Russia's invasion of Chechnya: A Preliminary Assessment

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



Russia may still consider itself a superpower, but its army was not up to this effort. Given the extent of Russian interests abroad, it is unlikely that these forces could adequately defend them all. Just as the army is an instrument of questionable utility at home, under some circumstances it might not be much better abroad. Therefore this invasion, like the crisis of the military economy at home, highlights the fact that the instruments of power at Russia's disposal are not commensurate with Russia's strategic claims and interests. Inasmuch as the government shows too easily a willingness to deploy these unreliable armed forces, this insolvency (to use Walter Lippmann's term) can only raise the greatest fears for Russia and its neighbors.

This incommensurability also pertains to the war's economic aspect. By December 23, 1994, the government had already spent 400 billion rubles on the war and was forced to propose a still larger outlay for Chechnya's peacetime reconstruction if and when that occurs.22 By the end of 1994, officials were estimating that the costs of rebuilding Chechnya would reach 3.5 trillion rubles and there is no source for the money. And the costs associated with sending and maintaining 40,000 troops there is included in that figure, making the total cost at the start of 1995 at least $1 billion (U.S.).23 These expenditures will break the budget and explode the fiction that Russia could somehow conform to the International Monetary Fund's dictates and continue receiving subsidies. Instead, inflation and defense spending will grow together. Indeed, one cynical view is that Grachev urged the invasion precisely to increase defense spending. He and the military were certainly bitter about the government's and Duma's failure to heed their exorbitant budget demands. That their budget requirements would destroy the economy seemed largely inconsequential to the military.24 Thus, not only does the war call into question the vitality of the army and the health of Russian democracy, but it also further strains Russia's economy.

However, perhaps the most dismaying military and domestic aspect of the war is that it shows the regime's utter strategic incompetence, not only in facing the Chechen challenge but also in assessing Russia's true options and capabilities. This failure particularly relates to four issues: the reasons for resorting to a large military operation, failure to assess the Chechen and Russian forces realistically, failure to understand the media's role, and, most importantly, the failure to see that there could be no victory here. No one in the Kremlin apparently had an end state in mind or conceived of a conflict resolution or termination strategy. The planners were misled by the old Russian belief that a mere show of force would quickly intimidate the Muslims into submission.

Russian efforts to suppress Chechnya date to 1991 and even then showed a dangerous proclivity to impose undemocratic and unrealistic solutions in the North Caucasus.25 The general reasons for intervening: to preserve Russian integrity, enhance Yeltsin's and/or Grachev's stature, bolster the defense budget, overcome internal political disaffection by a `splendid little war,' and to suppress a rebellion that threatened internal security and criminality, are all well known.

But we must ask why invade now with such sizable forces? Indeed, some observers believed that before the summer and the coups described below, progress towards a solution was taking place.26 Sadly, the answer apparently is that Moscow invaded out of pique. The current masters of the Kremlin would have done well to read Lenin's Political Testament wherein he wrote, "in general, spite plays the very worst role in politics." Before November 1994, Russia mounted at least four covert operations against Chechnya, all of which failed. These operations began in mid-1992 and were intensified in the summer of 1994 when Yeltsin signed an "instruction" releasing 150 billion rubles of state funds for action against Chechnya. Reports from captured Russian officers indicate that the "mechanism of intervention" included organizing mass flights of criminals from prison, and recruiting Chechen criminals from Russia. All these sources indicate that overall authorship and supervision of the plot against Chechnya came from Russia's Ministry of Nationalities, under Sergei Shakhray, the Foreign Intelligence Service (Federativnyi Sluzhba Kontrrazvedki-FSK), and Vladimir Lozovoy, head of the North Ossetian and Ingushetian Interim Administration. This latter organization reputedly operates under the direction of Sergei Filatov, chief of Yeltsin's administration.27 This evidence apparently confirms the claim that the FSK and MVD blindsided the Ministry of Defense which was led to claim falsely that no Russian troops were involved in these operations. This denial took place despite the fact that the FSK had gained operational control over the forces sent into Chechnya in the fall of 1994, in the fifth and last covert operation before the current attack.28

This evidence itself signifies a dangerous lack of governmental control over regular and covert military forces and operations. It also implicates Russia in the coup against the Aliyev government in Azerbaijan in the fall of 1994, an operation that started in the same way with a mass prison break followed by an uprising. Inasmuch as previous coups in Baku also indicate the heavy involvement of covert Russian forces, it appears that the FSK has taken over the KGB's mission of coup-making abroad.29 The resort to black operations--and their public failure--can only undermine the authority of the FSK, Yeltsin, and the armed forces. Moreover, to the degree that coups in both rebellious provinces and sovereign states become identified as habitual Russian modus operandi to secure Moscow's interests, Russia's international position will also suffer as foreign suspicion of its policies and goals increases.

Frustrated by the failure of their first four operations, the MVD, FSK, and the government mounted a fifth one involving supposed anti-Dudayev volunteers in November 1994. This, too, ignominiously failed and Dudayev exposed to the world the involvement of Russian troops. This public embarrassment undoubtedly enraged Yeltsin, Grachev, and other leaders who were shown to have been blindsided by the FSK, and not fully in control of their own armed forces. Grachev, who had gone on television to deny the involvement of Russian troops, must have been particularly embarrassed. Even though Yeltsin and Grachev subsequently made a pretense of negotiations while they were massing troops, that was clearly a ruse. The Kremlin had decided on war to avenge its failure.

And the inner circle all thought this splendid little war would be a walkover. Grachev said that one paratroop regiment would suffice to conquer Chechnya in two hours, a sign not only of arrogance but of utter strategic incomprehension.30 They believed that a single crushing blow was all that was needed. No resistance was expected, nor did the planners count on the fact that massing troops in the neighboring North Caucasian Muslim republics would stimulate their active opposition as well. Therefore, when significant opposition did come, it disoriented the troops who had been screened from the media and were told there would be no opposition; that they were only fighting a band of criminals.

Nor did the planners count on the reluctance of commanders to fire on unarmed civilians or on the corrosive effects on the military of official lying during Russia's first "television war." Free broadcasting from the war zone belied the hollow claims made about a lack of Russian or civilian casualties and brought into question the reasons for the war. Nor did Russian audiences enjoy seeing their forces engage in the terror bombing that ensued when the ground forces failed to advance over land.31 This media exposure, local resistance, and generals' refusal to violate the constitution (in Babichev's case) by firing on civilians, or support what they believed was a fiasco, along with the incompetence of the troops, betrayed the hollowness of the invasion plans.

Nor can one discern what objective could be gained by so massive an operation. There is already talk of some sort of Chechen referendum, which Russia will veto in the end or, perhaps, some sort of negotiation about autonomy--a meaningless concept in an utterly lawless state, especially when Yeltsin has already named a new government of Russian puppets to take over once the Russian army occupies Groznyi.32 In other words, Yeltsin is now making up political objectives as he goes along. Strategic failure has resulted in less than inspired improvisation. Consequently, more troops have had to be sent to Chechnya.

Finally, the possibility exists that other North Caucasian Muslim forces will join with Chechnya against Russia and convert the area into a true cauldron. This last consideration, directly traceable to the strategic failure in Moscow, leads us to consider the possibility that the Kremlin's actions could now generate a real, not propaganda, Islamic threat. In effect, Moscow could summon its own worst nightmare into being. While earlier the area was seen as a source of many nasty conflicts, it was not regarded as being in imminent danger of "Lebanonization."33 Now Russia has given the many nationalities of this area a reason to unite. Moreover, the Russians have revealed themselves as brutal and incompetent; a lethal combination. For these reasons, the invasion of Chechnya will make it much harder to achieve a regional peace in the North Caucasus that is based on compromise, mutual accommodation, and negotiations rather than one based on force and Muscovite centralization.34 Thus the resort to force majeure may trigger a series of long wars that will further debilitate an already sick Russia.

While these are the immediately evident domestic consequences of this invasion and suffice to explain its tragic folly, they are not the only ones. Indeed, this action has serious international repercussions. First, this war and the brutality of Russia's terror bombing of innocent civilians risk the good will which democratic Russia had been building in the West. Even in the United States, which originally said this was purely a Russian internal affair, protests by human rights groups have begun to register. The same holds true in Europe and the protests could lead to sanctions or raise other obstacles to Russia's major foreign policy goals.35 The European Union's refusal to let Turkey in, allegedly on human rights grounds resulting from its Kurdish war, and U.S. aid reductions to Turkey illustrate what might happen as a result of this tragic war.

Second, Russia's heavy-handed actions indicate its supposedly neo-imperialist aims, undemocratic nature, and reliance on covert operations to destabilize governments, as well as its willingness to send in troops when all else fails. In other words, Russia has gratuitously provided ammunition to all those who regard Moscow as a threat and wish to wall it off from influence in their region. More pointedly, since the use of troops was a violation of the Vienna Document on Confidence and Stability Building Measures of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that said any concentration of over 40,000 troops must be communicated to the other signatories, and the Budapest decisions of the CSCE that were signed five days before the invasion, those violations could--and possibly will--be held against Russia as an indication of its unreliability, and as reasons for not revising the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty.

Revision of the treaty is a key Russian policy goal that has now been endangered.36 Russia wants to gain permission to station more troops, armored vehicles, and tanks in the North Caucasian and northern flanks of Russia and this would necessitate revision of the quotas that the treaty stipulates for Russia in those flanks. If Russian claims to revise the CFE's flank quotas and allow it to station more troops, tanks, and military vehicles are rejected, Russia may renounce the CFE treaty and isolate itself in Europe, thus provoking NATO's expansion. Or if Moscow accepts the treaty it will have to accept conditions that limit its plans for rebuilding the North Caucasian Military District into a major front-line and versatile power base for military action in Russia, the North Caucasus, Transcaucasia, and potentially the Ukraine, which borders the district's western frontier. Assuming that unrest continues throughout the area, acceptance of such limitations puts a heavy burden on Russia's armed forces. That burden's weight will be due to the fact that having started a protracted war, Moscow will be unable to find other resources for essential military construction. But if the Kremlin renounces the treaty, Russian ambitions for a larger role in European security will be blocked.

Third, although this invasion may seem to show that the Russian armed forces are strategically and tactically incompetent, Western analysts need to be cautious in assessing the performance of Russian forces in Chechnya. It not advisable to extrapolate too much from the seemingly poor performance of Russian troops fighting in an unpopular war against their own citizens. The tendency might be for the West to assume that a seemingly substandard performance in Chechnya might mean Russian forces could not adequately defend the nation's interest under different circumstances elsewhere.

On the other hand, the way Moscow has handled the Chechen situation could indicate that Russia is having an increasingly difficult time creating and enforcing order in its Muslim peripheries. If Russia has to rely on brute force to maintain order it will alienate itself from the West and dig itself into a geopolitical hole across Eurasia. Furthermore, Moscow's actions in Chechnya will further destabilize the state system in this already fragmented "arc of crisis."37

In time, democracy could have become the principle that provided legitimacy to the force of state power throughout the North Caucasus. But Moscow's actions may lead many to believe that Russia has nothing to offer Asia but force. Unfortunately for Moscow, many Asians may now feel that they do not have to be intimidated by a Russia which has employed force both illegitimately and with such seeming incompetence. Instead, those in Asia and Europe who are so inclined may now be less reticent to resist Russia, with unpredictable and potentially dangerous results.

Precisely because the European security agenda is now increasingly bound up with developments in the Caucasus, it will be impossible, or at least highly unlikely that, in the event of protracted war there or other such interventions, Europe can remain aloof. As Lawrence Freedman recently wrote,

The tolerance of the European system to major uphevals in Russia and/or the Ukraine should not be judged high. Even smaller-scale ructions can become dangerous if they start to threaten the equilibrium of a number of countries. If there is an underlying tendency towards instability, then the issue of intervention starts to be seen in a different light. The interest in the prevention of disorder takes on a higher value, because there can be no less confidence that, left alone, most conflicts will peter out as the belligerents become exhausted.38

22. John Lloyd, "Yeltsin Plea to Dudayev 'Hostages' as Toll Reaches 140," Financial Times, December 22, 1994, p. 3. (Back to text)

23. Steven Erlanger, "Russia's New Budget Raises Doubt on a Stable Economy," The New York Times, December 28, 1994, p. A6; Steve Liesman, "Chechnya Conflict May Take Fiscal Toll," Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1994, p. A4. (Back to text)

24. Moscow, Ostankino Television First Channel, in Russian, November 18, 1994, FBIS-SOV, 94-224, November 20, 1994, pp. 32-34; Erlanger, "Russia's Army," p. A10. (Back to text)

25. Marie Broxup, "After the Putsch," in Marie Broxup, ed., The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance to the Muslim World, London: Jonathan Hurst and Co., 1992, pp. 219-240; Petro, p. 194. (Back to text)

26. Petro, pp. 194-199. (Back to text)

27. James Sherr, "The Conflict in Chechnia," Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1994, pp. 557-558. (Back to text)

28. Ibid.; S. Frederick Starr, "Chechnya: The U.S. Interest," Wall Street Journal, December 22, 1994, p. A14. (Back to text)

29. Amur Mursaliyev, "Drugs Fuel Azeri Coups," Moscow News, No. 49, December 9-15, 1994, p. 6; Thomas Goltz, "The Hidden Russian Hand," Foreign Policy, No. 92, Fall 1993, pp. 92-116. (Back to text)

30. On November 28, 1994, Grachev told a news conference that not only were there no Russian troops there but that a commander who sent in tanks (and the same applies to armored vehicles, Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and Armored Personnel Carriers-BMPs and BTRs in Russian,) was inept. Moscow, Krasnaya Zvezda, in Russian, November 29, 1994, FBIS-SOV, 94-229, November 29, 1994, p. 1. Amazingly enough, that is exactly what the Russians did when they tried to take Groznyi by storm over the end of 1994 and the start of 1995. (Back to text)

31. It should also be pointed out that terror bombing reflected the unavailability of other troops who could be used in the operation. As it was, the sending of two battalions of Marines (Morskaya Pekhota [Naval Infantry] who are elite troops) indicated the shortage of qualified troops in the theater. But on a large scale this resort to terror bombing and the sending of Marines reflects the fact that Moscow, despite having 3-4 million men under uniform in the army, MVD, FSK, railroad troops, and border troops, cannot put together sufficient packages of usable military forces. This highlights the gap between resources and interests alluded to above. (Back to text)

32. James Rupert, "Yeltsin Sets New Policy on Chechnya," The Washington Post, December 27, 1994, pp. A1, 20. (Back to text)

33. Sergei Medvedev, "Current Trends and Security Risks in Russia and the CIS," Perspectives (the Journal of the Institute of International Relations, Prague), No. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 83-84. (Back to text)

34. Petro, pp. 194-204. (Back to text)

35. For example, see the scathing comments in Le Monde, December 10 and 16, 1994, as reported in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Western Europe, (henceforth FBIS-WEU) 94-240, December 14, 1994, p. 23, and 94-243, December 19, 1994, p. 33. (Back to text)

36. Mark Almond, "Chechnya: A Wake-Up Call for the West," Wall Street Journal, December 20, 1994, p. A8. (Back to text)

37. Holden, pp. 33-37. (Back to text)

38. Lawrence Freedman, "Introduction," in Lawrence Freedman, ed., Military Intervention in European Conflicts, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994, p. 9. (Back to text)

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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