Territorial Integrity and Political Capital

Russia's Motives in Chechnya

Чечня. Тусхарой. Аргунский пограничный отряд
Territorial Integrity and Political Capital : Russia's Motives in Chechnya - Johannes Koettl and Fumiko Nagano

The irony of Russia's inability to end the longstanding Chechen conflict is apparent even to the most uninformed observ­ers. While Chechnya's tenacity to fight the war for independence is readily understandable, Russia's determination to hang on to this small republic in the North Caucasus is puzzling. The argument that separatist movements cannot be resolved by use of force combined with Russia's stubborn insistence on military rather than political solutions to Chechnya merely explains part of the difficulty in end­ing the struggle.

What indeed is driving Russia to continue fighting? What is so significant about Chechnya that Russia feels the need to hold on for it despite the heavy human toll, military humiliation and economic burden?

The most commonly cited justifications for Russia's resolve to maintain control over Chechnya include the fear of the domino effect, the importance of the oil pipelines and the need to prevent the spread of lslamic fundamentalism and crime. However, these expla­nations are not sufficient to fully account for Chechnya's significance to Russia. The more compelling reasoning behind the Chechen riddle lies not in Russia's desire to control Chechnya per se, but instead, in its need to defend its territorial integrity and in its inclina­tion to use Chechnya as a tool to divert public scrutiny, exert politi­cal influence and renew the prestige of the humiliated military.

In order to understand the forces that have not only ignited, but also contributed to the continuation of the current conflict, it is necessary to understand Russia's perspective during both the first and second Chechen war. Therefore, the focus of the analysis is on the Russian politics and perception of the Chechen conflict.1

Chechnya's Struggle for Independence2

A brief summary of Chechnya's history, starting from Russia's first attempts to control the Caucasus region to the beginning of the second war, reveals that the rift between Chechnya and Russia has existed for centuries. As early as the 18th century, the Chechens have fought Russian invasion and imperial expansion into their lands. The Caucasus War that lasted from 1817 to 1864 led to the growth of Islam, and in particular, of Sufism, a type of orthodox Islam based on tight-knit, clan-like brotherhoods. The relationship between the Russians and Chechens deteriorated further when Stalin, accusing the Chechen and Ingush nations of collaborating with the Germans, ordered the mass deportation of 450,000 Chechens to Kazakhstan in 1944.3 It was only in 1957 under Khrushchev that the Chechens were allowed to retum.4

After their return, the rebellious Chechens and the pro-Rus­sian lngush were administratively joined in an autonomous repub­lic, according to Moscow's strategy of divide and rule. "Russification," a practice of mobilizing ethnic Russians to posi­tions of power to ensure the republics' loyalty to the Kremlin, was aggressively promoted in Chechnya. The recruited were given the task of running the highly profitable oil dwelling and refinery indus­try, which left the Chechens systematically disadvantaged.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, led by General Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared independence in November 1991. In the following years, Dudayev's primary goal was to maxi­mally arm Chechnya through the acquisition of weapons from abroad and the confiscation of Soviet weaponry remaining on Chechen ground. In the process, Dudayev tried but failed to build strong state institutions in Chechnya.

In response to the Chechen declaration of independence, Russia attempted to resolve the issue by offering Chechnya the "Tatarstan model," one year earlier than the agreement was presented to Tatarstan itself.5 The February 1994 treaty between Russia and Tatarstan described Tatarstan as a "sovereign state," "associated with Russia on the basis of the constitutions of the two states."6 While the treaty gave Tatarstan significant economic and political rights, it effectively kept the republic within the Russian Federation.7 When Chechnya rejected this option, demanding autonomy and declaring secession, President Boris Yeltsin launched the first Chechen war in November 1994. From Yeltsin's point of view, the Russian govern­ment "[could] not stand idly by while a piece of Russia [broke] off, because that would be the beginning oft he collapse of the country."8

The first Chechen war ended in August 1996, when General Alexander Lebed, then Chiefo f the Russian National Security Coun­cil, and General Asian Maskhadov, the new Chechen leader after Dudayev's death, met in Dagestan to sign the Khasavyurt Accords.

The accords called for a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Subsequently, in the February 1997 Chechen presiden­tial election, Maskhadov emerged a victor. In May 1997, Yeltsin and Maskhadov met in Moscow to sign a peace treaty, which gave the Chechen Republic ofichkeria de facto independence.9

The end of the first Chechen war led to an internal strife within the republic, characterized by the rampant spread of crime and Is­lamic fundamentalism that transformed Chechnya into a criminal state. Meanwhile, Russia did not fulfill its obligations of the 1997 peace treaty and refused to work with the Maskhadov administra­tion. Tensions between Russia and Chechnya were constantly rising.

Eventually, two key events triggered the second Chechen war. In August 1999, a Chechen rebel group invaded Dagestan, a neigh­boring republic, to ignite an Islamic insurgency. Then in September 1999, a series of bomb blasts in apartment buildings killed hundreds of civilians in various cities in Russia. The newly appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin linked the Chechens to the terror acts, call­ing for a decisive action to ensure Russian security. Russia officially declared war on Chechnya on Oct. 1, 1999. Initially aiming for the establishment of a security zone north of the Terek River, the Rus­sian military strategy gradually shifted to aiming to seize the entire Chechen territory.10

The Importance of Chechnya: Commonly-Cited Reasons

From all objective standpoints, a favorable agreement between Russia and Chechnya was reached at the conclusion of the first war. Unfortunately, peace only lasted for a little over two years. Just as in 1994, Russia again opted for military intervention in 1999. What was driving Russia's determination to keep Chechnya under its ju­risdiction?

Several reasons are frequently given to explain Russia's need to maintain control over Chechnya: the domino effect; oil; Islamic fundamentalism; and crime. However, a close examination renders these explanations obsolete or insufficient.

The Domino Effect

The threat of the domino effect has been cited by the media as well as by the administrations of both Yeltsin and Putin as a justifi­cation for holding onto Chechnya. However valid these fears -that Chechnya's secession would trigger a series of similar secession at­tempts by other republics of the Russian Federation - may have been at the beginning of the 1990s, they no longer seem relevant today.

First, the regions of Russia today lack the popular secession­ist movements that existed in the former Soviet Union, such as those in the Baltics and Ukraine, which led to the Union's subsequent dis­solution. Secondly, Russian regions do not have strong separatist leaders who could unite them in a fight for secession. In fact, many leaders of the republics are old Soviet apparatchiks who remain mainly loyal to Russia. Also, while at one point the leaders of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha brought up the issue of separat­ism, they quickly withdrew their complaints when offered economic incentives by Moscow.11 Finally, the Russian federal constitution that was put into effect after the breakup of the Soviet Union gave substantial autonomy rights to regional authorities. Out of 89 re­gions that constitute the Russian Federation, over forty regions ne­gotiated for special autonomy rights, which granted them additional power. As a result, all Russian regions that agreed to the new consti­tution, and especially those that negotiated for further rights, are con­tent to be part of the federation.

Several facts further refute the domino theory. First, the initial Chechen war did not end in the other republics joining the separatist movement and demanding independence. Secondly, Chechnya failed to "free" Dagestan of Russian control in August 1999. On the con­trary, the Chechen incursion was met with a strong Dagestani resis­tance and popular hostility, culminating in the retreat of the Chechen group as the Dagestanis combined forces with the Russians to drive out the Chechens.12 This reaction demonstrates that even the repub­lics in the North Caucasus, which are considered most secession ­prone, would not be strongly inclined to secede, even with explicit encouragement from their Chechen counterparts. Therefore, the ap­plicability of the domino theory to Chechnya is limited.


The second argument for Chechnya's significance to Russia involves the strategic location of Chechnya as home to oil reserves and pipelines. Prior to 1991, Chechnya was reportedly rich in oil reserves and refineries, producing 80 percent of the former Soviet Union's jet fuel requirements. In fact, it was oil that allowed Chechnya to finance the first Chechen war - the Chechens dug new wells, re­fined extracted petrol and sold it to neighboring republics.13 Never­theless, oil deposits in Chechnya "have been nearing depletion since the late 1970s."14

The oil issue is more compelling with respect not to oil re­serves, but rather to oil pipelines, which stretch from Azerbaijan to Russia. However, even in this examination of Chechnya's location and its strategic and geopolitical significance, a look at a map of the North Caucasus renders the argument favoring the importance of the oil pipelines in Chechnya somewhat over-inflated. Pipelines could easily be built around Chechnya in the neighboring Dagestan. In addition, the existing pipeline through Chechnya had the capacity to transport only five million tons of oil per year.15

In September 1997, then Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov announced the government's decision to build another pipe­line through Dagestan. After the first Chechen war, Russia's Transneft pipeline transport company and Chechen government officials dis­agreed over issues ranging from regional security to pipeline tariffs. Subsequently, with the beginning oft he second Chechen war in 1999, Transneft was compelled to build a Chechnya bypass. A new pipe­line capable of transporting 300,000 barrels per day was completed in 2000.16

Islamic Fundamentalism and Crime

Finally, Russia cites its interest in stopping the spread of Is­lamic fundamentalism and crime as another reason for wanting to bring Chechnya under control. In comparison to the domino effect and the oil issue, the security threat that Islamic fundamentalism and crime may pose on the integrity of the Russian Federation has some credibility. However, Russia is at least partially responsible for the growth of these negative forces within Chechnya.

The spread oflslamic fundamentalism and crime throughout Chechnya took place concurrently, each fueling the growth of the other. The development of these negative factors is linked primarily to the Maskhadov administration's inability to build a strong Chechen nation state after the end of the first Chechen war. Once the external threat from Russia disappeared, the Chechens shifted their loyalty from their republic to their respective clans, or teips. Approximately 150 such teips existed in Chechnya, each of which began to fight for influence and power. A 1998 study identified altogether 23 promi­nent warlords, their teip affiliation, and territory under control.17

The teips heavily engaged in criminal activities, turning Chechnya into a major international marketplace for arms, drugs, human trafficking and money laundering. In particular, the kidnap­ping business became an important industry in the Chechen crimi­nal world. A study conducted in 2001 showed that between 1997 and 1999, approximately 6,000 individuals were kidnapped, of whom 3,400 remained missing at the time of its publication.18 Due to the risk of blood vendetta associated with kidnapping a Chechen, the majority of the victims were Russians and foreigners. Kidnapping was used repeatedly by Makhadov's opponents in Chechnya as a means to prevent his efforts to maintain good relations with Rus­sia.19

Partly as a reaction to the increasing chaos and crime, funda­mental Wahhabism began to spread in Chechnya. One of the most noteworthy leaders of the fundamental Wahhabist movement was Khattab, who arrived in Chechnya during the first Chechen war. In­fluenced by Osama bin Laden, Khattab called for an everlasting fight against the "false" Islam, and against the enemies oflslam, identify­ing Russia as the greatest enemy. Previously having fought in Af­ghanistan and Tajikistan, Khattab enjoyed a large following of Chechen warlords -a development that was perceived by Moscow as a security threat.

It was not Maskhadov's lack of trying to prevent it that the situation in Chechnya gave way to crime and Islamic fundamental­ism. After the conclusion of the first war, Maskhadov struggled to establish a secular state with normal relations with Russia. Facing strong opposition from groups of warlords who pushed for an Is­lamic theocratic state, he attempted to strengthen his position by seeking a compromise with the opposition. He failed and was forced to capitulate to the warlords' demands. Subsequently, a sharia-based constitution was introduced in February 1999. In June 1999, Maskhadov, in an attempt to bring stability to Chechnya, called for the population to mobilize in the fight against terrorism, crime and kidnapping.

At least part of the blame for Maskhadov's failure to develop a stable Chechen nation state during the two Chechen wars has been attributed to the attitude of the Russian government. By refusing to cooperate with the Chechen leadership, the Russian government did not give legitimacy to the Maskhadov administration, thereby weak­ening his position. Accordingly, Chechnya was unable to be recog­nized internationally as an independent state:

"Politically, Chechnya remained hostage to Russia's unwilling­ness to recognize its independence, thus preventing the rest of the world's governments from extending diplomatic recogni­tion and any kind of officially-sanctioned aid ... Chechnya was thus relegated to the category of Russia's many internal prob­lems."20

Due to Maskhadov's failure to build effective state institu­tions, the Chechen society drifted into chaos, transforming into a criminal state that indeed represented a security risk for the Russian Federation. Hence, the Russian position that Chechnya had to be contained to eradicate the security threat cannot be categorically re­jected. However, the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and crime alone is still insufficient to fully explain Russia's strong interest in maintaining control over Chechnya.

Checnya's Significance to Russia: Alternative Reasons

With the most widely cited arguments for Chechnya's impor­tance to Russia significantly weakened, alternative explanations must be sought. There are two main reasons for Russia's inability to allow for Chechen independence: Russia's determination to maintain its territorial integrity at all costs, and Chechnya's role as a tool for Russian politicians to serve their short-term political interests.

The Importance of Territorial Integrity

Every state seeks to maintain its territorial integrity, as terri­torial integrity symbolizes the survival and strength of that state. Therefore, it is no surprise that Russia could not possibly allow Chechnya to secede from the federation. Russia would have reacted similarly to any other republic trying to secede from the federation. In this sense, Russia is no exception, because for every state, the preservation of territorial integrity is the security issue of utmost importance. For example, in July 2002, several Moroccan soldiers took possession of Parsley Island, a small island under the Spanish sovereignty with insignificant strategic value, located in the Medi­terranean on the coast of Morocco. Despite its limited relevance to Spain, Spain took this matter seriously, sending in troops to "recon­quer" the island.21 However ridiculous this event may be to an out­sider, this example shows the importance of territorial integrity to a state.22

In the Chechen case, the perception of the Russian govern­ment was that Chechnya would settle only for full independence. Therefore, in order to maintain territorial integrity, the only solution that Russia saw in ending this conflict was to exert full control over Chechnya. Full control signified eliminating the entire independence movement and installing a pro-Russian administration in its place. Russia came to a conclusion that to regain full control over Chechnya, coercive means -in particular, the use of force - rather than nego­tiations, was necessary.

As a matter of fact, in the beginning of the 1990s, Russia was inclined to find a political solution to the conflict. Following Dudayev's 1991 declaration of Chechen independence, Russia of­fered Chechnya sub-state autonomy similar to the Tatarstan model. Under this agreement, Russia would have been able to keep its terri­torial integrity intact while giving substantial rights of self-determi­nation to Chechnya. However, when Chechnya fully rejected this possibility and demanded outright secession, Russia perceived that the only way to keep its sovereignty over Chechnya was through regaining full control of the republic through military means.

Moreover, Russia expected the military approach to the Chechen conflict to be a relatively straightforward and feasible op­tion for regaining control of the breakaway republic. Russia's delu­sion of great military power, combined with the size of Chechnya, made this strategy tempting to the Russian elite. As a result, Russia made multiple attempts to resolve the issue strictly with the use of force.

Covert Action Against Dudayev Before the First War

Before the first war was launched, the Russian administra­tion favored the use of force to restore full control over Chechnya. This is demonstrated by Yeltsin's strict refusal to meet with Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev23 - an indication of Yeltsin's decision not to find a political solution.

Instead, Russia began to covertly support the Chechen oppo­sition groups in the pro-Russian territories north of the Terek River.24 For example, Russia provided substantial financial and military as­sistance to the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya even before the beginning of the first war. This Congress, established by the pro­Russian leader Umar Avturkhanov in June 1994, aimed to organize opposition to Dudayev. Shortly before the Russian invasion in De­cember 1994, the anti-Dudayev opposition confirmed having received 40 billion rubles from the Russian government.25 In late September 1994, Avturkhanov validated having at his disposal abundant sup­plies of MI-24 and MI-8 helicopters, which were supplied by the Russian government.26 In addition, to promote pro-Russian senti­ments within Chechnya, the Russian government began to pay wages and pensions to the inhabitants of the Upper Terek Region in 1994.27

The bizarer behavior of the Russian government of ordering an invasion into Grozny, only to recall it after its successful comple­tion also points to the likelihood that Moscow's only goal was full control. Having received the order from the Kremlin, Avturkhanov invaded Grozny with his Russian-equipped, but entirely Chechen­ comprised forces in October 1994. Expecting heavy resistance, Avturkhanov was stunned when his invasion was only met with weak resistance from Dudayev's perplexed and indecisive security forces.

Apparently, Dudayev's forces andAvturkhanov's troops had few in­tentions to fight each other, as the Chechens were not willing to fight against their own people. When the invasion proved a success, however, Moscow ordered a retreat, suddenly fearing that a peaceful over­throw of the Dudayev regime would not leave it in its desired posi­tion of total control.28

Over the next several weeks, Moscow constantly increased the weapons support to Avturkhanov, but the opposition forces be­came more inefficient the more heavy weapons they received. 'Many of these weapons disappeared or were resold. Finally, Moscow de­cided to extend its support by sending privately contracted Russian soldiers to help the opposition fighters.29

The next invasion attempt in November 1994 with heavy tanks turned into a fiasco, as the invading opposition troops also engaged in fighting. Dudayev's forces showed their superiority over the op­position troops.30 Following the failure of the Kremlin's strategy to effectively arm the anti-Dudayev forces, Yeltsin decided for outright war. In its desire to gain control over Chechnya, Moscow gradually shifted its strategy from one of low-profile covert action to that of the most massive military operation since the Afghan War.

The Circumstances Surrounding the End of the First War

The Khasavyurt Accords that marked the end of the first war and symbolized the first step toward a political solution only resulted out of military necessity. As a matter of fact, the Russian elite strongly opposed the accords and the subsequent peace treaty - another in­dication that Moscow was unwilling to give up full control.

After one and a half years of war, Yeltsin negotiated a ceasefire agreement in May 1996, which he promptly broke in June 1996.

Shortly thereafter, the Russian military quickly lost Grozny. The Chechen offensive launched in August 1996 overthrew the Russian federal troops, killing at least 600 Russian soldiers and wounding over a thousand. 31 Russian military positions throughout Chechnya crumbled as resistance detachments reemerged in a number of areas in quick succession.

The negotiations of the Khasavyurt Accords were conducted against the will of the Moscow political elite. After Russia's strate­gic position had been severely harmed, General Lebed took action on Aug. 11, 1996, secretly starting talks with the Chechen rebels. On Aug. 19, however, Yeltsin issued an order to recapture Gromy by force, demonstrating his unwillingness to find a peaceful solution. Lebed, partly disregarding the order and re-interpreting others, flew to Chechnya on Aug. 20, and used the power of his office to cancel the attack. On Aug. 31, Lebed and Asian Maskhadov, the. leader of the Chechens after Duadayev's death, signed a declaration in the Dagestani border town of Khasavyurt. Both parties agreed to end hostilities and solve the conflict politically.

Once the accords were signed, Lebed had to justify his ac­tions and the results he achieved to Moscow. The Moscow political elite was fiercely critical of Lebed's actions. Nationalist and com­munist leaders called the idea of a treaty between Russia and one of its constituents ridiculous. Prime Minister Viktor Chemomyrdin called it "a political document without any judicial weight. "32 Yeltsin first refused to meet with Lebed, expressing reservations concerning the pull-out from Chechnya in a September 1996 television inter­view. However, the momentum of the war was broken. The Russian military faced an extremely difficult strategic position after the Chechen August 1996 campaign. In addition, the war in Chechnya meant a heavy economic burden for Russia, which partly contrib­uted to the unpopularity of the war. Out of these necessities, Yeltsin finally accepted the Khasavyurt Accords and in November 1996, he ordered the complete withdrawal of all troops from Chechnya. 33 On May 12, 1997, he met with Maskhadov, the newly elected president of the Chechen Republic, and signed a far-reaching peace treaty. A political solution seemed within reach, but once again later develop­ments proved that Moscow was unwilling to settle for a solution that did not give it full control.

Developments During the Interwar Years

The Russian interest in a political solution faded as the mili­tary and political restraints that forced the KhasavyurtAccords eroded. The developments during the period between two wars show the in­sincerity of Moscow's peace offer to Chechnya at the end of the first war. In fact, the decision to re-launch war on Chechnya had already been made months in advance of October 1999.

Fallowing the peace treaty, the Yeltsin administration did not comply with its obligations. Economic cooperation and reconstruc­tion did not take place, and from August 1997 on, Yeltsin even re­fused to meet Maskhadov.34 Moscow started to interfere in Chechen domestic politics, benefiting from the chaotic situation there. Just as in the period before the first war, Russia started to actively support various warlords in opposition to the Chechen leadership, while at the same time constantly pointing to the security threat to Russia emerging from the growing chaos, crime and Islamic fundamental­ism in Chechnya.

In Russia, there were tendencies among the political leaders to push for a revision of the accords of 1996 and 1997. The ceasefire reached with the KhasavyurtAccord was called a betrayal of Russia's interests.35 In a television interview with channel ORT on Feb. 7, 2000, acting President Putin compared the "defeatism" shown by the 1996 signing of the accord with the behavior of the Bolsheviks in World War I.36 A further investigation into the events in Russia between 1996 and 1999 suggests that the decision to intervene in Chechnya militarily had already been taken in 1998.37

Also, the Russian armed forces, having experienced devas­tating humiliation in the first war, actively sought a military solution to Chechnya after the first Chechen war. While agreeing to withdraw from Chechnya under the Khasavyurt Accords out of a purely mili­tary need, Russia kept a strong force in the North Caucasus and reor­ganized its capabilities to allow for a combined action of the army and the Ministry of the Interior forces.38 Troops were trained for insurgency operations. In July 1998, exercises were conducted in the territories ofDagestan, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabardin Balkaria, and Stavropol with the participation of 15,000 soldiers. In the exer­cise, Russian soldiers were training against a potential scenario of mass attacks by bandit groups and individual terrorists.39

When exactly the decision for a second military intervention was made is not clear. According to the Chechen informal ambassa­dor to Moscow, Vatshgaev, the decision was made in a meeting of the National Security Council in December 1998. In addition, former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin confirmed that the preparations for the intervention started in March 1999.40 In autumn 1998, a Joint Coordination Staff for the North Caucasus had already been estab­lished.41

In summary, Russia's unwillingness to relinquish full control over the breakaway republic is primarily a result of Russia's reluc­tance to lose its territorial integrity, combined with its perception that Chechnya would refuse to negotiate for a political solution. This stance was further complicated by the temptation for Russia to solve the conflict through military means, which was perceived as a viable option before the first war given Chechnya's size and Russia's delu­sion of military might.

Cechnya as a Political Tool

The second argument for Russia's determination to hold onto Chechnya is the vital role that Chechnya plays as a tool for Russian politicians. In particular, Boris Yeltsin, Alexander Lebed, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian military took advantage of the Chechen con­flict to further their interests. An examination of the each of these parties' actions as well as of the existing conditions in Russia reveals that Chechnya indeed fulfilled a political need: a diversion from the real problems in the country, a means to manipulate public opinion and gain favorable rating, and an enemy against which to revitalize the prestige of the military.

The End of the First War

The behavior of Yeltsin and Lebed during the first Chechen war demonstrates that Chechnya was caught in the political power struggle between the two politicians. The unpopular war was a weapon that could be used to manipulate public opinion for short-term gain in popular rating.

Yeltsin's actions immediately before and after the June 1996 presidential elections clearly demonstrate that he used Chechnya as a campaign tactic. The first war was extremely unpopular among the Russian population, but Yeltsin had no intentions to end the conflict. In fact, it was only in order to regain public support to ensure elec­tion victory that prompted Yeltsin to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Chechnya in May 1996. The insincerity of Yeltsin's desire to resolve the situation was confirmed when he promptly renewed the fighting in Chechnya on June 17, 1996, just one day after he was reelected for the second term.

Similarly, Lebed's political ambitions were the underlying factor that propelled him to play the role of the great peacemaker in the first war. Lebed finished third in the June 1996 presidential elec­tions - a surprisingly successful performance that subsequently earned him the powerful position of National Security Council Chief and Yeltsin's military adviser. Due to his overwhelming popularity, critics even placed him among the top contenders for the future Rus­sian presidency. Lebed was aiming high when he exploited the Chechen conflict to elevate himself politically.

Voicing consensus with the majority of the Russian public, Lebed opposed the war in Chechnya from the outset, questioning both the military and political, rationale behind the war. After the fighting resumed in Jilne 1996, the general watched as the Russian military positions throughout Chechnya fell apart in the face of the Chechen retaliation. In August 1996, Lebed, took action against the wishes of the Russian. elite. He single-handedly flew to Dagestan secretly, and from there, drove into Chechnya alone, taking high per­sonal risks. In Chechnya, he met with Asian Maskhadov, then Chechen chief-of-staff, to outline a preliminary ceasefire agreement. Tensions between Yeltsin and Lebed came to a head when Lebed disregarded Yeltsin's direct order in August 1996 to recapture Grozny by force. In fact, Lebed not only canceled the planned attack, but also negotiated a ceasefire agreement with Maskhadov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, the main leaders of the Chechen resistance. The entire process eventually led to the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords.42

Once the accords were signed, Lebed returned triumphantly to Moscow, celebrated by the press, but faced fierce criticism from the Moscow political elite. Yeltsin initially refused to meet with Lebed, but public support for the end of the first war forced him to approve Lebed's efforts soon afterwards.

There should be no questions that Lebed's personal ambi­tions prompted him to push for the end of the first war. With the political zenith-the post of Russian presidency-seemingly within reach, Lebed had neither scruples nor qualms about publicly humili­ating Yeltsin to gain political capital and to solidify his career. How­ever, the public support and fame Lebed gained through his role in ending the first Chechen war were not enough to shield him from Yeltsin's executive power. Yeltsin fired Lebed in October 1996 for insubordination.

The Start of the Second War

The existing internal conditions in Russia before the second Chechen war, compounded by the devastating humiliation experi­enced by the Russian military at the end of the first war, led Russia to view Chechnya as a convenient tool to be used. The second war began for two primary reasons: the aforementioned perception that a political solution would not allow Russia to maintain sovereignty over Chechnya and the convenience of using Chechnya for political reasons. With respect to the second argument, Chechnya played three roles at the onset of the second war: a target against which to renew the prestige of the Russian military, a distraction with which to shift public scrutiny away from Yeltsin, and a means with which to so­lidify the popularity of Putin.

First, the Russian military was ever eager to re-launch war on Chechnya after suffering a humiliating defeat in the first war. In or­der to renew the prestige of the once powerful military, the Russian generals felt it necessary and feasible to crush Chechnya once and for all through the use of force. The Russian military assured the Kremlin that it had learned from the mistakes of the first war, and that it was more prepared than ever to decisively defeat Chechnya. It is important to recall that the conditions under which Russia ac­cepted military defeat was out of necessity, and not out of sincere desire to put an end to the conflict through a political solution. In fact, the Russian military had been preparing for the second war as early as in July 1998.43

Secondly, the economic and political conditions in Russia in 1999 show that the Yeltsin administration was in dire need of a di­version that would shift the growing public dissatisfaction from the government's performance. The public was not happy with the Yeltsin administration for two reasons: the Kremlin's inability to stabilize the economy after the August 1998 Russian financial crisis that ended in bank failures and a four-fold ruble devaluation,44 and corruption allegations surrounding the presidency. In particular, the corruption charges dealt a heavy blow to the legitimacy of the administration. In August 1999, the Russian public saw the Bank of New York money laundering scandal unfold before their eyes. Approximately US$7 million in Russian dirty money was allegedly funneled through Bank of New York. Some of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan given to the Russian government on the eve of the August 1998 cri­sis was also purportedly siphoned through the bank.4 5 This rumor, fueled by the media allegations loosely linking the Yeltsin 'family' in the affair, caused public confidence in the government to plum­met.

Finally, Chechnya served as a means with which to solidify the popularity of Putin, a vital interest for the Yeltsin administration in August 1999. In addition to the ailing economy and rampant cor­ruption charges, Yeltsin and his family faced the difficult task of finding a suitable successor as Yeltsin prepared to leave office. To assure himself of a peaceful retirement, Yeltsin needed an ally who would protect the interests of the family.46 Putin was deemed to be that man.

It was against this background that two key events occurred, which the Russian government claimed had forced it to wage an offensive against Chechnya: the Chechen invasion into Dagestan and a series of explosions in various Russian cities. In August 1999, Chechen military 'field commander' Shamil Basayev and Khattab invaded Dagestan in an effort to start an Islamic uprising. Then, in September 1999, a series of apartment building bombings in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk killed nearly 300 civilians and wounded over 550, sweeping the entire country into a frenzy and instilling fear in the citizens living in Russia.47 The Russian govern­ment was quick to accuse the Chechens for the terror acts, although the Chechen regime denied involvement.

The Chechen invasion of Dagestan and the terrorist acts in Russia set the stage for Vladimir Putin, a then little-known former KGB officer whom Yeltsin had just named his Prime Minister in August 1999. Putin used the rhetoric of fighting the spread of Is­lamic fundamentalism as well as terrorism to launch a military cam­paign to bomb Chechnya. His tough stance instantaneously made him popular and his approval rating soared. Curiously, in June of 1999, most political parties represented in the State Duma, the Rus­sian parliament, furiously demanded Yeltsin's removal from office for "unleashing the war in Chechnya," but by November of the same year the majority of the Duma deputies supported the war.48

A plethora of research has been conducted that suggests the possibility of the Russian government's involvement in the orches­tration of the apartment building bombings, which was brought to light with the Ryazan incident. There, the agents of the Federal Se­curity Service (FSB), a successor organization to the KGB, were caught placing a bomb in the basement of a civilian apartment build­ing. When asked to explain the nature of the operation, the FSB de­clined to elaborate on grounds of secrecy and sealed the documents relating to the incident for 75 years.49 To date, there have been no arrests made in the apartment bombings and the Russian govern­ment officially continues to claim that the explosions were acts of retaliation by the Chechens for Russia's military response to the Dagestan invasion. However, the mere complexity of planning a se­ries of bombings in various cities would have presented serious lo­gistical and technical difficulties for the Chechen rebels, requiring months of preparation. In addition, the Russian attack against the Chechen insurgency in Dagestan was conducted only days before the apartment building explosions, making it highly unlikely that the Chechens would have been able to mastermind this complex operation.50

The validity of these theories aside, the fact remains that these incidents swept fear throughout Russia that helped increase anti­Chechen sentiments. The re-launch of the military campaign in Chechnya greatly benefited three parties in particular: the Russian military, Yeltsin, and Putin. First, the Chechen invasion of Dagestan and the subsequent start of the second war gave the Russian military the much-awaited opportunity to avenge the defeat of the first war. Secondly, the apartment bombings allowed the Yeltsin government to shift public scrutiny from its struggling economy and corruption allegations to a much graver problem: the threat of Russia's security. In the wake oft he apartment bombings, the country united as it faced a common "enemy." Lastly, Putin's popularity rating, which had been 2 percent, skyrocketed as he declared the bombing of Chechnya in September 1999:51

"The chief factor that prevented the possibility of stopping the Russian military ... was the Russian pre-election requirement for a 'victorious war. ' ... The popularity ratings of presidential can­didate Putin and those of the parties he supported during the Duma campaign were closely linked with a military solution to the Chechen problem. If Putin had abandoned an offensive strat­egy in favor of simply digging in, his popularity could have fallen as rapidly as it had risen52

The war in Chechnya assured Putin of his presidency in the election of March 2000, which suited both his own power ambitions and the interests of the Yeltsin administration.

Therefore, an analysis of the behavior of the Russian politi­cians - in particular, that of Yeltsin, Lebed, and Putin - as well as that of the Russian military, proves that Chechnya was indispens­able to Russia at the conclusion of the first war and at the beginning of the second war as an important political tool.


An examination of the most commonly cited explanations for Russia's resolve to control Chechnya - the domino effect, oil, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and crime – shows that these arguments are not sufficient to fully explain Russia's unrelenting stance on Chechnya. The domino effect is not relevant because the Russian Federation today will not fall apart if Chechnya were granted independence. The oil issue is obsolete because oil supply in Chechnya is in the process of depletion, and a pipeline bypassing Chechnya has been constructed. Admittedly, there is a security threat stemming from the growth of both Islamic fundamentalism and crime within Chechnya, but the need to contain this threat cannot solve the Chechen riddle.

The reasons for Russia's need to maintain control over Chechnya are Russia's justifiable desire to preserve its territorial in­tegrity and Chechnya's usability as a political tool for opportunistic politicians. First, Russia feared that without regaining full control over Chechnya - eliminating first the Dudayev, then the Maskhadov administrations - it would not be able to keep its sovereignty over Chechnya. Russia perceived that the Chechen leaders would not settle for anything less than full independence, therefore, negotiations were not an alternative. The only way for Russia to keep sovereignty, Rus­sia believed, was by overthrowing the leadership in place through military means. Secondly, Chechnya was used by politicians, namely Yeltsin, Lebed, and Putin, as a means to manipulate public opinion. The Russian military also acted as a catalyst in the renewal of fight­ing, reaffirming its readiness for and interest in the second war to reestablish its reputation. An analysis of the actions taken by these politicians amid vicious power struggles demonstrates that Chechnya was a welcome opportunity to be exploited for short-term political gain. Both of these arguments prove that it was not Chechnya or its uniqueness that compelled Russia to hold onto this republic. Russia reacted to its basic need to defend the unity of the state. Similarly, the Russian elite acted according to their basic desires to gain politi­cal capital.

The current situation looks optimistic. The March 2003 ref­erendum in Chechnya, although conducted under debatable circum­stances, has received a nearly 96 percent approval rating from the voting public for the new Russia-backed constitution.53 Finally, Rus­sia seems willing to settle for a political solution now that it is in full control of Chechnya and is assured of keeping sovereignty over the republic. Following the vote, Putin commented that the overwhelm­ing support for the referendum removed "the last serious problem in relation to Russia's territorial integrity."54

This development is a promising first step toward a political solution. In fact, it seems likely that the Putin administration is pre­pared to grant autonomy to Chechnya as part of its "exit strategy" from the conflict.55 There should be no illusions, however, about the current situation in Chechnya. Many refugees living in camps out­side of the republic are fearful of returning. Catastrophic human rights conditions exist as a result of continuing atrocities committed by the Russian military. The Chechen rebels, pushed far into the mountains of the Chechen-Georgian border, are likely to continue their spo­radic attacks on the Russian soldiers and the Russia-backed admin­istration. Terrorism will certainly not disappear overnight and the prospect that Chechnya will become comparable to the Basque coun­try in Spain or to Northern Ireland before the Good Friday agree­ment is large. Still, given the unfavorable position of the Chechen rebel forces and the inclination of the Russian government toward a peaceful solution, the chances for the return of normal life in Chechnya have not been greater since the conflict began.