As a result, the populace suffered enormously: the militants saw them as a tool, while the Russian soldiers suspected treachery from every corner. This kind of paranoia led to a tragic episode that shook the village of Samashki in western Chechnya in the spring of 1995. The Russian troops spent a long time trying to persuade the village elders to surrender their weapons, while the elders insisted there were no separatists hiding in the village.
When they realized the elders would not budge, the troops launched a military operation and stormed the village. After a tank exploded on a mine and twelve Russians were killed, the enraged soldiers combed the village, firing at anything that moved. The operation ended with dozens of civilians and militants killed, and it was often impossible to distinguish one from the other: a common tactic used by the terrorists was to drop their weapons and pose as peaceful farmers caught in the crossfire.
Over the course of that spring, separatist resistance in the Chechen flatlands was quelled, and the fighting shifted to the mountainous areas in the south. Dudayev’s units were on the verge of defeat: they had lost almost all their heavy weapons, suffered severe losses, and retained control over just a handful of areas in the mountains. Out of desperation, they tried to blackmail the Russians with the lives of their prisoners: Ruslan Gelayev executed the soldiers he had captured, but when his ultimatum to stop the bombing was not met, the militants themselves believed that their situation was hopeless.
Shamil Basayev, the strongest of the independent field commanders, was the mastermind behind the plan that allowed Dudayev to continue the war. Basayev devised a complex plan that involved taking hostages. He assembled a force of nearly 200 men armed to look like an infantry battalion, loaded them into several trucks disguised as army vehicles, and on June 14 departed for the Stavropol region in Russia’s south.
The theater of operations was very poorly contained. At one of the police checkpoints along the road, Basayev said that the convoy was transporting the bodies of dead Russian soldiers from Chechnya. The convoy was accompanied by a vehicle painted to look like a police car, and the fighter sitting in it had been an actual policeman before the war, so the convoy was allowed through without inspection. Most likely, the terrorists were planning to seize an airport in Mineralnye Vody, a popular tourist resort: in the summer, it was full of people.
However, the convoy was detained near the town of Budyonnovsk – the traffic police officers there were not convinced by the story about the dead soldiers’ bodies. Basayev agreed to go to Budyonnovsk to provide ‘explanations’. There, his men first murdered the overly vigilant policemen and then started a massacre in the city streets. Basayev’s group marched through Budyonnovsk, shooting everyone in sight and taking hostages at random. The local police fought back desperately, but could not stand against two hundred terrorists. The people wounded in the indiscriminate gunfire were taken to the local hospital. Medical personnel from all over town and the relatives of the victims hurried there.
In a tragic turn of events, it was the same hospital that Basayev captured a couple of hours later, taking more than a thousand people hostage. From the hospital, he communicated his demand for journalists to be brought outside the building. When the reporters didn’t arrive, he shot several more people. Following this, Basayev was given the media coverage he wished for, and issued his demands to the Russian government.
The crisis headquarters for the rescue of the hostages consisted of two ministers and the head of the FSK. Not a single anti-terrorism specialist was involved. The officers of the Alpha Group (a special forces unit specializing in counter-terrorism) were given explicit orders to get inside the hospital at any cost. They led the assault and even reached the windows of the first floor of the hospital. However, the corridors and the wards were packed with hostages, whom the terrorists used as human shields. The Alpha commanders had to abort the operation in order to avoid a massacre. That broke the spirit of the people in charge of the crisis and, without even trying to consider alternative ways of rescuing the people, they went from one extreme to the other: now, all of the terrorists’ demands were to be met unconditionally.
FILE PHOTO. Shamil Basayev at his headquarters near Grozny. © Getty Images / Alex Smailes
Negotiations followed, and they involved Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and a number of human rights activists. As a result, the militants were given safe passage back to Chechnya, along with a number of hostages that volunteered to travel as part of the convoy. Ultimately, Basayev was able to withdraw almost his entire unit (with the exception of two dozen terrorists killed by police officers and Alpha snipers). Most importantly, the Russian authorities agreed to lengthy negotiations with the political leaders of the separatists. Basayev returned to Chechnya triumphant. In total, his men killed about 130 people in Budyonnovsk.
The negotiations were held from the latter half of June to October 1995, with a poorly observed truce in place. Although officials representing the Russian authorities and armed forces (including the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, General Anatoly Romanov) and representatives of the Chechen militants (especially Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet army officer who knew how to talk to the media) were engaged in continuous negotiations, the best they could agree on were prisoner exchanges.
During this period, random skirmishes broke out between the two sides. The Chechens mostly engaged in guerrilla warfare: ambushes, roadside bombings, and surprise attacks on checkpoints and garrisons. There was one simple tactic repeatedly used by the terrorists: a small unit fired at a checkpoint to get the soldiers to call for reinforcements. The convoy sent to help would be the real target: the Russian military used predictable routes to transport equipment, so the Chechens set ambushes. After attacking and damaging the convoy, the militants would retreat from the battlefield. Generally, there were few casualties in any given battle, but such skirmishes were frequent, and sometimes the terrorists delivered crippling blows to the Russian military.
On October 6, a car carrying General Romanov was attacked and blown up in a road tunnel in Grozny. The general survived the attack, but to this day he remains paralyzed, unable to walk and talk. After the attack, hostilities resumed, but the battles were chaotic and unsuccessful. Amongst Russians, the war in Chechnya was highly unpopular. Adding fuel to the fire was Yeltsin’s habit of announcing ceasefires whenever he considered it politically expedient – despite the fact that these ceasefires were rarely observed.
Meanwhile, Chechnya remained in a state of permanent turmoil. The republic tried to rebuild its infrastructure, but the warlords quickly discovered a new business – kidnapping people and selling them as slaves or demanding ransom. For example, Akhmed Zakayev, who now lives in Western Europe, was reported by his comrades-in-arms to have run an entire private concentration camp where he kept kidnapped Russian specialists and ‘leased’ them out for work.
Furthermore, Dudayev’s men were prone to spy mania. People from the DGB (Dudayev’s version of the KGB) once detained a group of social activists from Ukraine. They were never seen again.
An entire kidnapping industry was developing in Chechnya, and anyone could go missing while traveling on forest roads or in the mountains.
In January 1996, another major hostage crisis happened, this time orchestrated by Salman Raduyev. Also a Chechen warlord, Raduyev was jealous of Basayev’s notoriety, but lacked his talents as a tactician. He prepared an assault on a military airfield in the city of Kizlyar, Dagestan, but the attack failed. Refusing to give up that easily, the terrorist seized the city hospital, copying Basayev. The situation was especially traumatic for the pregnant women in the maternity ward: the militants had them taken to the same room as all other hostages – including the women about to give birth. With threats, Raduyev was able to get buses and safe passage to Chechnya.
This time, the Russians organized a pursuit, and Raduyev’s unit was eventually surrounded in the village of Pervomayskoye, near the border with Chechnya. Following a poorly-planned operation, some of the hostages were killed and Raduyev’s unit suffered very heavy losses, but the warlord himself got away.
The losses sustained during the attack on Kizlyar forced the Chechens to give up mass hostage-taking for a while. Another important thing was that this time, Raduyev’s men attacked a town in Dagestan. While the people of Dagestan previously sympathized with the Chechens, the attack disillusioned many residents of the neighboring republic.
A rushed ending
The war was growing more and more chaotic. The Russian Joint Group of Forces was too small to maintain any real control over Chechnya, and the Chechen loyalists were too weak to have the task entrusted to them. As a result, the Russian military and the dissident fighters went in circles: the army cleared one village after another, and later, after they left, the separatists occupied these same villages again.
The troops lived in horrible conditions.
“Our everyday reality, described in a few words: nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep and nothing to sleep on,” lamented a sniper of the 245th Motor Rifle Division. Both sides would occasionally deal painful blows to one another: Chechen ambushes and land mines would take the lives of Russian troops, after which artillery fire and infantry raids with armored vehicles would ‘restore the balance’.
In April, the Russians managed to kill Dzhokhar Dudayev with an airstrike – his location was tracked using a telephone call. Dudayev’s death meant little, however: the militants had almost no chain of command (in the sense a European army would), and there were multiple candidates ready to replace him.
That same spring, the Chechen fighters ambushed a convoy of the Russian 245th Motor Rifle Division and led a bloody attack on Grozny. In the meantime, the Russians captured the village of Bamut in western Chechnya, hitherto inaccessible to the military, and defeated a guerrilla unit in the village of Goyskoye, where the militants had been holding a group of kidnapped people sold into slavery.
In a word, the battles were fierce, bloody, and led to little or no progress. The Chechen Republic was rapidly falling apart: villages fought over time and time again ended up in ruins, Soviet industrial behemoths lay in shambles, and even the once mighty system of oil refineries and pipelines had been reduced to naught. Only the Baku-Novorossiysk oil pipeline remained more or less intact: it was too valuable to be sacrificed.
Both sides suffered heavy losses. However, there was a fundamental difference in how society perceived the mass casualties. In Chechnya, advocates for peace could not raise their voices for fear of being executed as traitors – in fact, the terrorists would brag about murdering the ‘collaborators’. In Russia, the war was deeply unpopular, and it hurt the ratings of President Yeltsin, who was planning to seek re-election in 1996.
That is why, in 1996, the Russian government took a series of political steps. In May, Yeltsin had a face-to-face meeting with Dudayev’s successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. He was an ultranationalist, more radical than even Dudayev, and a religious fanatic to boot – there was very little hope of reaching an agreement with him. However, Yeltsin was in desperate need of some tangible evidence that the war was ending, while Yandarbiyev wished to appear as the leader of a recognized state.
Hence, the meeting in the Kremlin was nothing but a theatrical performance with zero substance – nobody was expected to observe the ceasefire agreement signed there. In fact, Yeltsin kept the Chechen delegation in Moscow for a couple of days as hostages of sorts, while he flew to Chechnya and met with soldiers to announce the end of the war.
Meanwhile, the Chechens were preparing the final act of this bloody drama.
On August 6, large groups of Chechen fighters entered Grozny, Argun, and Gudermes, clashing with Russian troops.
Some of the worst fighting took place in the regional centre. Russian troops and units of the Interior Ministry were stationed in the city as a network of small garrisons, and now most of them were under siege. The Chechen militants employed their usual tactic: assaulting the outpost with heavy fire, and then ambushing the troops sent to the rescue.
Chechens previously identified as Russia sympathizers were mercilessly executed. Captured policemen were killed in the most brutal ways – paying the ultimate price for their loyalty to Russia. Moscow’s soldiers also suffered serious losses. However, the militants quickly got bogged down in the fighting. After recovering from the initial shock, the Russian command went on the counter-offensive, with assault teams marching through Grozny once again. The militants had little chance of winning in direct combat, and the fire of heavy weapons gradually wore them down.
FILE PHOTO. Russian Army Attacks Bamout During First Chechen War. © Getty Images / Georges DeKeerle
However, the war had a traumatic effect on Russian society. The battle for Grozny was likened to the Tet Offensive, which changed the public perception of the Vietnam War in the US. While the Viet Cong troops that had entered Saigon and other cities were defeated, American society was shocked that, after so many years of conflict, the guerrillas remained as strong as ever and the fighting resulted in so many deaths. A similar thing happened in Grozny in August 1996 – in fact, it was the Russian officers themselves who compared the bloody battle to Vietnam’s massacres. By August 14, Aslan Maskhadov, who commanded the Chechen fighters, announced a shift to defensive tactics and even called for a truce. However, it was no longer the military that determined the course of the war.
On August 15, 1996, one of Russia’s most prominent political leaders, Alexander Lebed, arrived in Chechnya for negotiations. Lebed was popular, he placed third in the first round of the 1996 Russian presidential election and helped Boris Yeltsin beat the leader of the Communists, Gennady Zyuganov, in the runoff election by endorsing him and then taking up the post of secretary of the Security Council in his administration.
Now, Lebed had to broker a peace deal and end the war no matter what it took. The fighting was still underway in Grozny, and Russian troops were still desperately trying to exhaust the enemy, but this course of action wasn’t leading Russia anywhere. On August 31, Lebed and Maskhadov drafted and signed the Khasavyurt Accord in Khasavyurt, Dagestan (a republic in the Caucasus east of Chechnya). The accord signified Russia’s de facto capitulation in this war. Moscow effectively agreed to withdraw the troops from Chechnya and to suspend any decision-making on the status of the republic until 2001.
The problem with the Khasavyurt Accord was that it didn’t solve any of the problems that had caused the war. All it did was put the conflict on hold, giving the conflicting parties a break, nothing more.
However, at the time, Lebed was quite sure that this was what he was supposed to deliver and that it was what the entire country longed for: an end to the prolonged bloody war during an economic crisis so deep it was worse than the Great Depression.
As ethnic groups, Russians and Chechens didn’t feel they had much in common, so most Russians felt at the time they’d rather let the Chechens have it their way and move on. It wasn’t because the Russian Army was defeated in the war – it wasn’t. It did suffer great losses, but they were comparable to the losses of the enemy: about 5,000 troops were killed on each side during the 20 months of action. The loss of life among the civilian population was much higher. There are no reliable records, but most estimates agree on a total number of about twenty to thirty thousand people, both Chechens and Russians. Russian society wished for the unending trauma to finally stop more than anything, with very little exception.
At that time, publicly saying that the right thing to do was to win the war, even if it meant more casualties, would have been effectively equal to committing political suicide.
The mood was very different among the Chechen commanders, who had just scored a major victory. They didn’t have any longing for a peaceful life and were in fact good for nothing except commanding a force that consisted of armed gangs. The republic’s economy was ruined, but that didn’t bother them at all. Prominent field commanders, such as Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev, were quick to issue statements that they were not going to stop and would continue to disrupt peace in other republics of the Caucasus.
The ideology was supplied by radical groups from the Middle East that had been infiltrating the region, including Al-Qaeda, which was yet to reach its peak of notoriety. Jihadi leaders from the Arab world, such as Saudi-born Emir Khattab (Samir Saleh Abdullah Al Suwailim), were quick to take advantage of the situation and use Chechnya as a base to recruit and train terrorists from all over the Caucasus. A series of terrorist attacks on Russian soil was soon to follow. Those field commanders who were less concerned with ideology went on to kidnap people for ransom, trade in illegal drugs, and so on.
One of the gruesome symbols of that war was a train-mounted facility with unidentified remains of the victims of the conflict: mostly civilians and some Russian soldiers. A team of Russian military forensic pathologists was working on the remains until, in July 1999, two junior team members were kidnapped for ransom. The rest of the experts left Chechnya. In 2000, when Russian troops re-entered Grozny, the train was still parked where it had been left, with a total of 154 decomposed bodies.
FILE PHOTO. Chechen soldier fighter runs down a deserted street with buildings ablaze after Russian shelling in downtown Grozny 08 January 1995. © AFP / MICHAEL EVSTAFIEV
Much of the narrative about the First Chechen War attempts to explain what happened through the prism of it being the workings of some corrupt politicians making money off the people’s suffering or the stubbornness of some power-hungry Russian political and military leaders who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. The reality, however, was different.
The Russian government simply failed to come up with any coherent strategy for Chechnya. Instead, it kept producing one short-lived plan after another, and none of them lasted longer than a few months. All Yeltsin’s administration attempted to do was to produce a quick solution and move on. Between 1993 and 1996, Moscow tried all sorts of options. It held negotiations, supported local opposition, sanctioned a covert military operation, sent in troops, then engaged in more negotiations and even tried to get Dudayev assassinated. After all these measures failed, it ended the matter by putting it on hold in the hope that down the road some new administration might think of a more consistent and viable plan and even stick to it.
There were plenty of people who were wise enough to see, in 1996, that the Khasavyurt Accord was no peace deal but rather a ceasefire agreement. As one GRU officer put it back then,
“instead of a wildfire situation, we got ourselves a peatland fire situation.” The Khasavyurt Accord didn’t contain any solutions to the problems that had triggered the war. Chechnya remained a devastated republic run by warlords. For three more years to come, the conflict stayed on the back burner and simmered until a new war broke out in 1999. By Evgeniy Norin, a Russian historian focused on Russia’s wars and international politics
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