last any longer than December 20th " (Finch 3). Clausewitz describes such attitude (ignoring the moral force) as being 'foolish' (Clausewitz 251).
Guerilla warfare was another mean which was used by the Chechens to accomplish their strategic goal. "This is a centuries-old tactic of the mountain people strike and withdraw, strike and withdraw …to exhaust them until they die of fear and horror" said Dudayev to explain the general guidelines of the guerilla tactics to his people (Gall and De Wall 227). Such a mean was very effective against the Russians who were very much exhausted as happened to the Soviet Russians in Afghanistan and "self-exhaustion in war has killed more [soldiers] than any foreign assailants" (Hart 355). I should mention that the "hit and run" tactics were not always pursued due to the geographical factor which affected the Chechen military strategy. The Chechens could not easily withdraw from regions under attack by Russians and they had to stand, face to face, and defend almost every town and village. This is because the country is small and if they kept on withdrawing and then attacking again (hit and run tactics), the Russians could have reached the mountains (south of Chechnya near the Georgian borders where the strongholds of the Chechen fighters) in a few weeks. Therefore although their small number compared to the Russians, they had to stop or, at least, postpone the Russian advance to their mountainous strongholds in the south and keep the war in Central Chechnya.
A change in the Chechen Guerilla tactics occurred after the massacres of Samashki and Vedeno. The battlefield was changed and the Guerilla tactics were transferred to the Russian mainland. On June 13th 1995, Shamil Basayev, an Engineer and a Chechen field commander, led a daring raid inside Russia. He wanted to force the Russians to withdraw from Chechnya, stop the bloodshed and to start immediate negotiations. Together with about 150 fighters, Basayev entered the Russian borders and aimed for Moscow, specifically, to the Kremlin (Finch* 11). However his convoy was discovered by the Russian police forces near Budennovsk (a city of 100,000 located 120-KM from the Chechen borders) where a battle took place and several Chechens were wounded. "Basayev would not abandon his men" and therefore he headed to the nearest hospital in Budennovsk (Finch* 5) where he captured 1500 civilian, policemen and militiamen hostages for 8 days of "terror, anxiety and surreal negotiations" (Finch* 5). Basayev released "some 150 pregnant women and children" and finally by June 18th, "In one of the most surreal events of modern media, the Russian Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin, began to conduct telephone negotiations with Basayev "on live Russian TV" (Finch* 6). The Russian Prime Minister finally agreed to stop the combat and begin negotiations at once. However, such negotiations broke down and after a few days fighting started all over again. This operation opened the door for a similar raid in Kizlar (Daghestan) in January 1996 which targeted the helicopter base in the city. The Chechens suffered from helicopters' attacks and had to take a serious action about that. The operation was led by Dudayev's son in law, Salman Raduyev. Contrary to Budennovsk, where Basayev was acting on his own and where Dudayev condemned the action, Dudayev apparently backed this raid. Although the results were not as impressing as Budennovsk, the Kizlar raid was a message to the Kremlin that they will never be safe from Chechen strikes inside Russia and the Russian Federation.
There were some Chechen humanitarian actions that helped the Chechen strategy to reach its goal (breaking the will of the Russians, whether soldiers or people to fight). The Chechens, most of times, treated the Russian POW remarkably humanely. On January 3rd 1995, a fight broke out between an elite group of 25 Russian paratroopers, who were sent to the south of Grozny to cut off the retreat path of the Chechen fighters, and a group of 37 Chechen villagers armed with hunting rifles (Gall and De Waal 225). Amazingly, the Chechen villagers succeeded in capturing the whole group. For two days the Russians did not have anything to eat, so the Chechens gave them food and telephoned their mothers to come and pick them up (Gall and De Waal 226). These were the orders given to the Chechens by Dudayev and Basayev, who met dozens of Russian mothers, led by the 'heroic' mother Valentina Krayeva, who were coming to pick up their sons (Russian soldiers and officers captured during fighting).
The total success of the Chechen strategy was in August 1996, when Basayev led a genius three-pronged-attack on the Russian forces in Grozny. With less than 3000 fighters, Basayev recaptured Grozny and took around 10,000 Russian soldiers as POWs. The attack was devastating for the Russians. "500 Russian servicemen were killed, …1407 wounded and…182 missing in action" (Gall and De Waal 350). The Russians threatened again to massively bombard Grozny. However a successful peace initiative led by Alexander Lebed, the new Secretary of the National Security Council aborted the Russian threats. Alexander Lebed wanted to stop any future "embarrassment" to the Russian armed forces that were humiliated especially during the recapture of Grozny. In November 1996, Aslan Masa'adov, the Chechen Prime Minister (back then) and Alexander Lebed signed a cease-fire agreement that was claimed to be "the document putting an end for 4 centuries of hostilities". The Mas'adov-Lebed agreement was followed by series of agreements in which Russia accepted to pay reparations to Chechnya (although never paid as agreed) and to postpone the question of full independence to the year 2001. In the next day after signing the cease-fire agreement, photos of Basayev and Lebed playing Chess in Grozny was published by Russian newspapers as well as international and Arabic ones. The Chechens had won the war and Basayev won the Chess game.
Conclusion of the Chechen Strategy:
Clearly, from the previous discussion moral force was the leading force behind the Chechens' victory. Islam, the Islamic ideology and the historic grievances constituted a force that the Russian lacked and that finally led to the Russian's defeat. Beside the three essential elements of moral force which I mentioned, there were some actions by the Chechen leadership which enhanced that force even more. The presence of Dudayev, Mas'adov (the supreme commander of the Chechen armed forces) and Yanderbaiiv (the President's first deputy and later on, Chechnya's President) inside the Presidential Palace until February 9th (the majority of the Chechen fighters withdrew from Grozny on Feb 23rd after the devastation of the city) under the Russian massive shelling and only 50 meters away from the Russian tanks which blockaded the area, gave the Chechen fighter the confidence that these commanders were not seeking their own interests and that they were committed to the cause of independence even in the worst situations. Another important event that reflects the commander-soldier relationship within the Chechen army was in Budennovsk. Basayev had changed the whole plan of the operation (rather than going to Moscow, he went to Budennovsk's hospital) because some of his men were wounded and needed medical aid (Finch* 5). On the other side, we find the Russian leadership abandoning its own soldiers in many cases. The most famous was when the Chechen fighters, during the battle of Grozny in January 1995, trapped 65 paratroopers on the top floor of a building and threatened to blow up the building. When Mas'adov tried to manipulate the situation and to force the Russians to negotiate, the answer came through Ivan Babichev, who told Mas'adov "do as you want" with the paratroopers (Gall and De Waal 212).
Guerilla warfare was another important mean that was used in the Chechen strategy. Both geography and history forced the Chechens to use guerilla tactics. After Samashki and Vedeno massacres, the guerilla tactics took place inside Russia. Strategically, the raid of Budennovsk was a success. It forced the Russians to stop the fight for a while and therefore the Chechens had the time to organize their troops once again (they were suffering serious troubles in the early summer of 1995 when most of their strongholds in South and Central Chechnya fell in Russian hands). The raid of Budennovsk also forced the Russians to start serious negotiations with the Chechens. The raid boosted the dependence cause when many were abandoning it. It also informed the world of what was going on in Chechnya. Basayev held a media conference inside the hospital in a time when Yeltsin was in Halifax participating in the G-7 summit and hoping to get more investments and economic aid from the G-7 countries. Budennovsk proved that "Russia remained a serious credit risk" and the hopes of Yeltsin were withering away (Finch* 5). On the humanitarian level, the raid portrayed the Chechens as terrorists. However this picture did not affect them because they were not receiving much (if any) from the international community.
The Chechen humanitarian acts did weaken the will of the Russian civilians to support the war. The mothers, who went to get back their soldier-sons captured in Chechnya during fighting, constituted the core of the Russian opposition to the Chechen war. This was very clear on January 28th, 1995 when an accord "on common actions in defense of peace and freedom against the slaughter in Chechnya" was signed by a number of right and centrists parties and social movement. By late June 1996 and "with the exception of the right wing national patriots" the Russian major opposition forces supported stopping the war (Buzglin and Kolganov 4). The domestic opposition was not enough to "convince" the Russian leadership to withdraw. In August of the same year came the devastating offensive led by Basayev and his "Abkhazian" battalion to force the Russian government to sign a cease-fire and to withdraw all the Russian soldiers in Chechnya, a step which did not take place in many post-Soviet Republics. The Chechen strategy succeeded and the Chechens, a nation of less than 1.2 million (200,000 fled the Republic and more than 70,000 were killed) defeated one of the strongest armies of the world, the Russian army.
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