Friday, April 29, 2011

Chechnya Conflict Part 3: War And Still No Peace

See Part 1 here

See Part 2 here

The Chechen people have been victims of Russian imperialism and control since the early 19th century. Throughout their subsequent conquest and occupation, they constantly resisted, yet always considered the land as their own, even going so far as to serve in the Soviet military during WW2. However, Stalin only paid back their loyalty in the form of forced removal from their historic lands. When the USSR collapsed, it seemed that the people of Chechnya would finally be able to have their own state, but it was not to be so.

In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union “the Chechen parliament – under President Dzhokhar Dudayev – proclaimed the region the independent Republic of Ichkeria, or Chechnya.” [1] (Of course, Dudayev was part of a group of rebels “under the leadership of a former Soviet Air Force general”[2] who killed the head of the Communist Party and ‘won’ elections that were mired in corruption.)

Initially, the Russian government didn’t do much beyond withdrawing troops from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, deciding to take a wait and see attitude. However, due to the Chechen situation as well as others, “the government of President Boris Yeltsin shaped the 1992 Federation Treaty, which was signed by virtually all local ethnic governments—but Chechnya refused to accede to the treaty, maintaining its claim to independence.” [3] This was possibly due to the fact that treaty allowed the Russian government to maintain a Soviet-style structure, although with varying levels of autonomy.
What made the Russian government send troops into Chechnya was the increasing violence between the Dudayev regime and the Russian-backed opposition, with the opposition making a concentrated effort to overthrow Dudayev. By mid-1994 “Russian aircraft began to bomb Grozny, and in December Russian troops invaded the region,” [4] thus starting the First Chechen War. The main goal of the operation was “a quick victory leading to pacification and reestablishment of a pro-Russian government,” [5] however, things did not turn out this way.
The fighting went on for quite a while and by the end of December, the Russians were launching major air and artillery strikes on Grozny, which resulted in a “heavy loss of civilian life and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. Air strikes continued through the month of December and into January, causing extensive damage and heavy civilian casualties.” [6]
What is quite interesting is that during the war, Russian troops were helping to arm Chechen fighters. A San Francisco Gate article written at the time states: 
If Russian forces have suffered heavy casualties in their three-month war with secessionist Chechnya, they can start by looking at themselves. Across the breakaway republic, Russian troops are selling weapons to the very rebels they are fighting. [7] 
While the article makes clear that such moves were prompted by greed, it brings up the question of loyalty and how many soldiers actually believed in what they were doing.
The First Chechen war ended in 1996 when 
Dudaev was killed by a Russian strike after his location was pinpointed through his satellite communication system.  His successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, travelled to Moscow to negotiate a cease-fire agreement, which was signed on 27 May 1996. The following day Yeltsin flew to Chechnya and addressed Russian troops at the military airfield outside Grozny, declaring that ‘the war is over’ and ‘the resistance put up by the bandits and separatists has been crushed.[8]
It was mentioned earlier that civilians had been killed in the conflict. Many of these civilian casualties were not by accident; rather, they were intentional slaughters of civilians and soldiers alike on both sides. The Human Rights Watch Organization states that Russian troops “arbitrarily and illegally detained and systematically beat, tortured and humiliated Chechen men suspected of being rebel fighters” as well as “repeatedly blocked or otherwise delayed the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians, particularly in the early stages of the war, and on at least one occasion fired on a clearly marked Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) vehicle.” [9] The Chechen fighters “admitted to the summary execution of captured Russian pilots throughout the war, and of at least eight Russian military detainees” and also to using “civilian structures to store arms, and employed indiscriminate fire.” [10]

Internationally, the end of the First Chechen War was seen as a Russian loss as the Chechen’s still maintained their independence and the 1992 treaty “provided that Russian troops would leave Chechnya and that Moscow would compensate the Chechens for economic damage resulting from the war.” [11] However, while Chechnya maintained its independence, internally things would get worse.

Islam has always played a role in Chechen society and in the Caucus region since the 7th and 8th centuries; however it was a non-radical form of Islam that was the norm. Yet, as Chechen independence struggle wore on “religion became increasingly important to the conflict.  This no doubt partly simply was the result of the pressures of war, with Chechens turning to religion as a justification for sacrifice and a source of divine sanction for their costly struggle.” [11] Also, there was massive financial and other assistance flowing in from Middle Eastern countries to aid the Chechens. Most of this aid came from radical Islamists who advocated violence. In addition, “for a number of years Wahhabi missionaries (largely funded by Saudi Arabia) had been active throughout Caucasus, as well as in many other parts of the world, seeking to convert local Muslims to the very severe Wahhabi vision of Islam.” [12] The rise of radical Islam in the Chechen region would lead to the lighting of the fuse that would start the Second Chechen War.

On the morning of August 1, 1999 Chechnya fighters of the Islamic Peacekeeping Army crossed the Chechen-Russia border into Dagestan in order to establish Islamic law there. This led to the Russian government launching a massive campaign to retake the region and the objectives went even further in May of 2000 as then-President Putin announced that Chechnya would be under federal control. [13]

Once again the Russian military responded slowly, yet this time they were better organized. By October of 1999, the Chechen fighters were facing a Russian force 
consisting of formations, units and subunits belonging to the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior and subunits of the Federal Border Service. The moves by the ground forces of the Combined Group of Federal Forces appeared to be more considered and cautious than in 1994.[14] 
The Russian troops established a cordon around Chechnya and soon launched an assault and encircled Gronzy by December 1999. Once the encirclement was complete, air and artillery strikes began again. By the end of December “airborne assault units had occupied areas adjacent to the Georgian border in the south,” [15] thus stopping any Georgian bid to arm the Chechens. It seemed that the operation was going smoothly, but by New Year’s Day, “the operation had become bogged down because of fighters holding out in Groznyy and taking Federal Forces off-guard by attacks on Gudermes, Argun and Shali from the south and east.” [16]

Just as in the First Chechen war, the air and artillery strikes led to the deaths of innocents. During the war 
Chechnya was devastated, including the almost complete destruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Russian artillery and air indiscriminately pounded populated areas. Human rights organizations also documented several massacres of civilians by Russian units.[17] 
By 2000, then-President Putin proclaimed that Chechnya had been subdued, yet the suffering did not stop as the Chechen people “were plagued by abuses committed by Russian forces -- arbitrary arrest, extortion, torture, murder. For years, there were no sustained efforts to rebuild basic social services, such as utilities or education.” [18]

While the Second Chechen war ended, the fighting has not as there is still an ongoing Chechen insurgency. [19] The people of Chechnya, while they are rebuilding, are still not fully independent from the Russian government. In order for there to be peace the issue of Chechen independence must be solved. The Russian government sees Chechnya as a threat to its security while Chechnya wants to be a fully sovereign nation.

While there are serious problems in this conflict, it needs to be solved, not for the leaders of Chechnya or Russia, but for the people of Chechnya, the average ordinary citizens. This conflict has had a massive impact on average Chechens and they deserve to have a bright and peaceful future in which they can work hard and prosper.

The people of Chechnya need peace.


3: Ibid

4: Ibid

6: Ibid

10: Ibid

12: Ibid

15: Ibid

16: Ibid

18: Ibid


Elena said...

As a Chechen, I thank you very much for writing this article. It sheds light on the truth and it's very well-written. Again, thank you, on behalf of all Chechens, I'm sure!

Devon DB said...

Thank you! I am happy to have written this series as beforehand I know nothing about the Chechen conflict.