Russia's invasion of Chechnya: A Preliminary Assessment

By Stephen J. Blank and Earl H. Tilford, Jr.
Date: January 13, 1995


The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Government of the Chechen Republic.



When Russia's armed forces invaded Chechnya on December 11, 1994, they thought that it would only be a brief, decisive operation to bring the rebellious republic to heel. Unfortunately, they grossly miscalculated and have thereby put the stability of the Russian government itself at risk while inadvertently exposing the many shortcomings of the Russian armed forces. The invasion also revealed the absence of viable institutional or civilian control over the armed forces, as well as the government's readiness to use them to quell domestic unrest. These factors make for an exceedingly dangerous situation in Russia. And the invasion has also raised deeply troubling questions for Russia's international relations. All this is clear even from the first few weeks of the invasion. The invasion's repercussions will, therefore, be profound, and probably long-lasting in their ultimate effects. This essay accordingly represents an effort to assess these consequences on the basis of what is already known.

Chechnya, which had declared its independence from Russia in 1991, had become an increasingly painful and troublesome issue in Russian politics. Russia's determination to overthrow the government of General Dzhokar Dudayev is only the most recent manifestation of the acute disorder that pervades the entire Caucasus and Transcaucasia as well. While the ultimate outcome and repercussions of this invasion remain to be seen, already it has illuminated obvious and often ominous trends.

Russia's decision to invade Chechnya underscores the end of the Caucasus' isolation from world politics. No longer is the area merely Moscow's gateway to influence in the Near and Middle East. Rather the fate of the entire regional state system in the Caucasus and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)--the bedrock issue of all the many contentions in which Russia is involved--is deeply entwined with further progress in European security, especially around the Black Sea and Balkans.1 The crises in the Caucasus: ethnic wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and between Georgia and Abkhazia, the unrest throughout the North Caucasus most violently displayed by this invasion, and Russian efforts to regain a regional hegemony reflect and contribute to the pervasive regional chaos that now threatens to engulf all of Russia as well. Accordingly Caucasian events also materially affect Europe's security and this is reflected in Europe's expanded security agenda.2

A second conclusion relates to this one. By deciding to invade Chechnya, President Boris Yeltsin has made the stability of the Russian government and the integrity of the Russian state the center of gravity of the war. Whatever happens in Groznyi is of relatively small consequence compared to the fact that Yeltsin has exposed his regime's failure to create either a "rule of law state," (not to mention democracy), a reliable policy process, and a way to control Russia's armed forces. Accordingly, the chaos pervading the entire Caucasus could easily spread to Russia.

The fundamental problem across the CIS remains, therefore, the creation of effective states which have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Neither the states in the Caucasus, the rebellious provinces there, nor Russia have produced a Machtordnung (an order based on power) uniting force with legitimacy. Hence there is no order; instead we find a Hobbesian war of all against all where Russia or free-booting forces operating in Russia's name are constantly tempted to intervene.3 Though violence is regionally prevalent, it has failed to generate a principle of order anywhere from Russia south.

Accordingly a third conclusion suggests itself, namely that for the first time in its modern history, Russia has nothing to offer the Asian peoples with whom it is engaged. In the past Russia built an empire by combining force with ideas, ideologies, and institutions that attracted at least some Asian elites who were then coopted. Today Russia has nothing to offer these people other than force. No attractive legitimating ideology accompanies Russia's direct force, therefore that force cannot suffice to create any viable regional order across Eurasia. For this reason, perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this cycle of constant strife is that it has now spread to Russian territory proper and has manifested itself as a major threat to Yeltsin's government. Russia's overall Chechen policy has had a corrosive impact on Russian constitutional and internal security.

Chechnya has also become a major embarrassment for Moscow on the international stage because, on the one hand, Russia now appears to be indecisive and weak, and on the other hand it appears as an overbearing, brutal bully. Incompetence mixed with brutality is a pitiful combination. Where that corrosion will stop nobody knows. Indeed this inability to visualize an outcome or resolution to the use of military power, a conflict termination strategy in other words, is a major aspect of the profound strategic failure represented in Chechnya.

The Threat to the Russian State.

The greatest danger to Russia in its Chechen invasion lies in the fact that Yeltsin has put not only Defense Minister Pavel Grachev's authority on the line by this operation, but he also has put his own power and that of the Russian state at risk.4 The issue in Chechnya is not merely preventing other regional formations from following its example, leading to a breakup of Russia itself; rather the Russian state's own cohesion is what is now at stake. The fact that an invasion occurred testifies to the absence of any existing state of law in Russia. Yeltsin can indeed call out troops without accounting to anyone or any agency. Furthermore that force will remain not the final argument of Russian authorities, but the first argument. Parliamentarians like Yegor Gaidar are right to worry that this operation heralds the government's reliance on "national patriots."5 But the malaise goes deeper than that.

It is clear that Russian democracy has failed since Russia's current government exists in a vacuum of social-political forces and answers to nobody. Though one may call Russia a democracy, Yeltsin and his government are not operating under any rule of law nor is institutional stability in sight. Indeed, the CIA has suggested that coherent, legitimate political leadership in Moscow is in danger.6 In 1993, in a remark worthy of his Tsarist predecessors, Yeltsin observed that he only answers to his conscience. Today the Tsarist model still pervades defense decision making. Indeed, Yeltsin's power and authority reside neither in law nor other structures, but in his own person.7 Much as in Tsarist times, key figures in the government despise each other and are constantly intriguing one against the other. Not surprisingly this fact suits Yeltsin since he can play one off against the other. This condition is a pervasive, recurrent feature of the Tsarist bureaucratic structure which has resurfaced in the post-Soviet period. As Otto Latsis, a member of the consultative presidential committee remarked, "The problem is not so much that decision-making procedures have been breached, but that there are no procedures at all."8

However, the absence of viable, regular, and coherent political institutions makes it almost certain that failure in Chechnya will threaten the power of the president, just as failed wars challenged the power of every Tsar who waged them. Yeltsin and Grachev alone are on the firing line especially now, when television viewers can see the truth on a daily basis and Russian society is no longer easily manipulated by propaganda or amenable to Tsarist-like rule.

1. Daniel N. Nelson, "Creating Security in the Balkans," in Regina Cowen Karp, ed., Central and Eastern Europe: The Challenge of Transition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, For SIPRI, 1993, p. 172. (Back to text)

2. Ian O. Lesser, "The Strategic Environment in the Balkans and the Mediterranean," in F. Stephen Larrabee, ed., The Volatile Powder Keg: Balkan Security After the Cold War, Washington: American University Press, 1994, p. 168. (Back to text)

3. Gerard Holden, Russia After the Cold War: History and the Nation in Post-Soviet Security Policies, Frankfurt Am Main, Germany and Boulder, CO: Campus Verlag and Westview Press, 1994, pp. 33-37. (Back to text)

4. Steven Erlanger, "Russia's Army Seen As Failing Chechnya Test," New York Times, December 25, 1994, pp. A1, 10; "Why Chechnya Matters," The Economist, December 17, 1994, p. 49. (Back to text)

5. Indeed, Pavel Felgengauer, Russia's most respected defense columnist, wrote that one reason the army invaded now was to forestall a Parliamentary investigation of the earlier efforts to overthrow Dudayev's government. See Steven Erlanger, "Bad News vs. Bad News for Yeltsin," New York Times, December 21, 1994, p. A1. (Back to text)

6. Bill Gertz, "Chechnya Strife Signals Fragile Yeltsin Control," Washington Times, January 4, 1995, p. 1. (Back to text)

7. This was clear from a collection of papers presented by Felgengauer and other Russians (Vitaly Shlykov, Stepan Sulakshin, and Aleksandr' Belkin) to the II Annual Conference on Russian Defense Decision-Making, Monterrey, CA, November 15-16, 1994. (Back to text)

8. Sophie Shihab, "Who's Calling the Shots in Russia?" Manchester Guardian Weekly, December 25, 1994, p. 11, from Le Monde, December 16, 1994. (Back to text)


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