top of page

The First Chechen War: A Blueprint for Destruction

The First Chechen War was a remarkably bloody and brutal conflict from December 1994 – August 1996, sparked by attempts to crush the Chechen independence movement in post-Soviet Russia. The war ended in a humiliating defeat for the Russian Armed Forces, whilst simultaneously devastating Chechnya (Hodgson, 2003). In this small Republic of around 1.05 million people, some 40,000-80,000 were estimated to have been killed, a further 200,000 wounded, with hundreds of thousands more emigrants and refugees (Kramer, 2005). By the war’s end, Chechnya’s population had been reduced to around 700,000 people; its cities, towns and villages had been obliterated, the traumatised civilian population had been subjected to widespread atrocities by both Russian forces and Chechen rebels, and competing armed factions were left to fill the void created by the complete breakdown of social and governmental order (Kramer, 2005).

Figure 1: Voeten, T. (1995). Grozny, Chechnya, RUSSIA, A Russian APC on patrol in the war-ravaged city. [Photograph]. Panos Pictures.

This article summarises the events of the war, focusing on the Russian use of systematic heavy bombardment and destruction of Chechen settlements. In doing so, it will show how post-Soviet Russian military doctrine incorporated the acceptance of wide-scale indiscriminate destruction and massive civilian casualties in pursuit of Russian objectives. These methods have been further utilised in subsequent Russian military campaigns in the Second Chechen War, the Syrian War and today in Ukraine, across multiple Presidents, and differing levels of democratic accountability and international engagement. This shows that the destruction of Chechnya, far from being the exception, is a regular feature of direct Russian military intervention.

The First Chechen War: A Campaign of Destruction

The Chechen War took place against the backdrop of instability following the collapse of the USSR, in which some of Federal Russia’s ethnic republics, where ethnic Russians were a minority, began to agitate for independence (Malek, 2009). In Chechnya, where lingering resentments remained over the mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia by the USSR in 1943 and 1944, former Soviet Air Force general Dzhokhar Dudayev seized power and declared the independent Republic of Chechnya in 1991 (Menon & Fuller, 2000). Several years of instability followed, as pro and anti-Dudayev forces fought, many non-ethnic Chechens fled, and Russia launched several limited and unsuccessful attempts to seize back power (Malek, 2009). The Chechen government’s refusal to abide by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s 29th November 1994 ultimatum, which demanded that all warring factions in Chechnya lay down arms and surrender, led to the order for the Russian military to take back Chechnya by force (Malek, 2009). The First Chechen War began in earnest with an intensive Russian aerial bombing campaign starting on the 1st of December, which quickly eliminated the Chechen Air Force and struck towns and cities across the region (Malek, 2009).

Figure 2: Chapple, A. (1995). A Chechen volunteer takes cover behind a Russian tank during street fighting in Grozny. The first advances into the city were a disaster for ill-prepared Russian forces, who face determined resistance. [Photograph]. Radio Free Europe.

The First Phase of the war saw a Russian force of 25,000 launch a three-pronged invasion of Chechnya on 11th December 1994, with Russian forces expecting to be in the capital Grozny within three days to mark a quick and decisive victory (Malek, 2009). Instead, as the Russian military moved into the unfamiliar mountainous and wooded terrain, it encountered intensive ambushes and tactical retreats by experienced and determined Chechen forces (Seely, 2001). It took until 25th December to reach Grozny, by which time almost 300 Russian armoured vehicles had been lost along with 10% of their deployed helicopters (Quentin, 2003). Most of Grozny’s Chechen population had fled to the countryside where they had family ties, leaving primarily ethnic Russians in the city with nowhere to go (Akhmadov & Lanskoy, 2010). The Russians, still underestimating Chechen forces, proceeded with a disastrous New Year’s Eve offensive on Grozny. This saw confused and disorientated Russian conscripts decimated as they entered the city, with 2000 killed or wounded w