“On this day in 1994, almost three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia launched an attack on Chechnya. The small rebellious republic had persisted with its assertion of independence from Moscow, and Russian President Yeltsin sought to quell any momentum. A disorganised invasion led to a disastrous campaign for Yeltsin and his predecessor, President Putin, with over 150,000 civilians and troops reportedly killed in Chechnya over the next decade–the majority of which were ethnic Russians.
With a population of approximately 1.2 million, the Chechen Republic, which is officially a republic within the Russian Federation, is located north of Georgia in the mountainous region of the Caucasus. Other than its rugged border with Georgia, it is surrounded by Russian territory. It has a long history of troubling its enormous neighbour, much of which was recorded and romanticised by great 19th century Russian writers such as Lermontov and Tolstoy–who both served as officers in the region. Chechens are predominantly Muslim, and political and religious tensions with Tsarist Russia were underscored by the Ottoman Empire’s influence in the region.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechen leaders, like those of other former Soviet republics, declared their independence. However, President Yeltsin, wary of the Russian people’s diminishing collective self-esteem–not to mention his plunging popularity–sought to gain a quick and decisive victory over the Chechens in order to teach them and other potential separatists a lesson. Unfortunately for Yeltsin, the hubris of his military advisors would prove deadly, as they invaded on 11 December with both a poorly organised plan and poorly trained troops.
From 11 December onwards, Russian troops and civilians, who were mostly living in the capital Grozny, were killed in huge proportions–many of them in savage fashion. Following a failed attempt to take Grozny with an armoured division of tanks, bands of Chechens began terrorizing Russian troops and as the death toll mounted, public opinion in Russia turned against Yeltsin. Russian troops were withdrawn in 1996 and a peace agreement gave Chechnya an increased level of autonomy.
Chechnya was left with little infrastructure, and power shifted to warlords who called for jihad against Russia. In 1999, Chechen fighters declared parts of Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan an Islamic state. President Putin, who had recently come into office, quickly reacted with force. Although he was successful in his campaign, it would lead to over a decade of fighting, terrorism, and chaos.
From 1999, Russia has blamed Chechens, and Chechens have taken responsibility, for a series of bombings on Russian soil leading to hundreds of civilian deaths. A second war in the region resulted in Russia taking Grozny and re-establishing direct rule. Bombings in Russia and fighting in Chechnya continued for the next decade. Although numbers are unconfirmed, Russian media declared the death toll of the two wars to be near 160,000. Furthermore, the number of displaced persons due to the wars has been calculated to be upwards of 800,000 according to monitoring organisations.
Russia’s military operation in the region was only officially ended in 2009.”
Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Caption: A row of Russian armoured vehicles head towards the Chechnyan border on 7 December 1991.