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First Chechnya War - 1994-1996

Russian troops entered Chechnya in December 1994, in order to prevent Chechnya's effort to secede from the Russian Federation, and after almost 2 years of fighting, a peace agreement was reached. As part of that agreement, resolution of Chechnya's call for independence was postponed for up to 5 years. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and over 500,000 persons displaced since the conflict began.

The origins of the conflict are complex. Relations between Russia and the people of Chechnya have long been contentious, dating to the period of Russian expansion in the Caucasus in the 19th Century. Since their forced annexation to the Russian empire, the Chechens have never willingly accepted Russian rule. During the Russian Civil War (1917-20), the Chechens declared their sovereignty until the Red Army suppressed them in 1920. Located on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains within 100 kilometers of the Caspian Sea, Chechnya is strategically vital to Russia for two reasons. First, access routes to both the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea go from the center of the federation through Chechnya. Second, vital Russian oil and gas pipeline connections with Kazakstan and Azerbaijan also run through Chechnya.

The Russian Federation's Republic of Chechnya in the northern Caucasus declared itself independent from the Russian Federation in 1991 under the leadership of Dzhokar Dudayev, was a former pilot of the Soviet Strategic Aviation (Dalnya Aviatsia) who flew nuclear bombers for many years. The declaration of full independence issued in 1993 by the Chechen government of Dudayev led to civil war in that republic, and several Russian-backed attempts to overthrow Dudayev failed in 1993 and 1994. In the summer of 1994, the Russian Government intensified its charges against the government of secessionist President Dudayev, accusing it of repressing political dissent, of corruption, and of involvement in international criminal activities. Chechnya had become an outpost of organized crime, gun-running and drug smuggling. Several armed opposition groups financially and militarily supported by Russian government entities sought to overthrow President Dudayev. In August 1994 they bombed a telephone station and the Moscow-Baku railroad line. The Dudayev government blamed the acts on the political opposition and introduced a state of emergency, followed in September 1994 by martial law. Restrictions included a curfew, limits on exit and entry procedures, and restrictions on travel by road in some areas.

The opposition launched a major offensive on 26 November 1994 with the covert support of "volunteers" from several elite regular Russian army units. Russian military officials initially denied any official involvement in the conflict. The operation failed to unseat Dudayev. By December 1994 Russian military forces were actively working to overthrow the Dudayev regime. Having relied on clandestine measures to remove Dudayev, detailed planning for a wide-scale conventional military operation did not begin until early December.

After a decision of unclear origin in the Yeltsin administration, three divisions of Russian armor, pro-Russian Chechen infantry, and internal security troops -- a force including units detailed from the regular armed forces -- invaded Chechnya on 10-11 December 1994. The objective was a quick victory leading to pacification and reestablishment of a pro-Russian government. The result, however, was a long series of military operations bungled by the Russians and stymied by the traditionally rugged guerrilla forces of the Chechen separatists.

Russian military aircraft bombed both military and civilian targets in Groznyy, the capital of the republic. Regular army and MVD troops crossed the border into Chechnya on December 10 to surround Groznyy. Beginning in late December 1994, following major Chechen resistance, there was massive aerial and artillery bombardment of Chechnya's capital, Groznyy, resulting 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. According to press reports, there were up to 4,000 detonations an hour at the height of the winter campaign against Groznyy.

Beyond the large number of civilians injured and killed, most residential and public buildings in Groznyy, including hospitals and an orphanage, were destroyed.

These actions were denounced as major human rights violations by Sergey Kovalev, President Yeltsin's Human Rights Commissioner, and by human rights NGO's. The Russian Government announced on December 28 that Russian ground forces had begun an operation to "liberate" Groznyy one district at a time and disarm the "illegal armed groupings." Dudayev supporters vowed to continue resisting and to switch to guerrilla warfare.

Troops who were sent to Chechnya had in many cases only just arrived for their mandatory conscription service. As a result, they had only been through about half of what U.S. soldiers would consider basic training. Since Russian planners wanted to conserve their “good stuff” — the 6,000 tanks that they considered to be combat worthy against the West — older models were pulled out of depot storage and issued to troops. As a result, few tankers were trained on any of the systems they would have to fight in, and even trained ones were assigned to the wrong tanks. Trained T-72 drivers wound up in T-80BV tanks, and T-80 tankers in T-72As. Crews were thrown together and had to train and become familiar with each other during the road march to Groznyy.

All of this was compounded by two major errors at the top. First off, all units assigned were kept on peacetime relationships, not wartime. Under wartime regulations, all troops in a given area belonged to the designated commander. Under peacetime, they still were responsible to their own chains of command. This was true with the VDV units sent into the country, as well as the MVD Internal Troops units, which comprised some 40 percent of the original troops deploying (15,000 out of 38,000).

Secondly, the North Caucasus Military District commander organized the operation as a classic Soviet front, with too many levels of command for the forces deployed. The result was an unmitigated disaster, highlighted by the nearly complete destruction of the 131st Independent “Maykop” Motorized Rifle Brigade and the 81st Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment on New Year’s Eve 1994-95.

The Soviets had a very good system of long-term conservation and storage, but it relied on skilled depot-level preparation and storage of equipment to work properly. This is why in 1991 Lieutenant General Dmitry Volkogonov noted that the Soviet Union, at the moment of its breakup, had 77,000 tanks on its books, albeit in various states of operational service or repair. In the breakup, most of the restoration factories — charged with the depot-level rebuilding and some of the storage work — were lost to Belarus and Ukraine. As skilled personnel left in the drawdown, many vehicles had to be stored by use of troop labor. These personnel were untrained in proper preparation of vehicles, and as a result, when the tanks were drawn out of storage, many of them failed nearly at once. Colonel General Sergey Mayev, head of the Tank and Automotive Directorate of the Russian Army, (GABTU), stated on several occasions that this was the primary reason for their failures and problems.

Tanks which should have taken six hours to prepare for combat now took seven to nine days, and frequently suffered failures of key systems shortly afterward (cooling being the number one problem with the T-72s and BMPs). Improperly stored batteries — another major weakness of Soviet-era tanks, as there were never enough of them around for proper rotation and stowage — also died quickly, forcing the troops to replace them under very trying conditions.

The T-80BV tanks used by the “Maykop” Brigade had no explosive plates in their reactive armor boxes (actually just a protective shield over the 4S20 explosive plates), and as a result had no chance against skilled Chechen antitank teams firing down on them from buildings. The image of a T-80BV, with a few boxes still visible on its glacis, blown completely apart near the train station in Groznyy sums up the total waste of the attacks by these forces and units. Whether they were stolen –— or simply not installed as nobody thought to do that — is anyone’s guess. The vehicles were also using “Winter” fuels, with a shot of naphtha added for thinner to ease flow and starting, which caused the diesel fuels to ignite much more readily when hit by HEAT projectiles.

Although Russian forces leveled the Chechen capital city of Groznyy and other population centers during a long and bloody campaign of urban warfare, Chechen forces held extensive territory elsewhere in the republic through 1995 and into 1996. Two major hostage-taking incidents -- one at Budennovsk in southern Russia in June 1995 and one at the Dagestani border town of Pervomayskoye in January 1996 -- led to the embarrassment of unsuccessful military missions to release the prisoners. The Pervomayskoye incident led to the complete destruction of the town and numerous civilian casualties.

The Chechen conflict sparked a major debate over accountability in government decisionmaking and the Government's commitment to the rights of its citizens and international norms. The Constitutional Court found President Yeltsin's deployment of military forces in Chechnya without parliamentary approval to be constitutional. However, the Court ruled that international law was binding on both government and rebel forces, although neither was in compliance with Protocol II Additional of the Geneva Conventions, specifically with the provision that every effort must be made to avoid causing damage to civilians and their property.

Russian forces used indiscriminate and disproportionate force in attacks on other Chechen towns and villages. After federal forces captured several major cities and towns in the Chechen Republic, Chechen fighters employed guerrilla and terrorist tactics against forces of the Ministries of Defense and Internal Affairs, as well as against Russian civilians in the town of Budennovsk.

As the campaign's failures and substantial casualties were being well documented by Russia's independent news media (an estimated 1,500 Russian troops and 25,000 civilians had died by April 1995), public opinion in Russia turned strongly against continued occupation. However, fearing that capitulation to a separatist government in one ethnic republic would set a precedent for other independence-minded regions, in 1995 President Yeltsin wavered between full support of Chechnya operations and condemnation of the supposed incompetence of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and his generals. Yeltsin fired several top generals, including Deputy Minister of Defense Boris Gromov, who were critical of the war. In 1995 and early 1996, Grachev's inability to obtain a favorable outcome and continued disarray in top command echelons indicated that he had lost control of the military establishment.

On 30 July 1995 the Government and forces loyal to Chechen president Dudayev signed a military protocol calling for a cease-fire, the disarming of rebel formations, the withdrawal of most federal troops, and the exchange of prisoners. Implementation of the protocol was slow and came to a halt in the fall, following the assassination attempt on General Romanov, former commander of the federal forces in Chechnya.

In late 1995, the Russian government announced elections to replace the Moscow-backed government that assumed power after Dudayev was driven from Groznyy. Prominent human rights organizations called for cancellation of the 17 December 1995 elections in Chechnya due to the conditions in the region, which they described as a virtual state of emergency. They warned that the results of the elections would lack credibility and predicted that the elections would exacerbate preexisting tensions and prevent political reconciliation. The OSCE Assistance Group (AG) temporarily departed Groznyy rather than monitor elections that they judged could not be "free and fair." Dokur Zavgayev won the elections, but there were widespread allegations of fraud and manipulation of the results.

Violations of international humanitarian law and human rights committed by Russian forces occured on a much larger scale than those of the Chechen separatists. Russian forces engaged in the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. They also prevented civilians from evacuating from areas of imminent danger and humanitarian organizations from assisting civilians in need. Security forces were also responsible for disappearances in Chechnya. Chechen forces executed some members of the federal forces and repeatedly seized civilian hostages. Both parties to the conflict at times used torture, mistreated prisoners of war, and executed some of them.

On 21-22 April 1996 President Dzhokar Dudayev, leader of the Chechen uprising, was lethally wounded in his head by a shell fragment. He died shortly afterwards. According to one report, he was killed in the field while trying to establish a connection via a satellite phone. A few seconds before his death he complained to other party about noise from overflying aircraft. It is believed that he was targeted by some sort of air-to-ground missile. Russian officials denied the presence of Russian aircraft in the area, but according to reports Dudayev had been deliberately targeted by a rocket fired from the air which homed in on him by following the signal of his satellite telephone. It is reliably reported that Russian forces routinely called in air and ground-launched rocket strikes on locations of satellite telephone operations identified with radiolocation equipment.

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