The Chechen War and Its Immediate Consequences

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



It is hard to believe that the Russian army has found it so difficult to overwhelm and defeat the Chechen rebels. Whether or not Russian forces occupy Groznyi and install a puppet government, the consequences of the invasion will eclipse local events in Chechnya in importance. Those consequences have already undermined Russia's domestic constitution and government and they will weaken its international position as well.

The first consequence of this war is a demonstrable absence of any viable system of civilian control over the military. In defiance of the 1992 Law on Defense, the army was used on the Russian population without any recourse to Parliament. Indeed the government denied it was going to invade Chechnya and, in September 1994, Yeltsin said that "under no circumstances" would there be an invasion.9 This 1992 law is obviously most inconvenient for the government which has submitted draft laws on defense and peacemaking that reserve to Yeltsin alone the power to call out the army for any contingency without recourse to Parliament for permission, funding, or authorization. As the Duma's overall evaluation of the new draft Law on Defense observes, the provisions on the armed forces' structure and objectives are never really confirmed by legislation "and they are left hostage in their entirety to executive structures of government."10

As for the legal justification of the invasion, it too is cloudy at best. Chechnya refused to sign the Federation Treaty of 1992 that regulates relationships among Russia's republics and the central government. But that treaty stipulates that a state of emergency may be declared in a republic only with the local government's agreement. Yet even if the emergency is contained within only one republic, e.g. Chechnya, the local government must inform the President of Russia and the Supreme Soviet (presumably today that would mean the Federation Council and the Duma) of the Russian Federation and act according to federal laws during the state of emergency.11 The 1993 Russian constitution also states that the President may impose a state of emergency on his own if he immediately notifies the Federation Council and State Duma. While the presidential decision enters into force immediately, it only remains in force for three days until and unless the Federation council extends the state of emergency.12 But Yeltsin did not declare any state of emergency before the invasion or communicate with the Parliament's two houses. So the invasion is illegal even by Russia's legal standards. Chechnya's refusal to sign the treaty put it outside the law, but what can we say of the Russian government that broke the treaty without accounting for its actions to any institution?

Essentially this invasion manifests a return to a quasi-Tsarist way of governing. As was the case under the Tsarist and Soviet systems, the Kremlin is not accountable to anyone. Furthermore, its defense decision-making process is characterized by a small group of unaccountable men making secret and calamitous decisions. Their decisions are justified by either resorting to the old Soviet "big lie" technique or by outright repression and phony accusations against the independent media.13 Such practices are too easily invoked in Russia to reassure advocates of democracy there.

As part of this formula of nonaccountability and resort to mendacious propaganda we also find the disturbing possibility that officials deliberately may be misleading or misinforming Yeltsin. In his speech to the nation on December 27, 1994, Yeltsin claimed the opposition press was motivated by political ambition and Chechen bribes. Furthermore, he maintained that Russia was ready to move over to the administrative reconstitution of a new Chechen government in Groznyi. None of this was true. Worse yet, after he announced that Russia would stop the terror bombing of Groznyi, it continued for several days without letup. Deliberate screening of information and deception of the autocrat were other hallmarks of Tsarist rule. And the deliberate use of misinformation on the population was, of course, another such hallmark. In this war there have been numerous instances of such official lying that have been exposed by the independent media, much to the government's discomfiture. The danger is that in the present context of institutional incoherence and fragility, such misinformation (if not disinformation of and by one's own government) can only lead to further loss of control by Yeltsin and the top military command. This could lead to even greater strategic catastrophes.

Even before this invasion it had become clear that Boris Yeltsin would not allow any other civilian to control the military, seemingly out of fear that a rival might develop his own power base. But it was also clear that the armed forces, like the government, were factionalized. The Minister of Defense depends completely on Yeltsin for his job, and must support his decisions and carry them out even more zealously than would otherwise be the case. At the same time the President and the Minister of Defense have become a law unto themselves in that no other institution is allowed to oversee defense policy.14 In other words, in defense policy, Yeltsin's personal decree or whim has become law. But since law has no legitimacy where force and caprice rule, parliamentary opponents quickly labelled this war as illegitimate. Furthermore, the media's reporting demolished the flimsy lies behind which Chechen policy had been conducted. This is one key reason for the attacks on the media even before the war. These physical and rhetorical attacks suggest the Kremlin's inner circle is unwilling to be held accountable for its actions, an unwillingness that can only strengthen antidemocratic tendencies within the government. In part, this explains why the Ministry of Interior (MVD) forces took up preventive positions in Moscow and arrested Chechens there now. (If they were criminals before the invasion, why not arrest them then?)

That refusal to answer for the presidency's actions might also be a motive for invading at this time according to Pavel Felgengauer, the defense correspondent of Segodnya, and Russia's most prominent defense reporter. According to Felgengauer the invasion came at this time to forestall any parliamentary investigation of the previous five failed coups undertaken by the government in Chechnya. These coups (discussed below) were directly traceable to Yeltsin's office and the Intelligence Service (FSK), and employed regular troops from the armed forces. Any investigation would undoubtedly have produced a major scandal.15

The invasion's second consequence flows from the first. Absent civilian control over the military and laws binding on everyone, key members of the armed forces can then plausibly argue against this or any other operation, especially a domestic one, on the grounds of conscience as well as on professional ones. Thus two deputy ministers of defense, General Boris Gromov and General Georgii Kondrat'ev; the Deputy CINC of the Army, Col. General Edvard Vorob'ev; and one of the commanding officers in the field, General Viktor Babichev, all attacked the operation or refused to participate.

This phenomenon not only underscores the pervasive lack of respect for Grachev and Yeltsin among the military, it also highlights the essential unreliability of the army when it comes to quelling domestic unrest.16 Efforts to impose such repression elsewhere could conceivably break the state apart. Those who argued that the army supported Yeltsin in 1993 overlooked the fact that when called on to defend the state against rebels the army either temporized or refused. Instead it only attacked the rebels after the latter rashly and forcefully attacked the army and the people. Arguably the army was not defending only Yeltsin, but rather itself, a fact not lost on Yeltsin.17 The Chechen operation, or other similar and especially concurrent ones, could, if protracted, lead to massive military disobedience on the scale of February 1917, especially since commanders and troops are visibly unhappy with this war.

These trends therefore demonstrate an absence of unity of command at the top, a fact that casts doubt on the merit of using the army for any strategic operation. This is not only a question of domestic but also of foreign missions, and it makes the use of the army anywhere a most problematic affair. Given Yeltsin's and Grachev's widespread loss of status, it is hardly clear that they can compel full compliance to orders for any particular military operation. The fact that the terror bombing of Groznyi continued for two days after Yeltsin said that it would stop suggests that local commanders conceivably disregarded that order. If so, that would be another indication of the dangers of lack of control over the armed forces. Consequently, the army's performance in Chechnya has exposed its shortcomings in command and control to the world.

Yet, at the same time, Yeltsin and Grachev (and the others involved in the plan) have demonstrated their fidelity to the tenets of the 1993 defense doctrine stating the army can and will be used to quell domestic unrest.18 Since Grachev wants the doctrine accepted as a legally binding document upon state institutions (as was the case in Soviet times), the government is playing for the highest stakes with dubious cards. A fundamentally illegitimate and lawless regime (only 46 percent of voters approved the existing constitution which, in any case, has been superseded by this action) effectively has announced that although it lacks control over commanders and soldiers, it will call out troops at home and, in so doing, perhaps violate its own Federation Treaty and Constitution. Although the Chechen government had defied Moscow for three years and thus the threat to Russia dates from 1991, Moscow only called out the troops now after the five failed coup attempts. This suggests that little or no long-range planning went into the operation. Rather, it was ordered in a state of some panic or urgency for reasons going beyond any Chechen threat.

The implications of this are enormous. The regime is liable to call out troops at home with little or no consideration as to consequences and for reasons having to do as much with covering up its own failures as with the potential "threat" posed by the insurgents. The determination to employ military force at home also reflects a broader process at work. Already by late 1993, the MVD had mounted tens of costly operations in the North Caucasus and Moscow, and was becoming the preferred instrument for quelling and pacifying internal unrest once the army had initially suppressed the local fighting.19

At the same time, the armed forces' tactical and operational deficiencies have been exposed for little reason. Naturally this greatly embarrasses the Russian Army and the government. Observers of the military had long known that draftees were increasingly deficient in health, physical training, education, character (probably about one-third being criminals), and morale. Significant numbers of Russian troops surrendering, the widespread evidence of a breakdown of logistics, poor training, troops being transported in sealed cars with no briefing concerning conditions at the front, or not being given sufficient food, and the widespread desire not to fight in this war all point to severe limitations on the army's reliability and competence. Indeed, Ingushetia's President, Ruslan Aushev, told the Russian Federation Council and a news conference on December 15, 1994, that soldiers in the columns crossing Ingushetia had often urged protesters to disable military vehicles and shown them how to do it.20 On the other hand the demoralization of the armed forces also showed up in incidents of brutality towards Muslim servicemen (a Bashkir) and Ingush civilians, all of whom were murdered in killings that were reported by a number of Duma members.21

9. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Daily Report, December 22, 1994. (Back to text)

10. This is immediately apparent upon reading the Draft Laws on Defense and on Peacemaking currently before the Duma. For further comment on the former law, see Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, FBIS Report, (henceforth FBIS-USR), 94-018-L, November 8, 1994. (Back to text)

11. Nicolai N. Petro, "Can Decentralization Solve Russia's Ethnic Problems?," in Ian M. Cuthbertson and Jane Leibowitz, eds., Minorities: The New Europe's Old Issue, New York: Institute for East-West Studies, 1993, p. 189. (Back to text)

12. Moscow, Segodnya, in Russian, November 29, 1994, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, Daily Report (henceforth FBIS-SOV), 94-229, November 30, 1994, pp. 41-42. (Back to text)

13. Alan Cooperman, "Return of the Big Lie," U.S. News & World Report, December 19, 1994, p. 44; James Rupert, "Moscow Fights Losing Battle on Portrayals of Chechnya Campaign," The Washington Post, December 24, 1994, p. A12. (Back to text)

14. This emerged clearly in the papers and discussion at the November 15-16 conference in Monterrey, CA. (Back to text)

15. "Les Troupes Russes Intensifient Leur Offensive sur Grozny," Le Monde, December 22, 1994; Sophie Shihab, "Moscow Veut 'Liquider' la Rebellion Tchechene," Le Monde, December 22, 1994, pp. 1, 5. (Back to text)

16. See Col. Serafim Yuskov's Open Letter to Yeltsin in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 22, 1994, FBIS-SOV-94-205, October 24, 1994, pp. 19-20. (Back to text)

17. Boris Yeltsin, The Struggle for Russia, Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, trans., New York: Times Books, Random House, 1994, pp. 11-14, 258-277. (Back to text)

18. "Osnovnye Polozheniia Voennoi Doktriny Rossii," Rossisskie Vesti, November 19, 1993, pp. 3-8. (Back to text)

19. This is based on interviews with Finnish officials who received it from the MVD Forces Commander, General Evgenii Kulikov. (Back to text)

20. National Public Radio, "All Things Considered," January 3, 1995; RFE/RL Daily Report, December 20, 1994; Michael Specter, "Rebels Beat Back a Russian Force," The New York Times, January 3, 1995, pp. A1, 8; James Rupert, "Chechens Repulse Fierce Assault by Russian Troops," The Washington Post, January 3, 1995, pp. A1, 12. (Back to text)

21. RFE/RL Daily Report, December 20, 1994. (Back to text)


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