The War in Chechnya: What Is At Stake?

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The War in Chechnya: What Is At Stake?

November 30, 1999 15 min read
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS
Ariel served as the Director of the CENRG and Senior Fellow for IAGS

Since late September, Russian troops have been bombing and shelling the territory of Chechnya, a secessionist, self-proclaimed "independent" republic in the Northern Caucasus. Although this second Russo-Chechen war was triggered by a number of security challenges to Russia, it has escalated to a point where the West must act to curtail the carnage. If the war is not stopped, the future of democracy in Russia will be endangered, as will the stability of the Southern Caucasus and the security of oil transportation from the region.

After the Russo-Chechen war in 1996, the security situation in and around Chechnya remained chaotic. Chechen gangs kidnapped and ransomed hundreds of civilians and military personnel, including some Russian generals, senior government officials, and journalists. Some hostages, including Westerners, were brutally murdered. These activities, which the government of President Aslan Maskhadov apparently could not curtail, demonstrated how the Chechens had failed to build an autonomous state that could live in peace with its neighbors or with itself. Maskhadov allowed terrorism, Islamic militancy, and crime to overwhelm Chechnya and spread beyond its borders, ultimately provoking the current hostilities.

In July and August of 1999, several thousand Muslim fighters, mostly Chechens, invaded the neighboring republic of Daghestan, which is part of the Russian Federation. The leaders of the invasion, warlords Shamil Basaev and the Jordan-born Khattab, declared that their goal was to detach Daghestan from Russia and to establish a Muslim Northern Caucasus federal state from the Black Sea to the Caspian.1 Several hundred Russian soldiers were killed while pushing these guerrilla fighters back into Chechnya.

Also in August, four explosions rocked the homes of civilians in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing over 300 men, women, and children. Although the Kremlin blamed the Chechens, General Alexander Lebed and other prominent figures of the Russian political opposition accused the Russian secret services, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and other political allies of President Boris Yeltsin of instigating and bankrolling these brutal crimes.2

Thus far the war has caused civilian and military casualties in the thousands. On the weekend of November 27-28, the Russian military unleashed the heaviest bombardment against Grozny, Chechnya's capital, using incindiary bombs. Over 500 people, including many civilians, were killed. Over 200,000 refugees are camped out in the impoverished, neighboring republic of Ingushetia or in the frozen fields of Southern Russia.


The war in Chechnya has repercussions beyond security in the Northern Caucasus. At stake are several important issues. Among them:

The Russian Presidential Elections

On December 19, Russia will hold elections for the State Duma (the lower house of Parliament). The Fatherland Party, led by President Yeltin's opponents, former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, is projected to come in first or second. This would boost Primakov's chances for a successful run for president in July 2000. Yeltsin's chosen successor is Prime Minister Putin, an ambitious former security official. Putin succeeded in using the war to divert international media attention from the corruption investigations involving President Yeltsin's entourage and family. He has clearly linked his political future to the success of the campaign in Chechnya. The stakes for Putin and Yeltsin's inner circle are very high.

Under the guidance of Yeltsin and Putin, the Russian General Staff has thrown its massive Soviet-era conventional weaponry against tiny Chechnya. Putin has repeatedly claimed that the hostilities are an anti-terror operation, and that civilians are not being targeted. Unfortunately, the facts tell another story: The second Chechen war is, first and foremost, about making Putin a viable presidential contender against the popular front-runner, Primakov.

Russian Military Prestige and Civilian Control

The Russian military suffered defeats in Afghanistan and during the first Chechen war at the hands of Muslim mountain fighters. Military leaders blame the civilian leadership for the Chechen disaster, as the Kremlin repeatedly halted hostilities to pursue negotiations. The Russian generals desperately need a clear-cut victory, one that would restore their reputation and vindicate their demands for a greater share of the shrinking budget pie. Trying to justify the mounting war expenses, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has gone so far as to blame the United States for the current Russian involvement in Chechnya.3

The Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin, who has overall responsibility for the war and is a contender for the post of Defense Minister, reportedly threatened President Yeltsin with mass resignations--or worse--if the hostilities are stopped to pursue a negotiated solution.4 Yeltsin has backed off, at least for now, but civilian control of the military--a necessary feature of any democratic regime--is in jeopardy.5

The Nature of Russian Democracy

The current war has exposed the deep well of xenophobia and ethnic hatred that imbues the Russian polity. Mayor Luzhkov of Moscow ordered massive expulsions from the city of dark-skinned citizens from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Other cities have followed Moscow's example. In the prevailing climate of fear and suspicion, the Russian state, including the military and the police, have violated the Constitution, the rights of Russian citizens and foreigners, and due process under Russian law. The news media, controlled by either pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin factions, as a rule have been unanimous in demonizing the Chechens.6 Racism often spills from the TV screens and newspapers into the street, inciting beatings, harassment, and discrimination against dark-skinned persons, regardless of their religion or birthplace. The political debate also has become shrill: Yabloko party leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, who supports the military operation but advocates a pause in the bombings to allow refugees to leave and negotiations to begin, has been labeled a traitor by Anatoly Chubais, the prominent liberal reformer.7

Pipeline Politics

The war will affect the outcome of the Great Game to build pipelines to export oil from the Caucasus. Lack of Russian control over the pipeline that runs from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to Novorossiysk in Russia (the so-called Northern route) allowed the Chechens to steal oil and generate cash flow over which Moscow had no control. Russian plans to build a pipeline bypass via Daghestan were jeopardized by the summer incursion of the Chechens. If Russia returns to Chechnya, it may revive the Northern route. But in an anti-Western, adversarial scenario, Russia may be able to threaten the pipeline from Baku to the Georgian port of Supsa by supporting internally unstable Armenia against Azerbaijan. Russia may thus try to shut off both current export routes for the Caspian oil, which will benefit its own oil industry and those of the Persian Gulf states by decreasing the market supply. Moscow may do this in the belief that the United States will not allow any oil to flow via Iran, the third export route. (The presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey agreed on November 18 to support building a pipeline that would carry Caspian oil to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan via a route that does not pass through Russia or Iran. However, this pipeline, if built, would not be ready until sometime in 2004.)

The Rise of Militant Islam

The final important dimension of the conflict is the rise of radical Islam in Eurasia. Islamic indoctrination, as well as some weapons and money, come to the Northern Caucasus from the Muslim world. According to Russian sources, some support for the Chechen militants comes from radical Sunni Muslim elements in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. There are also allegations that Osama bin Ladan has been involved in fanning the flames of conflict in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin has charged that the Moscow bombings were carried out by students in a medrese (a college for Islamic studies) in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a thousand miles away from Chechnya. The fusion of Chechen nationalism and Wahhabism, a strict form of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia, is typical of trends in the Southern tier of the former Soviet Union. In the past several months there were hostage takings by anti-government guerillas in Kyrgyzstan, explosions aimed at the regime of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, and continuing unrest in Tajikistan. According to their commander, Shamil Basaev, Muslim veterans of the Afghanistan resistance, the mujahiddeen--Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Arabs, and Pushtuns--have fought in Daghestan and in Chechnya.8

As the corrupt post-Soviet elites in Russia and in the area continue to prove incapable of providing security and economic development for the population, the attraction of the radical Muslim model is likely to grow. Impoverished and unemployed youth will flock to Islamic preachers in Chechnya and Uzbekistan as they did in Algiers, the Gaza Strip, and Pakistan. The proven system of building a social services infrastructure and recruiting youth from poor families, first to the medrese and then to military training, will find fertile ground in the former Soviet South.


For over a year, while the clouds of war were gathering over the North Caucasus, the Clinton Administration did nothing to defuse the ticking bomb.9 Now the Administration has begun to issue weak statements of concern about the level of violence by Russia against the civilians in Chechnya. At the same time, however, President Clinton, in a speech to Turkey's parliament on November 15, proclaimed, "We must help Russia to complete its momentous democratic revolution." National Security Adviser Sandy Berger urged that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) credits scheduled to be delivered to Russia in December not be halted because this "goes to the very stability of Russia."10

The Administration has not endorsed calls from the foreign ministers of Finland and Germany to stop the random violence and move to a negotiated solution. Nor did the White House support a NATO parliamentary assembly resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova and Georgia.11 The Administration did not even support the position espoused by Russian liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who called for a 30-day respite in the bombings to allow civilians to evacuate the war zone.

It is time for the Clinton Administration to work resolutely to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Therefore, the United States should:

  • Suspend IMF credits to Russia.
    The war costs at least $1 billion a month. The IMF is scheduled to provide Russia with $640 million in December to be applied toward Russia's IMF payments. Western assistance funds are fungible, which means that the money provided to repay the debt could be used instead to step up the war in Chechnya. IMF assistance to the Kremlin should be suspended until the war is over.12

  • Demand that Russia obey its commitments under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty.
    Russia violated the current CFE treaty during the first Chechen war. It then requested a revision of the treaty, to which the United States agreed. Now, Russia again is in violation of the revised CFE treaty, which was signed at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul on November 19. It has surpassed the limits for aircraft and heavy military equipment it is allowed to keep in the Caucasus.13 Prior to signing the document, Russia demanded an expansion of the flank limitations, and NATO agreed. So far, Moscow has announced that it will comply with the treaty after it terminates the Chechen operation.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), and a number of other Senators wrote to President Clinton on November 10, calling Russia's conduct in Chechnya "a brutal assault on the core values of the OSCE. ...[T]hese military operations weaken each day the credibility and reliability of arms control treaties that are a cornerstone to international peace and stability." The Senators demanded that the President refuse to sign the Adapted CFE Treaty unless Russia ceased hostilities in Chechnya, withdrew its troops, and opened negotiations with the government of President Maskhadov. The Senators indicated that the Senate would be "reluctant to endorse" the treaty while Russia is in violation.

  • Encourage Russia to start peace negotiations under OSCE sponsorship and request that a permanent OSCE mission be dispatched to Chechnya.
    To date, Russia has refused to negotiate with President Maskhadov or with other Chechen leaders under the aegis of the OSCE.14 Under OSCE rules, humanitarian issues are not exclusively the internal matter of any member, but can be addressed by other OSCE members. An OSCE mission in Chechnya functioned during the first Chechen war, and it is time to revive it. In addition to observing and facilitating negotiations, this mission could coordinate humanitarian assistance.

Western European leaders, such as Germany Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and NATO Secretary General George Robertson, have appealed to Moscow to initiate peace talks.15 They and other European leaders should be supported in their efforts to end the war. When the Russians are ready to talk, the United States and the European Union should sponsor a broad conference for peace in the Northern Caucasus.

  • Insist on assurances from the Chechen leaders that they will cooperate with Russia in a crackdown on terrorism and crime.
    Some of Russia's security grievances against Chechnya are justified. Russia cannot be pressured into stopping the war unless the Chechen leaders agree to cooperate in ending the terrorism and crime which originated from Chechen territory. Moscow needs unequivocal security guarantees from credible Chechen leaders, including President Maskhadov, to justify the end of hostilities. Such security guarantees should include the disbanding of guerrilla units and training camps, extradition of wanted criminals, and close cooperation between Chechen and Russian security forces.

  • Provide military assistance and expand security cooperation with the countries of the Southern Caucasus.
    The United States should be concerned that Russia will further destabilize the fragile equilibrium in the Southern Caucasus by forcing Chechen fighters to leave Chechnya and relocate to Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Russian Ministry of Defense has already demanded that Georgia allow Russian border guards to patrol the Georgian-Chechen border. The Defense Ministry also accused Georgia of planning to host the Chechen government in exile, and Azerbaijan of harboring Chechen fighters.16 Russian military aircraft have twice bombed Georgian villages. This heavy-handed pressure against a sovereign state is unacceptable. Washington should clarify to Moscow that it is in Russia's interests to build and nurture good relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The United States should step up its bilateral military cooperation with Georgia and, for the first time, consider providing defensive weaponry. In particular, it should boost the training of Georgia's border guards and naval units, as well as speed up delivery of coastal radars and surveillance systems scheduled for installation in the year 2000 and beyond. The United States should consider helping Georgia develop an air defense component and assist in conducting an assessment of Georgia's ground forces and security needs. Additional steps should be taken to strengthen command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) and mobile components of the Georgian military. Officer and NCO training in the framework of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) should be expanded. The President should also provide a national security waiver to Sec. 907 of the Freedom Support Act. This waiver would lift the ban on military-to-military contacts and allow necessary support to Azerbaijan.


The war in Chechnya is more about Russian politics than about a legitimate response to security problems Russia faces in the Northern Caucasus. This war is not in the interest of the Russians, the Chechens, or the other peoples of the Northern or Southern Caucasus. Continuing hostilities may endanger the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries of the Southern Caucasus. Moreover, they could threaten the transportation routes of Caspian oil and the potential development of a new Silk Road--a land route connecting Europe with the Far East via the Caucasus and Central Asia. The hostilities also threaten the future of Russian democracy, breed xenophobia, and jeopardize civilian control of the military. Thus, the atrocities and the indiscriminate use of military power against civilians must be stopped.

Dr. Ariel Cohen  is the Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Petra Prochazkova, "Rebel Leader Basayev on the Daghestan Conflict," Lidove Noviny, September 9, 1999, p. 7.

2. Julie Corwin, "Lebed Posits Secret Agreement Between Basaev and Russian Leadership." RFE/RL Caucasus Report, September 30, 1999. Lebed made his accusations in an interview published on September 29 in Le Figaro, which is quoted by Corwin. Also see Anna Husarska, "Copycats," The New Republic, October 25, 1999, p. 50. Allegations against tycoon Boris Berezovsky were made in Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 14, 1999, and quoted in RFE/RL Newsline, September 14, 1999. General Alexander Korzhakov, President Yelstin's former chief bodyguard, accused Berezovsky and the Russian intelligence services of instigating the bombings. See Natalya Shuyakovskaya, "Korzhakov Says Bombings Were Berezovsky's Doing," The Moscow Times, October 28, 1999, p. 1. In addition to Lebed and Korzhakov, these charges were made repeatedly by cabinet-level figures in the "Fatherland" movement headed by former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and several Russian political analysts and journalists. The charges were echoed by Basaev and other representatives of the Chechen community.

3. Jane Perlez, "The War in Chechnya Threatening U.S. Strategy Goals," The New York Times, November 15, 1999, p. A14.

4. Midkhat Faroukshine, "Chechen War launches Conflict Between Presidential Advisors, Generals," Russian Regional Report, Release No. 3, November 11, 1999 (East-West Institute, New York).

5. "Who Rules Russia," The Economist, Web edition, November 13, 1999, 

6. See Boris Yamshanov, "Scoundrels gloating at dawn," Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 14, 1999, p. 1-2. Rossiyskaya Gazeta is a government-owned newspaper.

7. Editorial, "Is It Treason to Question War Aims?" The Moscow Times, November 16, 1999.

8. Petra Prochazkova, "Rebel Leader Basayev on Daghestan Conflict."

9. Ariel Cohen, "Ethnic Conflicts Threaten U.S. Interests in the Caucasus," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1222, September 25, 1998.

10. Steve Holland, "US says Russia should still get IMF Loan," Reuters, November 15, 1999.

11. North Atlantic Parliamentary Assembly Resolution, Par. 8, Sec. B., November 15, 1999, published in Intercon Daily Report, Washington, D.C., November 16, 1999.

12. Editorial, "No Funds for Russia's War," The Washington Post, November 14, 1999, p. A21.

13. Julie Corwin, "Ivanov Says Moscow to Push for Revised CFE Treaty," RFE/RL Newsline, November 12, 1999, p. 3.

14. Liz Fuller, "OSCE Chairman Says Moscow Rejected Offer of Mediation," RFE/RL Newsline, November 12, 1999, p. 2.

15. Liz Fuller, "Germany, NATO Call for Chechen Peace Talks," RFE/RL Newsline, November 11, 1999, p. 1.

16. Liz Fuller, "Azerbaijan Denies it will Host Chechen Fighters," RFE/RL Newsline, November 12, 1999, p. 5.


Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS