How Russia Blundered into Chechnya

Saturday, January 30, 1999

At the end of November 1994—just two weeks before the Russian military invasion of Chechnya—two colonels from the Russian General Staff visited the State Military Historical Archive in Moscow with an official request from the Ministry of Defense to learn more about the historical context of armed conflict in the North Caucasus. The archival staff were eager to help, but it turned out, according to an informed account, that the two colonels were interested only in “general information which they could have found in any pre-Soviet encyclopedia.”

As this episode demonstrates, the Russian Ministry of Defense had little notion of the historical experience of the people whose lands it was about to invade. The Russian military—and, evidently, the Russian government as well—had contracted a case of historical amnesia, and this amnesia, in turn, constituted an intelligence failure of immense proportions.

In his short book on the Chechen crisis, Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee and a retired military officer, recalls how he exerted himself in vain to forestall the invasion of Chechnya in the period following the military debacle of November 26, 1994. “Those who attacked our tanks,” he tried to explain to leading figures in the Kremlin, “are not bandits, although there were some bandits among them. But, on the whole, they are a people with their own customs, which are perhaps strange and incomprehensible for us. . . . I said to those who raised objections, ‘At least read [Leo Tolstoy’s] Hadji Murat.’” Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Russian Security Council, retorted haughtily, “Why can’t we carry out an operation in our country like the United States did in Haiti? It is time for us to show that we can do it. Enough is enough!” For Oleg Lobov, an ahistorical man, there was no essential difference between the Caribbean Haitians and the North Caucasian Chechens.

If the Russian military and the Russian political leadership had little notion of who the Chechens were, the Chechens, for their part, were keenly and painfully aware of who they were as a people and what their historical relationship with Russian had been. “For a Chechen,” Caucasus specialist Sergei Arutyunov has observed, “to be a man is to remember the names of seven generations of paternal ancestors . . . and not only their names, but the circumstances of their deaths and the places of their tombstones. This constitutes an enormous depth of historic memory, and in many cases the remembered deaths occurred at the hands of Russian soldiers—under Catherine the Great, under Nicholas the First, under Stalin.” “Even the smallest Chechen boy,” Arutyunov has noted, “already knows well the whole history of the deportations [of 1944] and the entire history of the sufferings of his people.”

As Arutyunov has remarked elsewhere, Chechnya is best seen as representing a “military democracy,” a comparatively rare form of political and social organization. “Like any other military democracy, e.g., like the Iroquois in America or Zulu in South Africa,” he writes, “Chechens retained an institution of supreme military chief. In peacetime, that chief would have no power at all. No sovereign authority was recognized, and the nation might be fragmented in a hundred rival clans. However, in time of danger, when confronted with an aggressor, the rival clans would unite and elect a military leader. While the war was going on, this leader would be obeyed.”

The tumultuous events occurring in Chechnya during the years 1991–1994 tend to confirm Arutyunov’s analysis. Confronted by the chaos and political uncertainty accompanying the collapse of the USSR, Chechens, as it were, instinctively selected a general, Dzhokhar Dudaev, as their first president. During the times when Russia appeared seriously to be contemplating an invasion, the Chechens would, to a notable extent, rally around their supreme military chief in order to repel a potential foreign aggressor. When tensions subsided, Chechen society would once again “fragment” into its constituent clans and Dudaev’s power would visibly dissipate. The Russian political and military leaderships appear to have been ignorant of this key dynamic.

Commenting on the historical experience of the Chechens under both the tsars and the communists, Valerii Tishkov noted in testimony before the Russian Constitutional Court in 1995: “Former regimes, and not only the Soviet, but the tsarist as well, committed a great many crimes against the Chechen people. The most tragic episode is the Stalin deportation.” In a similar vein, Sergei Arutyunov has underscored that the Chechens have “suffered from the tsarist colonialist and Stalinist neo-imperialist policies more than any other nation in the Caucasus, and, probably, next only to the Crimean Tatars, on the all-Russian [and all-USSR] scale.” It seems clear that a postcommunist Russian democratic leadership should have been alert to this factor of past crimes (and genocide) committed against the Chechens. Visiting new crimes upon such a “punished people” would obviously mesh poorly with a professed system of political democracy and respect for human rights.

Two important ministers were by background Russian Cossacks who seem to have carried the Cossacks’ historic animus against the Chechens.

In addition to grossly underestimating the motivation and military potential of the Dudaev-led Chechens, the Yeltsin leadership seemed to be unaware of or indifferent to clear-cut major weaknesses of the Russian state: its structural semicollapse, acute economic and administrative dislocations, and, most significantly, the demoralization, corruption, and rampant inefficiency of the Russian military and other power structures. A war with well-armed and highly motivated Chechens would predictably serve to strain the rickety structures of the Russian state to the utmost.

Behind the decision to invade Chechnya lay the arrogance and hubris of the Russian “party of war.” A “great power,” it was believed, must swat aside its enemies and opponents like so many flies. A disturbing ethnic dimension also seems to have played a role in the invasion. Nationality Ministers Sergei Shakhrai and Nikolai Egorov were both by background Russian Cossacks who seem to have internalized that community’s historic animus against the Chechens. The results of their apparent inability or unwillingness to be dispassionate and fair-minded toward the prosecession Chechens were unfortunate, even catastrophic.

What about President Yeltsin himself? It is he, clearly, who must bear the final responsibility for the invasion. “The decision concerning the Chechen war,” Fedor Burlatskii has concluded, “judging from everything, was prepared by the closest entourage of the president. But the president himself took the decision: after all, the Security Council is only a consultative organ.”

A number of Russian commentators have noted that Yeltsin in his relationship with Dudaev (or, rather, in his lack thereof) permitted himself to give way to strong emotion and to pique. For the president of a major power to permit himself such an indulgence in dealing with an ethnic minority must inevitably be self-defeating. “The decisive escalation of the conflict,” the Tishkov group has noted, “took place under conditions of a personalization of the clash.” In this connection, it cites a revealing statement made by Mintimer Shaimiev, the president of Tatarstan: “Yeltsin was almost certainly ready for negotiations with Dudaev on the Tatar model, but then they [his entourage] told him that Dudaev had spoken negatively about him.” The Tishkov group concludes: “Evidently, from a certain moment on, B. Yeltsin (under the unquestionable influence of his aides and of certain members of the Government) crossed Dudaev off the list of Russian politicians with whom it was permissible to have any dealings, and then raised him to the rank of chief enemy.”

A striking similarity between the characters of Yeltsin and his archrival Dudaev has been pointed to by some commentators. “In my view,” retired Major Aleksandr Belkin has written, “it is essential for further understanding of the inevitability of the armed conflict in Chechnya to comprehend why President Yeltsin declined any possibility of a personal meeting with Dudaev as a last hope for a peaceful solution of the crisis. As I see it, certain individual features of Yeltsin’s character made it psychologically difficult if not impossible (though not excusable) to meet his twin brother from Chechnya. Like Yeltsin himself, Dudaev strove for political power; as Dudaev was ready to sacrifice the unity of the Russian Federation for his own independent rule in Chechnya, so Yeltsin was prepared to facilitate the disintegration of the Soviet Union in order to win power from Gorbachev.”


The December 1994 Russian military invasion of Chechnya, in sum, was the result of a massive intelligence failure and of an egregious miscalculation. The Dudaev-led Chechens constituted a martial people—highly motivated, courageous, and skillful in battle—who nourished burning grievances against the Russian state. It should have been self-evident to the Russian leadership that the Chechens would fight long and hard against a foreign invader. But the Yeltsin leadership had little inkling of who the Chechens were. The Russian “party of war” likewise had little apparent understanding of the pronounced weaknesses of the Russian state and of its military and “power” structures. A rickety, corrupt, and collapsing military machine was to be pitted against a keenly motivated and well-armed warrior people adept at guerrilla tactics. The results should have been predictable.

War nevertheless broke out because of a conviction on the part of a significant segment of the Russian leadership that ethnic grievances can be resolved through the use of force. With the invasion of Chechnya, Russia’s new “time of troubles” deepened and became increasingly murky.