Chechnya, Russia’s Forgotten War

Fifteen years ago last week, Russia went to war in Chechnya for the second time in five years. “The collapse of the Soviet Union ends in Grozny,” declared the recently appointed and little-known Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. A decade and a half later, it is a war that shows no sign of ending.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year shored up Putin’s falling approval ratings, it was his launching of the Second Chechen War on September 30, 1999, that brought him into the presidency in the first place. Putin made his name from his response to the invasion of Dagestan by militants from the neighboring republic of Chechnya in August 1999. The following month, a series of apartment bombings struck three Russian cities, killing almost 300 people. The Kremlin was quick to blame Chechens, but when an unexploded bomb was found in a fourth city, the perpetrators turned out to be Russian agents. Putin, nevertheless, sent troops to the restive Muslim republic, creating a wave of patriotic fervor that swept him to power.

The weakness of Russia during the 1990s, Putin believed, had led to the situation in Chechnya. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia. For three years, armed rebels ran Chechnya in defiance of Moscow. In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched a poorly planned war to bring the rebellious republic back to heel. As the death toll mounted and public outcry grew, the Kremlin withdrew its forces under a 1996 peace agreement that gave Chechnya substantial autonomy but not independence. The republic’s leaders, failing to control brutal warlords who grew rich by organized crime, increasingly identified with Islamist extremists.

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Decades of Soviet religious repression had secularized most of Russia’s Muslim society. Still, following his election as president in March 2000, Putin portrayed Islam as a threat to Russia, and made use of the September 11th attacks on the US to portray Chechen militants as part of a global terror network. After this, Western criticism of Russia’s human rights abuses and brutal tactics in Chechnya—earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia guilty of having “violated the right to life” of 14 civilian men during the war—all but ended.

Putin felt vindicated, and declared the end of the Second Chechen War in April 2002. A controversial referendum in March 2003 approved a new constitution, giving Chechnya more autonomy but stipulated that it remained within Russia. In October 2003, Putin installed Akhmad Kadyrov, a loyal ally, as president. Parliamentary elections in November 2005 saw the pro-Kremlin United Russia party win over half the seats, after which Putin declared that constitutional order had been restored to the republic. In 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad’s son and a self-declared warlord who human rights groups accuse of murder and torture, became the republic’s president. In April 2009, the Kremlin ended its decade-long counter-terrorist operations there.

Today, the republic appears to have been reborn. Rubble has been replaced by tree-lined boulevards, marble-fronted buildings housing cafés and advertising agencies. In the capital, Grozny—once dubbed “the most devastated city on Earth”—skyscrapers are springing up next to a giant marble mosque named after Akhmad Kadyrov and said to be Europe’s largest. All of this funded by generous subsidies from Russia’s federal budget.

Yet the war continues. In 2004, North Caucasus militants launched a two-year campaign of terrorism in mainland Russia, including the Beslan school hostage siege, in which almost 200 children were killed. In 2007, the insurgency was reborn as the “Caucasus Emirate,” led by Chechen terrorist Doku Umarov and with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. In the year 2009, more Russian forces were killed in Chechnya than US soldiers in Iraq. In March 2010, the Emirate carried out a series of terrorist attacks on Moscow’s metro and in January 2011 attacked the city’s Domodedovo International Airport, killing 75 people in all. Last year, more than 500 people were killed in the North Caucasus. In the first half of this year alone, 180 people were killed there.

The continuing instability in the North Caucasus speaks volumes about power projection in Putin’s Russia. Putin may give the impression of an all-powerful strongman, but the reality is that he does not control, nor has he controlled, all of Russia. Chechnya, with its strict Islamic law, compulsory dress code for women, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol, more closely resembles a Middle Eastern sultanate than any part of the Russian Federation.

Putin came to power on the back of a “small, victorious war” in Chechnya, and he has reasserted his domestic popularity by a similar endeavor in Ukraine. But the lesson from Chechnya is clear: such wars are never small, and rarely end as their planners foresee.

Andrew Foxall is the director of the Russia Studies Center at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based international affairs think tank.

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