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 within the space of only 60 hours and one armoured column losing 105 out of 120 of its vehicles, and some Russian units abandoned in the retreat (Hodgson, 2003). The morale of the shocked Russian forces hit rock bottom (Hodgson, 2003).


With plans for a quick and easy victory frustrated, Russia poured in reinforcements in January 1995, bringing its forces to 40,000 for a renewed assault on Grozny (Seely, 2001). Noting the inferiority of their troops, Russian commanders sought to employ a new strategy of systematically destroying Grozny block-by-block with air and artillery (Seely, 2001). This method hoped to kill as many defenders as possible, whilst destroying urban cover for any demoralised survivors, theoretically allowing Russian infantry and mechanised forces to advance in mopping up operations with minimal casualties. However, after the start of the bombardment on the 4th of January, Russian progress remained slow. The Chechen rebels employed effective urban guerrilla tactics, with small units emerging from their shelters to ambush Russian forces before retreating, with it taking until February 8th for the final Chechen fighters to be driven from the city (Seely, 2001). The civilian cost was appalling, with some estimates that up to 27,000 civilians were killed in Grozny alone during the five-week battle, representing 6% of the entire city’s population (Hodgson, 2003).


Figure 3: Erken, L. (1995). Grozny, Chechnya. A complete family is dug out of a former shelter in the centre of town. They starved to death, trapped during incessant shelling. [Photograph]. Panos Pictures.

Nevertheless, according to Russian commanders, this was a success. The Russians suffered the same number of casualties in the one-month operation as had been suffered in only 60 hours in the initial New Year’s Eve assault, with the capture of Grozny being a significant morale boost for Russian forces (Hodgson, 2003). Consequently, this method was repeated across Chechnya’s towns and villages which were systemically obliterated to root out Chechen defenders as Russian forces advanced, with some 90% of the Chechen territory under Russian control by April 1995 (Pain, 2001). In territory that had been conquered, Russian Interior Ministry MVD forces would then engage in cleansing operations of villages holding suspected rebels or rebel sympathisers, often engaging in atrocities, including the massacre of over 100 civilians in the village of Samashki in April (Malek, 2009). Furthermore, filtration camps were established in which the civilian population was subjected to mass detention, alongside widespread abuses, to uncover suspected rebels (Malek, 2009).


In June 1995, hoping to take the pressure off the invasion, a Chechen terrorist cell seized a hospital in neighbouring Budyonnovsk taking around 1,500 hostages, to demand a ceasefire. Multiple failed Russian attempts to storm the hospital resulted in 150 hostages being killed before a negotiated ceasefire was agreed upon to bring the Conventional First Phase of the war to an end (Seely, 2001). This allowed the Chechens to regroup, as their fighters reinfiltrated areas taken by the Russians, with their numbers boosted by thousands of foreign volunteers. The Chechen insurgency soon ended the ceasefire in October 1995 to begin the Second Insurgency Phase of the war. Such action inflicted increasingly heavy and demoralising losses on the Russian forces, which were now spread thin across the country where they were vulnerable to hit-and-run raids by Chechen guerrillas, with most Russian casualties occurring in this phase (Pain, 2001). Due to Russian forces being on the defensive, they were less able to make frequent use of the heavy bombardment strategies that had succeeded in the conventional phase. Nevertheless, the utilisation of filtration camps and cleansing operations continued (Malek, 2009). As losses mounted, the Russian media utilised its newfound post-Soviet freedoms to put out grim footage of the conflict, rapidly turning the initially supportive Russian public opinion against the war (Hodgson, 2003). Despite Chechen leader Dudayev being killed by a guided missile strike on 22nd April 1996, the Chechens continued to make gains (Hodgson, 2003).


Figure 4: Bradner, H. (1995). Chechnya, Russian soldiers wearing gas masks examine a mass grave to look for their fallen comrades. Countless unidentified bodies, the majority civilians, were dumped here after the battle for Grozny. [Photograph]. Panos Pictures.

This paved the way for the Third and final phase, marked by an audacious Chechen assault on Grozny on 6th August 1996, in which 1,500 Chechen fighters infiltrated the city and launched a surprise attack on the 12,000 Russian defenders (Hodgson, 2003). Russian units were forced into isolated groups by the attackers, with Chechen numbers quickly boosted by reinforcements who set up effective defensive positions. After repeated Russian counterattacks were fought off, the Russians surrounded the city and on 19th August General Pulikovsky reverted to the familiar tactic of giving the Chechens an ultimatum of 48 hours to leave the city before an all-out bombardment, this time to include ballistic missiles and strategic bombers (Akhmadov & Lanskoy, 2010). This sparked mass panic amongst the 300,000 civilians still left trapped. As the deadline approached, 50,000 to 70,000 civilians remained inside the city, with all males over 11 considered suspected militants and not allowed through Russian lines. The bombardment began, hitting numerous fleeing columns of civilians, before the arrival of Russian national security advisor General Lebed to the city on 20th August. Lebed was highly critical of General Pulikovsky’s ultimatum and ordered the end of the bombardment and a ceasefire (Pain, 2001). Russian forces were ordered to withdraw from Chechnya on 22nd August 1996, marking a stinging defeat (Akhmadov & Lanskoy, 2010). By 31st August, the Khasav-Yurt Accord was signed formalising the Russian withdrawal and conferring Chechnya de facto independence (Pain, 2001).


Justifying Indiscriminate Destruction as a Tool of War

As evidenced by the First Conventional Phase of the war, Russian forces had the most military success when able to utilise the indiscriminate bombardment of populated settlements as part of an offensive conventional strategy. This method was enabled by the Russian forces fighting an asymmetric war, against an opponent much inferior in number and equipment, allowing the bombardment of Chechen cities, towns, and villages with impunity whilst the Chechens had little means of retort (Hodgson, 2003). This tactic was not just considered effective by Russian commanders, but necessary to make up for the deficiencies of their poorly trained and motivated conscripts (Kramer, 2005). The Second Insurgency Phase of the war saw this tactic become less relevant, as the war spread out into hit-and-run attacks and ambushes. Yet the Third Phase, after the loss of Grozny, saw the commanding Russian general attempt to revert to the first tactic as the default method of dislodging Chechen defenders. As evidenced by Grozny, the costs in civilian life were catastrophic, with one German observer in 1995 stating that Russian forces were willing to slaughter thousands of civilians if it meant killing just 10 or 15 rebels (Malek, 2009). The use of filtration camps, in which an estimated 200,000 Chechens were detained during the course of the war, and cleansing operations, furthered the often indiscriminate abuses meted out to civilians (Malek, 2009).


Figure 5: Evstafiev, M. (1995). A Russian Mi-8 helicopter shot down by Chechen fighters near the Chechen capital, Grozny during the First Chechen War. [Photograph]. Wikimedia.org.

These appalling civilian casualties were justified by the belief of the Russian military and security hierarchy that most of the Chechen population were either actively involved in resistance, or else complicit in supporting it. General Sergei Stepashin, the head of the FSK Russian intelligence agency at the start of the war, was quoted as saying “to win this war the whole male Chechen population would have to be eradicated” (Malek, 2009, p. 92). A similar view was supported by Russian Major-General Vladimir Serebryannikov, who later estimated that between 80-90% of the Chechen population resisted the Russian occupation forces. Indeed, in 1996, Russian Deputy Defence Minister General Georgi Kondratyev further stated, “it is the entire Chechen population fighting here, not armed bandits” (Malek, 2009, p. 91). Clearly then, the view was widespread that civilians, even if not active combatants, were complicit in opposing Russian forces and were therefore acceptable collateral damage if it meant killing Chechen fighters or supporters. The fact that the bulk of civilian deaths were ethnic Russians, especially in cities like Grozny, is not considered (Malek, 2009). What is perhaps surprising here is that Russia at this point was attempting its transition to democracy, with Boris Yeltsin keen to put forth the image of a Western-style democratic President. Yet for Western observers of the war, Chechnya represented a horrifying level of indiscriminate brutality and disregard for the life of Russia’s own citizens that they might have expected from the USSR, not a Post-Cold War democratic Russia (Malek, 2009). Indeed, the reports of the Samashki Massacre cast a dark shadow over President Clinton’s attendance at Russia’s VE Day celebrations in May 1995, with several Western politicians decrying the brutal Chechen violence (Savranskaya & Evangelista, 2020).


Figure 6: Getty Images (2000). In the second Chechen war from 1999-2000, Russian forces again laid siege to Grozny, and intense fighting lasted weeks. [Photograph]. BBC News.

A Blueprint for Destruction

Despite the First Chechen War ending in defeat, the tactics of the systematic destruction of populated areas have been a regular feature of Russian military interventions since then. The Second Chechen War launched by President Putin in 1999 aimed to dislodge the Islamist Militants who had seized power amidst Chechnya’s political vacuum after the First War, with Putin now reframing the conflict as a fight against terrorism (Malek, 2009). Contrary to seeking alternative strategies, the Russian Military simply doubled down on existing methods albeit with overwhelming force. Putin ordered the complete destruction of the already devastated Grozny and of several other Chechen towns in August 1999, as artillery, bombs, rockets, and guided missiles rained down for the next two months – before sending in a 100,000-strong invasion force in October (Malek, 2009). This left Grozny, according to a 2003 UN Report, as the most destroyed city on earth (Brog, 2017). Nevertheless, the capture of Grozny in January 2000 with lesser casualties than in 1995 massively boosted Putin’s popularity, cementing this as a successful tactic (Kramer, 2005).


Furthermore, the Russian intervention in Syria has proven the willingness of Russia to utilise these methods in overseas operations, with this first significant direct Russian military intervention overseas since the fall of the USSR (Lavrov, 2018). This likewise ended with the widespread destruction and large-scale loss of life in the Syrian-rebel stronghold of Aleppo, in which an extensive Russian bombing campaign in 2015 and 2016, including the use of cluster munitions, played a key role in allowing Syrian government forces to seize the city (Graham, 2017). Once again, for Putin this was considered a great success, helping turn the tide of the Syrian War in favour of the Assad regime as a Russian ally. Before the 2015 Russian intervention, Assad’s forces were in a difficult situation holding only one-sixth of Syrian territory, whereas by 2018 after the intervention it held 57% of the territory containing 73% of the Syrian population (Lavrov, 2018). The Russian invasion of Ukraine, after the initial failure to achieve a quick victory by taking Kiev, has once again witnessed Russia fall back onto the use of indiscriminate bombardment to achieve battlefield gains, most significantly in Mariupol (Bachelet, 2022). This has established a clear pattern of widescale destruction of populated urban centres in direct post-Soviet Russian military interventions over the course of nearly three decades. Nevertheless, it is perhaps notable that the Russian Invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, did not see the utilisation of indiscriminate bombardment. Yet the rapid nature of these two conflicts, with Russian forces achieving their military objectives within the first five days, meant there was little need to utilise such methods (Cohen & Hamilton, 2011; Wither, 2016). Rather, it seems the strategy is one that is resorted to in more protracted campaigns where a quick and easy victory is not possible.


Figure 7: AFP (2016). Hundreds of people have been killed by Russian bombs in rebel-held east Aleppo. [Photograph]. Middle East Eye.

Conclusions

As shown, the Russian invasion of Chechnya from 1994-1996 demonstrated the willingness of the Russian military to engage in the highly destructive strategy of widescale and indiscriminate bombardments of entire cities, towns and villages, to root out even small numbers of combatants, with little regard for civilian life. On a military level, these tactics were considered necessary to cover up the deficiencies of Russia’s conscripted and often poorly trained and motivated soldiers. Yet Russian leaders also justified the indiscriminate nature of these tactics through their belief that the bulk of the Chechen population was either actively involved in the Chechen armed opposition, or at least complicit in their support for it. What is clear is that, in military terms, this was considered a successful method for Russian military leaders in the pursuit of their objectives, with their opponents having little ability to respond. Subsequent Russian military campaigns in Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine, have readily utilised and even intensified this tactic to achieve their strategic objectives. That these campaigns have taken place over a thirty-year period, under two different Russian Presidents, both at home and abroad and with varying levels of domestic and international accountability, shows that the destruction of Chechnya was far from an exception in regards to Russian military intervention. Instead, it appears to be the general rule forming the blueprint for Russian military operations when it expects to be engaged in a protracted campaign.


Bibliographical references

Akhmadov, I. & Lanskoy, M. (2010). The Chechen Struggle Independence Won and Lost, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


Bachelet, M. (2022). High Commissioner updates the Human Rights Council on Mariupol, Ukraine, United Nations, Retrieved from: https://www.ohchr.org/en/statements/2022/06/high-commissioner-updates-human-rights-council-mariupol-ukraine


Brog, D. (2017). Reclaiming Israel's History: Roots, Rights, and the Struggle for Peace, Simon and Schuster.


Cohen, A. & Hamilton, R. (2011). The Russian Military in the Georgian War, Strategic Studies Institute.


Lavrov, A. (2018). Russia in Syria: a military analysis, in: Popescu, N. terly, 88:4, 24-31.

Hodgson, Q. (2003) Is the Russian bear learning? an operational and tactical analysis of the second Chechen war, 1999–2002, Journal of Strategic Studies, 26:2, 64-91.


Lavrov, A. (2018) Russia in Syria: a military analysis, in: Popescu, N. et al, eds., Russia´s Return to the Middle East: Building Sandcastles?, European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), 47-56.


Korostelina, K. & Kononenko, J. (2012). Double victims: the recruitment and treatment of child soldiers in Chechnya, in: Rothbart, D. et al, eds., Civilians and Modern War: Armed Conflict and the Ideology of Violence, Routledge, 96-113.


Kramer, M. (2005). Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency and Terrorism in the North Caucasus: The Military Dimension of the Russian-Chechen Conflict, Europe-Asia Studies, 57:2, 209-290.


Malek, M. (2009). Russia's Asymmetric Wars in Chechnya since 1994, Connections, 8:4, 81-98.


Menon, R. & Fuller, G. (2000). Russia's Ruinous Chechen War, Foreign Affairs, 79:2, 32-44.


Pain, E. (2001). From the First Chechen War Towards the Second, Brown Journal of World Affairs, 8:1, 7-20.


Seely, R. (2001). The Russian-Chechen Conflict 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace, London: Routledge.


Savranskaya, S. & Evangelista, M. (2020). Chechnya, Yeltsin, and Clinton: The Massacre at Samashki in April 1995 and the US Response to Russia’s War in Chechnya, National Security Archive, Retrieved from: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2020-04-15/massacre-at-samashki-and-us-response-to-russias-war-in-chechnya


Wither, J. (2016). Making Sense of Hybrid Warfare, Connections, 15:2, 73-87.


Visual References

Cover Image: Lowe, P. (1994). A wounded man was helped to safety after a Russian bombing attack killed 18 people, including the American photographer Cynthia Elbaum, in Grozny in December 1994 [Photograph]. VII/Redux. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/world/europe/photos-chechen-war-russia.html


Figure 1: Voeten, T. (1995). Grozny, Chechnya, RUSSIA, A Russian APC on patrol in the war-ravaged city [Photograph]. Panos Pictures. Retrieved from: https://library.panos.co.uk/stock-photo/a-russian-apc-on-patrol-in-the-war-ravaged-city/search/detail-0_00032837.html


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 a determined resistance [Photograph]. Radio Free Europe. Retrieved from: https://www.rferl.org/a/twenty-years-on-from-the-first-chechen-war/27940170.html


Figure 3: Erken, L. (1995). Grozny, Chechnya. A complete family is dug out of a former shelter in the centre of town. They starved to death, trapped during incessant shelling [Photograph]. Panos Pictures. Retrieved from: https://library.panos.co.uk/stock-photo/a-complete-family-is-dug-out-of-a-former-shelter-in-the-centre-of-town-they/search/detail-0_00001207.html


Figure 4: Bradner, H. (1995). Chechnya, Russian soldiers wearing gas masks examine a mass grave to look for their fallen comrades. Countless unidentified bodies, the majority civilians, were dumped here after the battle for Grozny [Photograph]. Panos Pictures. Retrieved from: https://library.panos.co.uk/stock-photo/russian-soldiers-wearing-gas-masks-examine-a-mass-grave-to-look-for-their/gallery-13-1729-2223-5/detail-0_00007383.html


Figure 5: Evstafiev, M. (1995). A Russian Mi-8 helicopter shot down by Chechen fighters near the Chechen capital, Grozny during the First Chechen War [Photograph]. Wikimedia.org. Retrieved from: https://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/07/10/forgetting-chechnya/


Figure 6: Getty Images (2000). In the second Chechen war from 1999-2000, Russian forces again laid siege to Grozny, and intense fighting lasted weeks [Photograph]. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60631433


Figure 7: AFP (2016). Hundreds of people have been killed by Russian bombs in rebel-held east Aleppo [Photograph]. Middle East Eye. Retrieved from: https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/news/russia-slams-uk-russophobic-commends-aleppo-832719976


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Finn Archer

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