Chechnya - From past to present

By Emil A. Payin & Arkady A. Popov



The Russian leadership's decision to use force against General Dudaev's self-proclaimed Chechen Republic, like no other episode in modern Russian history, revealed all of the flaws of Russia's fledgling democracy. The motives behind and methods employed in the formulation and implementation of this decision, as well as the politics that precipitated the escalation of the Chechen constitutional crisis to an armed conflict, provide grist for analysis of the current "transitional" status of Russia's state and society.

The instability of the transition process has affected the character of Russian policymaking in many respects. First, it has slowed the replacement of anachronistic, monolithic governance structures by legitimate forms of federalism and mechanisms for managing inter-ethnic relations. To date the Russian government has failed to specify limits to the autonomy of its constituent parts or the legal standing of various sub-national actors. Second, the confusion has militated against the institutionalization of legitimate norms and conventions for preventing and regulating the use of Russian armed forces in domestic conflicts. Third, this instability has thwarted the development of a well-defined and effective decision-making system capable of managing competition between different governmental agencies and monitoring the flow of information to the leadership. Fourth, this state of uncertainty has fostered both a low level of professionalism among those agents responsible for implementing the leadership's policies and the absence of a "rule of law" as a disciplining factor in domestic politics. Finally, the inchoate domestic political transition in Russia has led to the utter absence of civic accord and responsibility among purported governing agents. As a result, the current policy-making culture is intolerant of opposition and debate, provoking a "siege mentality" among the Russian intelligentsia and mass media that, in turn, has led to the estrangement of the Russian government from society.

All this does not mean, however, that we are witnessing a restoration of the totalitarian system in Russia, as was presumed by many authors after the outbreak of full-scale war in Chechnya. Instead, Moscow's policy toward Chechnya, particularly during the culmination of the crisis in fall and winter 1994-1995, reveals the bizarre and often paradoxical way in which elements of both the new democratic and old socialist thinking and behavior commingle to determine the actions of the current Russian executive and legislative branches of government.

Undoubtedly, the Chechen war was a painful setback to Russian democracy, and its negative consequences will most likely reverberate for a long time. It is also obvious that the self-interests of several key political groups drove many decisions by the Russian government on the Chechen issue. Still, radical critics of the Kremlin are hardly correct when they see in these intrigues a manifestation of a calculated plot to stymie democratic reforms in Russia and to restore totalitarian order. Moreover, there is no basis for claims that the "Chechen war" is only a link in a chain of far-reaching plans to coerce the reunification of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Nothing, in our opinion, could be further from the truth than the suggestion that contemporary Russian policy, which is struggling to climb out of the old institutional rubble and ancient prejudices, can in any way be planned or implemented in a conspiratorial spirit. It would be much closer to the truth, and much more productive, to understand Russian decisionmaking in the more prosaic terms of "chaos theory."


The conflict between Russia and Chechnya has a long history. Russian imperialism in the Caucasus lasted several centuries and met its most determined and well-organized resistance on the territory of Chechnya and the bordering regions of Dagestan. There, for a quarter of a century, Shamil's Islamic proto-state fought the Russian army until 1864. The Republic of the North Caucasus, that included Chechnya, declared independence soon after the Bolshevik revolution in May 1918 (after September 1919 it was called the North Caucasian Emirate) and fought a brutal war against the Tsarist army commanded by General Denikin.[1] According to Denikin, however, only the Chechens from the Bolshevik-backed mountainous regions resisted the Tsarist forces, while the Chechens from the plains fought on the side of the anti-Bolshevik army.[2] After Denikin's defeat, the Red Army entered Chechnya in early 1920, and a new rebellion erupted, this time against the Bolsheviks. This revolt was not suppressed until fall 1921.[3]

The Congress of the Mountain People that convened in the trans-Caucasus in January 1921 (chaired by Stalin, the People's Commissar of Nationalities at the time) declared the formation of the Mountainous Soviet Republic of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Over the ensuing three years, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and a number of other autonomous oblasts of the Northern Caucasus became independent. A brief period of relative tranquillity was cut short by the mass political repression of the collectivization campaign during the late 1920s and early 1930s. This sparked a new wave of anti-Soviet uprisings in Chechnya that continued for the next ten years, gradually taking on the character of guerrilla warfare. The crises intensified at the onset of World War II, with the creation of the rebel government of Israilov and Sheripov. In June 1942, this government issued an "Appeal to the Chechen-Ingush People," to "wait for the Germans as [welcome] guests." The government declared that the Germans would be greeted with hospitality if they acknowledged the independence of the Chechen republic.[4] This was later used by the Stalinist leadership as a pretext for the complete deportation of the Chechen and Ingush population to the eastern parts of the country. (The deportation of other people of the Caucasus--Balkars, Meshedin Turks, and Kurds--was conducted without any such pretext.)

Thus, prior to the middle of the 20th century, the Chechens, particularly those residing in Islamic mountainous regions, never fully accepted Russian domination. The perceived illegitimacy of Russia's claims notwithstanding, prior to the early 1990s there were no serious conflicts in Russian-Chechen relations following the return of Chechens to their homeland and the restoration of a Chechno-Ingush autonomous republic in 1957.

There is no doubt that many Chechens throughout the 1960s-1980s believed that the USSR constituted a "Russian state" in a different guise. The memories of deportation, as well the unwillingness of Soviet authorities to acknowledge full responsibility for these actions, remained deep-seated. Yet, such caution and enmity were also characteristic of many other Muslim minorities within the Soviet Union, especially among those that had been subjected to mass purges in the previous decades. There is no data to suggest that Chechen animosities were noticeably different from those harbored by the Ingushetians, Karachaevans, or any other repressed peoples. Furthermore, many authors point to the fact that the forced "dispersion" of ethnic Chechens across the territory of the USSR and the attendant emergence of a Chechen Diaspora in many Soviet cities promoted a more active integration of Chechens into the Soviet and Russian economy, and a rapid assimilation of values and lifestyles, as compared to that of other mountainous peoples that had been "left alone" by the Soviet government.

Partly for this reason, Moscow paid little attention to the November 1990 adoption by the Supreme Soviet of the Chechno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of a "Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Chechen-Ingush Republic," proclaiming the latter a sovereign state that was going to participate in union and federation treaties on equal footing with the then-Soviet republics. Analogous declarations were adopted by all of the union and autonomous republics at that time. Despite the fact that many points of these declarations openly contradicted USSR and RSFSR constitutions, no one paid heed to them in the heat of the intensifying struggle between the Russian (Yeltsin) and Soviet (Gorbachev) leaderships.

At the same time, the emergence of the National Congress of the Chechen People (NCCP) on the Caucasian political scene also went practically unnoticed by Moscow, despite the fact that its first congress began adopting openly separatist resolutions. (On June 9, 1991, the second NCCP Congress announced that the Chechen Republic, arbitrarily carved out of Chechno-Ingush Republic, was planning to secede from the USSR and RSFSR.) One has to keep in mind that it was a time of inflammatory, revolutionary slogans of an impassioned anti-imperial and anti-Communist character. These slogans, to a large degree, served as a basis for Boris Yeltsin's campaign for office as the first Russian president. In an attempt to garner votes from the non-Russian population in the provinces, Yeltsin's team promised to maximize the autonomy of Russia's constituent republics, and was willing to ignore the anti-constitutional games played by republican authorities and nationalist movements that advocated different versions of ethnic sovereignty. This tactic brought about the expected short-term results in Chechnya, as more than 80 percent of the voters in the Chechno-Ingush Republic voted for Yeltsin on June 12, 1991.

Clearly, no one could even think of the possibility of using force to terminate the activities of the NCCP under the prevailing circumstances. The Russian leadership had neither the political interest nor logistical capabilities for such an operation (military and police structures were still entirely under control of the Union government). As for the Union government, Gorbachev's team wanted to exploit the issue of republican separatism within Russia as a weapon to be wielded against the Russian leadership headed by Yeltsin.

In November 1990, the draft version of the Union Treaty that was developed by the leadership of the USSR and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was first published. The draft conferred rights upon "republics that are parts of other republics"[5] (i.e., republics that are a part of Russia), to participate in the Union Treaty on an equal footing with respective Soviet republics. These plans, which directly contradicted the standing USSR and RSFSR constitutions and were clearly designed to put political pressure on Yeltsin, exacerbated the separatist tendencies in Russia's autonomous districts, including the Chechno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR).

In other words, the tug-of-war between the Russian and Soviet governments, and their intense competition for votes and the political support of the Russian provinces decisively precluded any possibility of military intervention in the Chechen-Ingush Republic. Meanwhile, by mid-1991, separatist pressures began to intensify within the republic.

The "Chechen Revolution" and the First Attempt To Introduce A "State of Emergency"

In summer 1991, the NCCP, led by a new charismatic leader, retired Air Force General Dzhokhar Dudaev, proclaimed itself the supreme authority of the Republic of Chechnya. It created its own armed "national guard" and began to take practical steps toward the seizure of power in Grozny. Ironically, the August coup in Moscow benefited Dudaev. The Supreme Soviet of the Chechno-Ingush Republic, headed by its former Communist leader, Doku Zavgaev, supported (or at least did not publicly renounce) the anti-Yeltsin coup plotters, thus creating favorable conditions for its own demise. Taking advantage of the mass demonstrations against the coup, the "national guard" stormed the Parliament building in early September, and, with the support of Russia's Supreme Soviet, forced the deputies of the "counter-revolutionary" Supreme Soviet of Chechno-Ingushetia to dissolve the republican Parliament. Moreover, the speaker of the Russian Parliament at the time, Ruslan Khasbulatov, arrived in Grozny to further the cause by announcing new elections to the republican Supreme Soviet.

Much to its chagrin, the Russian leadership's expectations that the Chechen revolution would remain under its control, and that the Chechen "revolutionary fever" would be short-lived, did not come true. Dudaev seized all of the important assets and took control of the local security structures in a matter of weeks. In a series of measures, he rejected the offer of "guardianship" from the federal authorities, abolished the Provisional Council (the transitional authority that had been created in cooperation with Moscow) and declared that both parliamentary and presidential elections would be held in the republic. Belated attempts on the part of the Russian leadership to counter these actions and to obstruct the NCCP's development and legitimization were futile. One week before the elections, Yeltsin issued an ultimatum demanding that Dudaev's people disarm their illegal military formations and release all captured buildings. As far as we know, however (before November 1991), the issue regarding the use of military force to pacify Dudaev's "national guards" was not yet considered a serious option.

Under these conditions, nothing prevented Dudaev from ignoring Yeltsin's ultimatum and triumphantly holding and winning republican presidential and parliamentary elections. It is important to note that these elections were not legitimate, especially given the context of formal legal chaos that pervaded Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) at the time. First, they took place on territory that was arbitrarily designated as the "Republic of Chechnya." As a result, the population of six (out of fourteen) regions of the Chechno-Ingush Republic that disagreed with this scheme were, in effect, excluded from the election process. Second, the election campaign period only lasted two weeks. This did not provide sufficient time to organize a full-fledged campaign. Moreover, given that the elections took place under conditions of a "state of emergency," the NCCP was in an advantageous position. Thus, it comes as no surprise that there were numerous violations of election procedures (for instance, the representatives of the Chechen Diaspora, who were not permanent residents of Chechnya, were allowed to vote).

Only in the aftermath of the elections did the thought of declaring a "state of emergency" in Chechnya arise for the first time. The operation of the political "kitchen cabinet" of the former USSR was always a secret process. This tradition, though in a more informal guise, persists in post-Soviet Russian policymaking. Nevertheless, we know a few things about President Yeltsin's sensational decree of November 7 that declared a "state of emergency" in the Chechno-Ingush Republic, removed Dudaev from power, and placed the republic under the control of Akhmet Arsanov, who had been one of the Chechno-Ingush Republic's deputies to the Federal Parliament.

It is now known that Arsanov, who had been previously appointed as the representative of the Russian president in Chechno-Ingushetia on October 27, was the formal sponsor of the decree. On November 6 (i.e., only several hours before Yeltsin's decree was announced)[6] Arsanov sent the Russian president a desperate telegram from Grozny in which he insisted on an immediate declaration of a "state of emergency" in order to restore law and order in the republic. Arsanov's involvement was implicitly confirmed by President Yeltsin, who, two days after his decree was rejected by the Russian Parliament, issued another decree. This new decree removed Arsanov as the presidential representative on the basis of his complicity in the disinformation campaign that led to the declaration of a "state of emergency" in the Chechno-Ingush Republic.[7] Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that such an important document could have been prepared that night. More likely, the outline, and perhaps even the full text of the decree, had already been prepared in anticipation of an opportune moment to issue it. Arsanov's telegram proved to be just such an occasion.[8]

The timing of the November decree could not have been worse. As the authors have already tried to prove in a number of publications,[9] in November, after the last remnants of federal governmental bodies and law enforcement agencies in Chechnya were dissolved and Dudaev was elected president, it was no longer possible to suppress Chechen separatism by force. Moreover, Yeltsin's decree caused an explosion of anti-Russian sentiments in Chechnya and radically increased the number of people that supported Dudaev and Chechen independence.[10]

In this context, units from the USSR and RSFSR interior ministries that landed on an airfield near Grozny were met with stiff resistance. They were rebuffed not only by the "national guard" but also by members of the people's volunteer corps that had been assembled out of Chechen civilians who took up arms for the first time in their lives. Consequently, there was a real threat that the Russian troops would retaliate against the Chechen population. In other words, there was a real possibility that a mere police operation would turn into a war between the army and the people, as was the case three years later. Because of this threat, the Congress of People's Deputies--the highest Russian legislative body--refused to ratify the Russian president's decree when it convened four days later, stripping it of its legal standing. Under fire from democratic circles, Yeltsin retreated from a dispute with the Parliament and, in fact, agreed that the decree, if not plainly misguided, was at least ill-prepared and warranted revocation.

It should be noted that not all democratic political factions advocated rescinding the decree. Nikolai Travkin, the creator of the first mass non-Communist party in modern Russian history--the Democratic Party of Russia--and one of the most prominent supporters of reform, for example, insisted firmly on the execution of the decree. He argued that it was necessary to follow strictly the Russian Constitution and to suppress decisively all attempts by local elites to incite ethnic separatism for their parochial interests. His arguments, however, were not understood by his democratic colleagues, most of whom supported the unconditional rights of any nationality to sue for self-determination. Moreover, many democrats were put off by Travkin's excessive "formalism," as well as by his readiness to accept drastic measures for the sake of promoting legal reform. Following the universal indignation concerning the previous show of force by Soviet authorities in Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius, and Riga, any military involvement in ethnic-based conflicts became a real "taboo" for Russian anti-Communists. During their fight with the Communist-dominated USSR bureaucratic structures, all non-Russian movements of an anti-imperial nature appeared to be natural allies of Russian democracy. It was not commonplace at the time to pay attention to "trivial" matters, such as the methods of obtaining power and authority used by these allies. That was why the condition for self-determination put forward by Travkin--to carry out a referendum in the republic aspiring to self-determination--was considered by many as a sign of "imperial thinking," especially since soon thereafter Travkin revealed another proof of his "backwardness," namely, his opposition to the Belovezhsky Treaty that abolished the USSR. Nevertheless, the leader of the Democratic Party was prophetic in suggesting that by avoiding "a little blood" at the outset of the Chechen crisis, Russia would have to spill "a lot of blood" in the future.

The failure of the first attempt by post-Communist Russia to play hardball with the rebellious Chechen Republic was a painful blow to President Yeltsin's self-esteem and became a permanent reminder that any decisive actions in the sphere of ethnic policy were very unpopular. One can say that this peculiar "political vaccine" had its effect. Prior to November 1992, when the Russian Army intervened (though there was a long delay) to quell the Ossetian-Ingushetian hostilities, Russian policy toward inter-ethnic relations was pursued not only without resort to military force but even without any punitive actions against the many extreme nationalist organizations and leaders that were proliferating at the time. The merits of this ambivalence are difficult to assess; in doing so one must take into account that under the specific conditions of the "transitional period" in Russia any decisive action, irrespective of its legal and moral validity, would inevitably be transformed into an unlawful and uncivilized activity. This was confirmed by the tragic events of the "Chechen war" that materialized at the end of 1994.

The Prerequisites For Imposing A Military Solution To the Chechen Crisis From the end of 1991 to the end of 1994, the Chechen Republic's drive toward political independence came to fruition. In January 1992, the newly-elected Parliament of the Chechen Republic called for the ouster of the RSFSR People's Deputies from Chechno-Ingushetia. In February, as a result of attacks on the Russian military bases and arms depots in Grozny, Dudaev seized a large cache of weapons that became the foundation for his own army. In March, a new constitution was passed that confirmed the independence of the Chechen Republic; the following month, it was decreed that all Russian military units stationed on the republic's territory "must be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Chechen Republic." In June, all of these troops were removed hastily from Chechnya under pressure from the local population, leaving 80 percent of their heavy armaments and 75 percent of their smaller arms.[11] Previously, during fall 1991, the local police and KGB organs were disbanded and reconstituted as part of Dudaev's network of security personnel. In other words, only six months after Dudaev's political ascendance, Russia had little political or military leverage with which to affect the situation in Chechnya. Thus, the Russian leadership faced a dilemma: it either had to take decisive actions to "suppress the revolt," or to ignore the events that were transpiring in Chechnya in the hopes that the revolutionary fervor would dissipate and that Dudaev or his successors could be persuaded to re-subordinate the republic to the governing authority of the Russian Federation.

Until fall 1994, the Kremlin opted for the second approach--a peaceful-temporizing strategy. It did so for several different reasons.[12] First, a basic tenet of the democratic movement included the decisive rejection of military solutions to ethnic conflicts. The vast majority of democrats in Moscow were convinced that the "Chechen problem" was an ethnic issue. Several shrewd politicians from the democratic camp (such as Travkin) tried to distinguish between good and bad elements, drawing attention to the fact that long-standing political intrigues lay at the root of the "national-liberation movement" in the Russian republics (as in the majority of the other CIS countries). These attempts, however, were considered by intellectuals in Moscow to be a practical betrayal of democratic ideals, and symbolic of a renegade shift toward imperial, nationalistic, patriotism. The facts show that the social base of Dudaev's regime consisted mostly of a marginal strata of society that were looking for social revenge via revolution; and that all of the respected and responsible individuals were removed from the ruling structure of the Chechen regime and were replaced by real criminals. By spring 1993, the internal political struggle in Grozny forced the dissolution of all elected bodies and the suppression of the political opposition. However, these facts were either simply ignored by those in Moscow that supported the "Chechen national revolution," or were justified in a patronizing manner as the "drawbacks of growth" and the reflection of a "Caucasian peculiarity."

Second, following Dudaev's election in November 1991, any Russian military attempt to intervene in Chechnya could no longer be limited to a mere police action, and was certain to lead to heavy casualties. The only window of opportunity to carry out a decisive action to disarm Dudaev's national guard occurred in September 1991. At this time, there was an upswell of popular dismay over the criminal behavior of Dudaev's entourage. At that time, however, nobody in the Yeltsin camp was thinking about how to counteract Dudaev--partly because they had other business to attend to (such as the liquidation of Gorbachev's governmental structures), and partly because they hoped that Dudaev would be a reliable ally in their anti-imperial (and therefore, supposedly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet[13]) struggle. They understood this error too late, as demonstrated by the unsuccessful November attempt to impose a "state of emergency" in Chechnya.

Third, prior to summer 1994, the Russian leaders relied on the possibility that Chechnya would peacefully adopt a more pragmatic policy. They were apparently waiting for the blatant failures of Dudaev's adventurist economic, social, and diplomatic policies to discredit his regime in the eyes of the Chechen people. The leadership in Moscow hoped that at that point the implacable "General-President" would be removed by a domestic opponent that would be more inclined to compromise with Moscow. Since the Kremlin did not want to increase Dudaev's authority or his popular legitimacy, the Russian government opted not to negotiate with Dudaev directly, but with other influential persons (including his rivals) within the Chechen leadership. It should be noted that this was hardly a well thought out or consistent strategy. Nevertheless, there was someone in the government who could form such a strategy and present it to "the top." This was Sergei Shakrai, chairman of the Russian State Committee on Ethnic Policy, who was an ardent proponent of isolating Dudaev and de-legitimizing his domestic political standing.

As we now know, in February 1994, Shakrai personally inserted a section into the Annual Presidential Address to the Russian Parliament that stressed directly the illegitimate nature of the existing governing bodies in Chechnya and demanded free elections and the initiation of negotiations that left no space for Chechnya's independence.[14] Subsequently, at Shakrai's behest, a virulent anti-Dudaev formulation calling for a diversified policy, premised on consultations with all Chechen political groups, including the opposition, was included as part of a special resolution of the State Duma that was passed in March 1994.[15]

Despite Shakrai's efforts, Russian policy toward Chechnya did not officially change until the beginning of 1994. Supporters of alternative approaches to the Chechen problem, including a military option, were also present at the senior echelons of the Russian leadership. The events of fall 1992, including the threat of confrontation between Russian and Chechen armies at the Chechen-Ingushetian border, revealed indirectly that not only Vice President Rutskoi but also high-ranking military officials were among the supporters of a military solution. While there were no influential advocates in either the Russian government or Parliament of granting Chechnya official independence, a number of senior officials were interested in preserving the status quo in the "quasi-separated," crime-ridden, Chechen Republic--a status quo which made it possible for them to make fortunes through bank fraud and illegal oil and arms deals.

With the strategy of excluding Dudaev from the process of negotiations in abeyance, negotiations between Russian and Chechen representatives (including those that were sanctioned initially by Dudaev) produced only deadlock. At the first attempt at negotiations during the spring of 1992, for example, the Chechen delegation, headed by one of Dudaev's minions, refused to discuss anything other than a prospective interstate treaty.[16] It was only after more influential Chechen politicians, and those less dependent on Dudaev, such as Yaraghi Mamodaev (the de facto head of the government at the time) and Yusup Soslambekov (who was both the de facto leader of the Parliament and the head of the militarized Confederation of the Caucasian Peoples), began to participate in the negotiations that some progress was finally achieved.

In December 1992, with the participation of the above-mentioned politicians, the two sides successfully drafted the "Treaty on the Separation of Power and Authorities Between the State Governing Bodies of the Russian Federation and the Governing Bodies of the Chechen Republic." Dudaev, however, immediately repudiated all of the arrangements and dismissed the negotiations as a "private initiative."[17] In January 1993, under Dudaev's pressure, the NCCP announced that the draft of the treaty "did not comply with the letter or spirit" of the documents that affirm the principle of state independence of the Chechen Republic.[18] When the Russian delegation, headed by Shakrai and Abdulatipov, subsequently arrived in Grozny to meet the leadership of the Parliament of the Chechen Republic, they were rebuffed by Dudaev's guards.

A May 1993 attempt to resume negotiations with the participation of Chairman of the Chechen Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security General Ibragim Suleimenov (one of the founders of the "National Guard" in Chechnya) was equally unproductive. Dudaev again interrupted these promising talks, accusing the Chechen Parliament of causing "the complete failure" of the negotiations.[19] At this time, tensions between the Chechen president and Parliament reached a climax, with the armed forces taking the initiative to dissolve the Chechen legislature at the beginning of June. Eventually, all of the above mentioned Chechen politicians--Mamodaev, Soslambekov, and Suleymenov--turned against Dudaev and joined the opposition. After the opposition rally in Grozny was dispersed by force, all of the remaining prominent members of the opposition were driven out of Chechnya and were subsequently deprived of "the right to live on sacred Chechen territory." Hence, by the middle of 1993, there appeared to be nobody in Chechnya with whom the Russian government could conduct serious negotiations so long as he was unwilling to accept Dudayev's demand that he agree in advance to officially recognize Chechnya's independence.[20]

Nevertheless, in April 1994, Yeltsin instructed the government to open new negotiations, and the Russian government began forming a delegation headed by Shakrai. This development, in turn, coincided with the unexpected appearance of a new player on the Chechen political scene, the Provisional Council of the Chechen Republic, headed by Umar Avturkhanov, the former mayor of Nadterechny region, which had remained loyal to federal authorities, had never obeyed Dudaev, and had sheltered the leading opposition movements that had been driven out of Grozny.

Naturally, the Kremlin welcomed this turn of events, especially after the oppositionist Peoples' Congress of the Chechen Republic acknowledged the Provisional Council as "the highest governing body in the Chechen Republic," while demanding Dudaev's resignation, calling for new elections to the Chechen Parliament, and promising the citizens of the republic a "return to a time when the Chechen people were part of multi-ethnic Russia." However, it is not only incorrect but also naive to maintain that this union of anti-Dudaev opposition forces was merely a creation of the Russian security services, as it is often asserted by critics of the Kremlin's policy toward Chechnya. These same security services were nowhere to be found during the first three years of the Chechen revolution, and they were powerless to contain the upswell of ethno-political sentiment in the Caucasus. One of Dudaev's first actions immediately upon taking power was the dismantling of the KGB organizational structures that were previously active in Chechnya. In the aftermath, the Russian Special Security Services could never create in Chechnya a full or complete network of agents. At the same time, it is possible that Dudaev managed to co-opt some former KGB agents, and through them gained access to Moscow's plans.[21] Even though it is possible to imagine the existence of some sort of "patronage" network between Russian security services and criminals, such as Labazanov and Gantemirov, it is hard to imagine that such an independent, successful politician as academician Salambek Khadziev would be a KGB agent. Equally unbelievable is the suggestion that Ruslan Khasbulatov, who by 1993 emerged as one of the staunchest opponents of Yeltsin, was a year later creating his anti-Dudaev movement at the behest of the Russian Special Security Services. Dudaev personally created the opposition through his own efforts. On the other hand, acting upon a request by the political leadership in Moscow, the Russian Secret Services tried to exploit a certain part of the opposition, but as we know now, they were quite inept and ineffective in doing so.

Although the formation of the Provisional Council opened a potentially promising new negotiating track for the Russian government, it soon became clear that negotiations were at best a second-order priority for some Russian officials. While it is difficult to pinpoint the timing and individuals responsible for the massive covert arming of the anti-Dudaev opposition, the idea was familiar, since during 1992 alone it had been successfully tried in the Caucasus on two occasions. All of the details of the overthrow of Presidents Gamsakhurdia (in Georgia) and Elchibei (in Azerbaijan) were known to the Russian Secret Services so well that it is doubtful that they would have looked for outside expertise in formulating scenarios to overthrow Dudaev. In any case, there are no grounds to suggest, as have a number of Russian authors and politicians, that the idea to oust Dudaev was first suggested in 1994 by the President's Analytical Center. As employees of this center, the authors of this chapter prepared a report in early September 1994 entitled "On the Political Situation in the Chechen Republic." This report outlined a number of proposals for resolving the Chechen crisis. Among other points, it drew the attention of the leadership to the necessity for clearly defining its position toward those legitimate local authorities that remained loyal to the Russian Federation in the Nadterechny region. However, this report explicitly cautioned against providing the latter with military assistance. Taking advantage of the fact that the three years of "revolution" in Dudaev-controlled territories had devastated the public infrastructure (social services, public health care system, education, pensions, law enforcement), the report recommended the immediate reconstruction, without making any reference to Dudaev's status, of the social infrastructure in those regions whose authorities and populations openly declared themselves to be part of the Russian Federation. After one year, when Dudaev's tenure elapsed, the citizens of the republic could have made a rational choice as to which regime they preferred. This proposal, however, was not considered by the senior Russian political leadership at the time.[22]

The extension of federal patronage to Dudaev's local opposition would have required adequate protection from his attempts to use force against it, as had been the case numerous time before. Yet there was absolutely nothing in the Analytical Center's proposals that called for turning the Nadterechny region into a staging point for an assault on Grozny. Together with a number of other experts, members of the Analytical Center stressed repeatedly that even the slightest threat of Russian military intervention would embolden Dudaev and demoralize the opposition. This, in fact, is exactly what occurred both in November 1991, when a "state of emergency" decree was issued, and in 1992, when Russian tanks appeared at the Chechen border during the suppression of the Ingushetian-Ossetian riots.

Another argument in support of strictly aiding the political opposition was the fact that only a diplomatic approach could hope to neutralize the influence of the so-called "armed opposition," consisting of former Dudaev henchmen who had quarreled with the president and subsequently became independent warlords. The bloody clashes of summer 1994 between these "opposition" leaders and Dudaev's forces pushed Chechnya to the brink of civil war, with death tolls climbing into the hundreds.[23] Given the mounting tension with the Cossacks, it became clear that it was going to be impossible to prevent the region from exploding merely by tough rhetoric, such as Moscow's July 29 announcement on the "possibility of drastic measures . . . " in response to acts of violence committed against Russian citizens. Thus, by fall 1994, the situation permitted neither military intervention nor the continuation of a passive policy toward Dudaev's regime.

While the Russian leadership was quick to appreciate the latter, it failed to grasp the former. The relative successes of the Labazanov and Gantemirov armed formations (including the latter's capture of the Grozny airport for a period of time in early October and issuance of an ultimatum to Dudaev) created a false impression of Dudaev's weakness and, consequently, of the possibility of his removal by an armed opposition. Meanwhile, Yeltsin's main political enemy at the time, former-Speaker of the Russian Parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov, was busy forming his own militia. Khasbulatov had recently returned to Chechnya and offered his services as a unifying force for the domestic opposition. He was the only leader in Chechnya whose popularity among the people was on par with that enjoyed by Dudaev.

Perhaps it was the threat of strengthening Khasbulatov's position that made the Kremlin decide to strengthen significantly the position of Avturkhanov (and Khadziev, who had joined the latter in early fall) in the opposition alliance. In any event, the Russian government began to provide covert military support, thereby ensuring that the acclaim for expected future military victory over Dudaev, and, consequently, power in Grozny, would not fall into the hands of a hostile Khasbulatov or an unpredictable Gantemirov but, rather, into the hands of "our people." Moreover, in an attempt to upgrade the effectiveness of local opposition forces, the Russian leadership approved the delivery of Russian tanks and combat personnel to the region.

The November 26 operation, which was planned and organized by the Russian Federal Security Services, was a total fiasco.[24] Russian tanks on the streets of Grozny were separated from supporting infantry and fell easy prey to Chechen grenade launchers, and crews were either destroyed or taken prisoner (60 people). The facts surfaced immediately and became the subject of sharp criticism in the Russian Parliament and media. Journalists and deputies were incensed by the performance of the heads of the Russian Federal Security Services and the Ministry of Defense, who feigned ignorance of the operation (Defense Minister Grachev, for instance, had initially stated that he "knew nothing" of the participation of Russian military personnel in the storming of Grozny). Only later, when the names of those killed in action or taken prisoner (who were released after the Parliament Deputies' trip to Grozny) were published, did the power ministers "confess" to complicity in the decision. Nevertheless, the specific roles played by the different agencies and officials in this affair remain unclear.

The Chechen War: How the Decision Was Made

On November 29, 1994, three days after the failed tank assault on Grozny, a closed meeting of the Russian Security Council allegedly made the fateful decision to send federal troops into Chechnya. Right after this meeting, President Yeltsin gave a speech in which he demanded that both sides in the conflict (i.e., Dudaev and the opposition) reach a cease-fire, release prisoners of war, and disband armed formation within two days. There is no doubt that Kremlin politicians knew that Dudaev would reject this ultimatum. This suggests that the Russian leadership at that time was ready to respond to the Chechen leader's presumed rejection by dispatching the Russian army.

What explains this volte face in Russian policy? Why was it that in fall 1994 Russian authorities suddenly decided to go ahead with this extraordinarily risky military expedition, despite the fact that for the preceding three years Moscow countenanced making large concessions to the Chechen Republic and other nationally assertive regions? The most common presumption among Western political scientists is that the Russian leadership started the war in Chechnya to secure the construction and operation of the Caspian Sea pipeline across Chechnya. This explanation, however, is problematic. First, there was no pressing need to "pacify" the Chechen section of the Baku-Stavropol pipeline. At the outbreak of hostilities, the pipeline's bypass section that cut across Northern Dagestan was already in place. Second, it is common knowledge that senior government officials, who represented the interests of the Russian oil and gas industry, actively protested against the war and were the original proponents of negotiations.

A more likely explanation of the decision to invade has to do with Yeltsin's belief that "a small and triumphant war" would improve his prospects for reelection, despite the predictable outrage that a resort to force would induce in certain quarters. By early 1994, the "love affair" between the president and liberal public opinion had entered the phase of "forced cohabitation." On the one hand, the president had increasingly allied himself with "state-builders" (gosudarstveniki) and allowed their nationalist attitudes to influence his rhetoric and political practices. At the same time, many liberals also felt that they could do without Yeltsin and could, in fact, fare better by criticizing him and blaming the Kremlin. Indeed, it appeared as though the political forces that had supported the president for three years began to seek a cause to break ranks with him, especially as more and more influential members of the president's own entourage defected and launched political movements with slogans that characterized Yeltsin's leadership as a "dominion ship" bent on seizing "total power." The question remains, however, why Yeltsin expected that military intervention in Chechnya would result in a quick and easy victory.

The fact that all major decisions connected with Russia's military actions in Chechnya were made by the Russian Security Council necessitates a thorough examination of its decision-making role. First, it is necessary to keep in mind that the Security Council, despite its important appearance, is not an independent decision-making organ. All decisions by the Security Council acquire executive standing only after the president, who is simultaneously the chairman of the Security Council, signs an appropriate decree. From both a legal and practical standpoint, the Security Council is an advisory body to the president. If the Security Council adopts a certain decision, it only means that the chairman of the Security Council has signed the document (the signatures of other members do not matter in practice) and that the chairman, this time in the capacity of president, intends to translate this decision into a formal decree (ukaz), although nothing obliges him to do so.[25] Therefore, the proper question is not how the Security Council reached its "decision" but what its various members, beginning with the "power ministers" advised President Yeltsin and whose advice he heeded. Since the Security Council's proceedings were conducted behind tightly closed doors, however, this is an almost impossible question to answer.

The extreme difficulties encountered by the first Russian combat troops sent into Chechnya suggest that the decision to launch the "Chechen campaign" was not formulated within the Ministry of Defense. The unusually sharp criticisms that were expressed shortly after the outbreak of hostilities by Deputy Defense Ministers Gromov and Kondratiev affirms this conclusion.[26] This also indicates that this policy option most likely had not even been discussed at the Defense Ministry's Collegium. Many observers and military experts maintain that the campaign was hastily and poorly prepared, and that the only possible explanation for this is the fact that it had been planned behind the back of the "High Command" and was presented to them as a fait accompli.[27]

It is unlikely that the impetus for a military invasion originated from the Federal Security Service (FSB), if only because agencies do not usually come up with new risky proposals three days after the failure of a previous recommendation. Moreover, the proposal to begin the military operation in Chechnya immediately came as a surprise to Sergei Stepashin, the director of the FSB.

Only one person could suggest such drastic policy options--the president. Those who prepared the plan for him (quite possibly on his order) did not necessarily have to participate in the Security Council meeting. They also did not have to be experts on inter-ethnic relations or military issues. All that was required was that they belong to the president's inner circle, in which Chief of the President's Security Service General Alexander Korzhakov was the dominant figure.

According to a number of press reports, Korzhakov had reportedly created his own analytical center to explore possible options for resolving the Chechen problem "by force"[28] and had been a prime mover behind the appointment of the extremely "hawkish" former governor of the Krasnodar region, Nikolai Yegorov, as Russian Minister of Nationalities and Deputy Prime Minister, in place of the considerably more "doveish" Sergei Shakhrai.[29]

Whatever the confusion and mystery surrounding the decision to invade Chechnya, it is possible to discern one very important underlying trend--the absence not only of a system for making key decisions on vital matters of national security, but the lack of an established political tradition of civilized and democratic interaction between high-ranking policymakers. There is no code of conduct or established set of norms (formal or informal) to discipline risky "improvisation" on the part of the leadership and incompetent bureaucraticism on the part of government functionaries. Under these circumstances, intuition and improvisation dominated the decision-making process. These methods worked well in the stormy days of the struggle of 1991, especially during the critical days of the August revolution, when the charismatic leader of the Russian democrats battled the Communist party's nomenklatura. In a political situation, which was gradually stabilizing but simultaneously becoming increasingly complex, however, these methods began to produce significant failures.

Meanwhile, it turned out that there was no political force in Russia capable of effectively challenging the plans of the Kremlin. Dissenters from the decision to start the war, like former-Minister of Justice Yuri Kalmykov, simply had to resign. Sensible voices of doubt (that included Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and Chief of Foreign Intelligence Service Yevgeny Primakov) were lost in the chorus of obsequious approval, while the leaders of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, as well as the director of the FSB, after overcoming their own initial reservations, blindly endorsed the policy and began to convince everyone who had doubts that their units would be capable of suppressing Dudaev in the shortest period of time.[30]

In late December 1994, in a desperate attempt to prevent the impending attack on Grozny, a number of advisors from the Presidential Analytical Center and the Presidential Staff managed to contact Yeltsin and advise him to halt troop movements on the outskirts of Grozny and establish direct contact with Dudaev. That same week, eight members of the President's Council, one of the authors among them, turned to the president with a request to convene an emergency session of the Presidential Council in order to analyze the situation and prevent the escalation of the crisis. This appeal, however, fell on deaf ears.

Finally, on December 27, the members of the Presidential Analytical Council (not to be confused with the Presidential Council or Security Council), having analyzed the report by Security Council Secretary O. Lobov, and having become convinced of the complete inability of the latter to answer any basic questions, unanimously expressed doubts about the impending plan for "liberating Grozny." The only reaction to this meeting was, perhaps, Yeltsin's remark in a conversation with the prime minister about the need to "listen to the experts more." Yet, in reality, he felt no need for any expert opinions, and blindly relied upon the assurances of his military commanders who promised a quick and decisive victory.

Much has been written on the storming of Grozny and the enormous losses that were incurred by the Chechen population and the Russian soldiers due to the incompetence and helplessness of their commander. It is important for us to notice how the logic of "improvisation" led President Yelstin to unwillingly, but logically, become a hostage to the irresponsible actions of his subordinates. A typical example of this situation was the deliberately cynical refusal on the part of the military to follow Yeltsin's orders to stop the bombing of towns and villages. Numerous witnesses, including many military experts, attest to the fact that, despite Grachev's assurances at the end of December that the Russians were only flying reconnaissance missions, the bombings continued in full force.[31]

The problem of policy implementation by freelancing political and military bureaucrats is a separate topic. Everything that became public about the behavior of the Russian army, which was sent to Chechnya "to restore constitutional order," reflects not only a very low level of professionalism and moral standards of the people who had organized and implemented this action, but also points to the ignorance and disorientation of the political leaders who trusted them. These leaders displayed an almost complete inability to listen to the critical opinion of the public and press that received the news of "the new Afghanistan" with little optimism. In other words, all of the flaws of the existing practice of decisionmaking and policy implementation in Russia were revealed during the Chechen war.


President Yeltsin and the government of Russia turned out to be ill-suited to manage the crisis in Chechnya. The society as a whole, including its representatives in Parliament, were also not "up to the task." Even after the president, in December, asked the Duma to get involved in the process of pacifying Chechnya, the deputies preferred to resort to acrimonious exchanges, caring above all about their reputations and prospects for re-election. "Calls for negotiations were half-hearted--neither chamber ever defined its position on key issues such as who should negotiate with whom, on what conditions or without conditions; whether to cease hostilities and when--immediately or after the disarmament of the Chechen side."[32] The first resolution on the Chechen issue was adopted by the Federation Council on December 8--at a point when everything was already clear to everyone--and merely advised the president to "take constitutional measures to normalize the situation in the Chechen Republic in order to "secure the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation," while "avoiding the use of force on the territory of the Chechen Republic until the decision in that regard is made by the competent bodies according to the Constitution of the Russian Federation."[33] Even if the president wanted to follow the recommendations of the legislators, what could he possibly get from such ambivalent advice?

The confession by Foreign Minister Kozyrev, made public by Sergei Kovalyov, that "we all know that we messed up in Chechnya--not only I understand this, the President understands this now," fairly accurately reflects the atmosphere of depression and confusion that pervaded the highest levels of government during the first months of 1995. "But, if we admit the mistake, it means that someone has to be responsible for it. Then the President will head the guilty list, and no one will reelect him, and then Zhirinovsky will come,"[34] complained the head of Russian diplomacy. Such logic reveals the Russian leadership's propensity to justify its behavior as it became increasingly mired in the bloody war in Chechnya.

Emil A. Payin is director of the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Research, a member of the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation, and (as of September 1996) a special assistant to the President of the Russian Federation. Arkady A. Popov is deputy director of the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Research.


[1] See, for example, A. Avtorkhanov, "The Murder of the Chechen and Ingush People," Karta (Russian independent historic and human rights magazine), Ryazan, No. 9, p. 12.

[2] A.I. Denikin, Essays of the Russian Time of Troubles, Moscow, 1991, p. 194. One may note that Avtorkhanov, who is well familiar with this book and quotes it as necessity arises, nevertheless chooses to remain silent about the "unpatriotic" position of the Chechens from the plains, as well as about the Sheik Uzun-Khadhzi against the traitors. Yet he acknowledges that the Bolsheviks did provide military and material aid to Uzun-Khadzhi's government out of political considerations.

[3] A. Avtorkhanov, p. 12.

[4] Ibid., p. 21.

[5]Pravda, November 24, 1990.

[6] Rabochaya Tribuna, November 13, 1991.

[7]"The Representative Power," in Political Russia Today, Moscow: 1993, p. 20.

[8] There is an opinion (though not confirmed by official documents) that the actual author of the decree was Sergei Shakhrai, one of Yeltsin's closest advisors. Shakhrai, the Russian State Legal Policy Advisor, was one of a few democratically-oriented politicians who tried consistently to implement the idea of Russian statehood and to counteract the ethnic separatism that was developing under the guise of "the national revival of `native' people." It is also known that Vice President Alexander Rutskoi actively endorsed the decree; as many presumed that he was the decree's sponsor. This seems probable because in October 1991, upon returning from rancorous negotiations with Dudaev in Grozny, he boldly announced that the Chechen president was a "real gangster," and that it was "the right time to put Chechno-Ingushetia back in line." When Rutskoi subsequently turned against President Yeltsin, not only did he continue to "push through" the decree, but he even thought highly of his actions. Rutskoi blamed Yeltsin and his democratic entourage for lacking the commitment and fortitude for resolving the Chechen crisis in a timely fashion and "with little bloodshed." Many people, including Speaker of the Council of Federation of the Russian Parliament Vladimir Shumeiko, think that then-Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Khasbulatov also supported the declaration of the State of Emergency in Chechnya (see the report of the meeting of the Council of Federation in the book Chechnya: The Russian Tragedy, Moscow, 1995, p. 18).

[9] See, for example, E. Payin, A. Popov, "Russian Policy Towards Chechnya from 1991 to 1994," World Economics and International Relations, 1995, No. 5, pp. 20-23.

[10] Rabochaya Tribuna, November 13, 1991.

[11] Izvestiya, January 12, 1995.

[12] For a more detailed discussion of the reasons for the "temporizing-peaceful" disposition of the Russian leadership with regard to the Chechen problem, see E. Payin, A. Popov, Ibid., pp. 20-23.

[13] Later on (during summer 1994), Dudaev himself demonstrated the naivete of these hopes. He invited a delegation of the "communist-patriotic" Russian National Council, headed by the former KGB General Alexander Sterligov, to Grozny to discuss a proposal to hold in Grozny the meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, under the chairmanship of Mikhail Gorbachev and Anatoly Lukjanov, to denounce the Belovezsky Treaty and to recreate the USSR. Obviously, this utopian and absurd idea was doomed from the start. But one can suggest that it caused more than just a burst of indignation in the Kremlin; it might have become the "last straw" for Yeltsin that motivated him to get rid of the Chechen "anti-imperialist champion" at any cost.

[14] The address of the Russian President to the Federal Assembly, "On the Strengthening of the Russian State (the Main Directions of the Domestic and International Policy)," Moscow, 1994, p. 44.

[15] The Resolution of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Federal Assembly, "On the Political Settlement of Relations Between the Federal Government Bodies and the Power Bodies of the Chechen Republic," March 25, 1994, No. 75-1.

[16] Data Bank Info-TASS, No. CG298, May 29, 1992.

[17] Data Bank Info-TASS, No. BG925, December 11, 1992.

[18] Data Bank Info-TASS, No. DC722, January 8, 1993.

[19] Data Bank Info-TASS, No. EA959, May 2, 1993.

[20] Everyone who accused Yeltsin and other Russian leaders of preferring contacts with the leaders of the Chechen Parliament to the direct negotiations with Dudaev needs to know that, according to the Constitution of the Chechen Republic (Part 3, Article 62), the issues of "determining domestic and international policy of the Chechen Republic" and its "state system" are the exclusive responsibility of the Parliament, not the President (the Constitution of the Chechen Republic, Grozny: 1992).

[21] See also, Izvestiya, February 7, 1995.

[22] Izvestiya, December 10, 1994. See also, Izvestiya, February 9, 1995, p. 4.

[23] The Chechen opposition leaders themselves drew attention to this.

[24] Suggestions that the operation of arming the opposition and organizing the November armored march on Grozny was organized by the army, rather than the security services, become irrelevant to anyone who had observed the condescending smile on the face of Defense Minister Grachev on Russian television when he responded to the failure of the operation by saying that had the army been in charge, the task would have been solved by "one airborne regiment in two hours." Yet it is also clear that Grachev had had to sanction the transfer of army equipment to the opposition.

[25] Furthermore, the dialectic of the Russian political system creates yet another bizarre twist: the votes of the Security Council members are divided into "decisive" and "advisory" categories. The former belongs to the President (who is also the Security Council Chairman), Security Council Secretary, Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Federation Council, and the Speaker of the State Duma. Yet to the question: "What happens if the vote of the Chairman is in the minority among the five decisive votes?" the staff of the Security Council smile and say, "this never happens."

[26] This disagreement later cost them their jobs.

[27] That some of the troops began to arrive at military bases in North Ossetia in late November does not imply that there was a coherent operational plan of military action. The troops could have been deployed, for instance, to blockade the Chechen border, coerce a "favorable negotiating background" (as described by a number of Yeltsin's advisors at the time), or sent in as a last resort.

[28] Ya. Vyzhutovich, "The Shadow Advisors of Kremlin Strengthen Their Influence," Izvestiya, January 24, 1995.

[29] From this vantage point, everything seems to be straightforward--a new course required different policymakers. Yet, in June 1995, in an interview granted to a Moscow newspaper, State Duma Representative Valery Borshev told the following story. Upon his return to the city of Budyonnovsk, where Shamil Basaev's infamous terrorist act had been committed a few days earlier, he met with President Yeltsin to inform him of the details of the tragedy. Sergei Shakhrai was present, and as he tried to interject a point in the conversation, Yeltsin allegedly "cut him off abruptly and reminded him that he, Shakhrai, was one of the initiators of the war in Chechnya." (Vechernyaa Moskva, July 10, 1995.) It is difficult to interpret the subtext to this exchange. There is no reason to doubt Borshev's integrity or motivations. Moreover, the thought that the president could have confused one of his closest, long-time advisors with someone else is absurd. But if Shakhrai indeed was one of the initiators of the war, then what was the point of replacing him with Yegorov? Or maybe the "Yegorov Plan" (or "Stepashin-Yegorov Plan") did not go beyond the arming of the opposition and organizing the November march on Grozny; and when the storming of the city failed suddenly and miserably, there was again a need to "summon Shakhrai" to restore the status quo ante. Yegorov, in an effort to restore his own credibility, then offered (or, more likely, actively supported and developed) the new policy: to crack down on Chechnya with the full force of Russia's military might.

[30] According to the human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov, Foreign Minister Kozyrev later admitted in conversation that "the military people convinced us in the Security Council meeting that it was going to be almost a "bloodless blitzkrieg" that would not last any longer than December 20. In return they demanded carte blanche from the civilian leadership, and everything said and done afterwards was aimed at making their task as easy as possible.

[31] A detailed critical analysis of the level of preparation and execution of the Grozny operation is given by the military analyst and a witness to the events in: A. Frolov, "Soldiers On the Front Line and Commanders In Mozdok," Izvestiya, January 11, 1995.

[32] Izvestiya, February 10, 1995

[33] Resolution of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, "On the Situation in the Chechen Republic," published in Chechnya: Russia's Tragedy, Moscow, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[34] Transcript of the plenary session of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, July 13, 1995 (handwritten version).


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