The Chechen Wars Cast a Long Shadow

By Paul Mutter

The TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launcher is a nasty reminder of the Chechen wars. The weapon is an anti-personnel, anti-fortification system that uses fuel-air explosives. It can literally tear the air from someone’s lungs.

The Kremlin used it extensively during the second Chechen war — which lasted from from 1999 to 2009. It was one of many brutal tools of a counter-insurgency strategy that saw Chechnya “returned” to the Russian Federation after winning de facto independence in 1996.

According to Mark Galeotti’s new book Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994–2009, it’s “worth questioning just how much of a victory this really was for Moscow.”

Galeotti is a Russian security analyst and professor at New York University. In the book, he asks — the terrible cost in lives and wealth aside, just what kind of bargain did Moscow make with Grozny to end the conflict?

That is, if the war ever really ended.

Galeotti’s book — part of publisher Osprey’s Essential Histories series — is not an exhaustive account of every battle fought during the two Chechen wars. Readers looking for detailed maps and accounts of small unit actions should look elsewhere.

But for those interested in the political history of the war — and details of the overall strategies employed by all sides — this is an excellent resource.

He describes some military matters in depth, and the book includes fascinating anecdotes — such as how the lack of accurate maps forced Russian soldiers to raid bookstores for travel guides.

The first Chechen war between 1994 and 1996 led to a humiliating defeat for the Russian army and then-Pres. Boris Yeltsin. Many soldiers — underpaid and badly treated by their superiors — saw the restive mountain republic as not worth dying for.

The Russian experience in Afghanistan was still fresh. But military leaders forgot or deliberately ignored the war’s counter-insurgency lessons.

Chechens who fought against the Russian army were sometimes former Soviet soldiers, including Dzhokhar Dudayev — the young republic’s first post-Soviet leader.

Others were police officers and civilians with no prior combat training. They carried small arms, light weapons and had few heavy artillery. They had no air force.

Despite the lack of equipment, the old soldiers and cops were ready to fight for an independent Chechnya. This combination of experience and high morale was more than the Russian conscripts could handle.

Systemic corruption also weakened the Russian military. It was an enemy just as dangerous as the Chechen guerrillas.

Galeotti describes how the intersection of corruption, opportunism and Chechen patriotism led to a Russian defeat. But this is secondary to his book’s main concern — which is an analysis of intra-Chechen ideological and political struggles during and between the wars.

That struggle, Galeotti explains, was not without precedent. Even during the 19th century wars of independence — which the Chechens lost — brothers from a single family often fought on opposite sides.

This infighting resurfaced with a vengeance after Chechnya won its independence. Factions fought each other for control of the state, which went a long way toward destroying Chechen military discipline, and later contributed to the country’s military defeat.

Islamism swept through the region — and the dream of a greater “Caucasian Emirate” took hold of some groups. But the Islamists’ overreached by launching a failed invasion of Dagestan, which helped provoke domestic support in Russia for a new war.

Both sides resorted to brutality, torture and arbitrary executions. Chechen terrorists targeted civilians in Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin extended a hand to pliable Chechen leaders.

“On the one hand,” Galeotti notes, the Russians “were ruthless in their control of the Chechen population, but on the other, they eagerly recruited Chechens, including rebel defectors, to a range of security units.”

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This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here

Paul Mutter
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