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Second Chechnya War - 1999-2006

When the Russian incursion into Chechnya began in October 1999, Russia said its objectives were limited to subduing bandits hiding in Chechnya's mountains. However, over time it became apparent that in this second phase of the Chechen war Russia was evidently intent on reversing the humiliating defeat it suffered in Chechnya 3 years prior. The Russian authorities presented the war in Chechnya as a crusade against terrorism and an ultimate attempt to avoid the secession of Chechnya from the Russian Federation. The fighting was the worst in the region since Russia's 1994-1996 civil war with Chechnya.

The aftermath of the first conflict in Chechnya had set the stage for the Russian incursion in 1999. In February 1997, after the signing of the Khasavyurt accords in August 1996 and the withdrawal of Russian military units from Chechen territory in December 1996, the Chechen people elected Aslan Maskhadov as the republic's president. However, the terms of the Khasavyurt accords were violated by the Chechen side. The commitments assumed by the Chechen leadership to combat crime, terrorism and manifestations of national and religious enmity were not fulfilled. Moreover, since 1996 the ethno-political and humanitarian situation in Chechnya deteriorated.

Yevgeny Primakov and then Sergei Stepashin were the Prime Ministers of Russia during the period. Their strategy focused on working with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who was a moderate and a former Soviet Army officer. When the Russians, at the initiative of General Aleksandr Lebed agreed to withdraw from Chechnya, and agreed on a timetable for Chechen self-determination, they also promised major aid. The promised aid to repair the destruction from the 1994-96 war never arrived, and the Russians did nothing to moderate the situation in Chechnya. Under those circumstances the more radical elements in Chechnya came to the top. The areas controlled by criminal gangs of extremist groups grew wider, and rebels in Dagestan declared their independence.

A wave of kidnappings hit the Caucasus region soon after Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya in 1996. Most of the blame was placed on criminal gangs that were able to operate freely in the lawless region. Russian Interior Ministry statistics showed that up to 1,300 people were kidnapped in Chechnya between 1996 and 1999. Many of the hostages were Russian conscripts that served in army units in the Caucasus. Other victims included President Boris Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya who was freed in 1998, Russian television journalists, and more than 60 foreigners, who were considered especially lucrative targets.

In March 1999, Russia's top envoy to Chechnya, Russian Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun, was kidnapped from the airport in Chechnya's capital, Grozny. In response, the Interior Ministry deployed more troops to the Chechen border region and threatened force if the hostage was not released (he was later executed in 2000). Later that same month, an explosion rocked a public market place in the North Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz, killing 60 people. Vladikavkaz was the capital of the North Ossetia region and was located just 30 miles from the Chechen border.

The main rebel commander in 1999 was Shamil Basayev. He led the Chechen militant group known as Riyadus Salihin against Russian forces. He would later be replaced by Doku Umarov, who would lead the Islamic insurgency that had engulfed the Caucasus in the 2000s. There was another Muslim leader who went by the name of Ibn Al-Khattab. He led the Wahhabi Islamic movement in Dagestan, which was aided by the Chechen rebels.

The initial death toll was certainly in the thousands, including several thousand innocent civilians. As of late November 1999, Russian forces claimed to have killed more than 4,000 rebels, while losing 187 soldiers since the offensive began In October 1999. Chechen officials disputed those figures, saying rebel fighters had suffered minimal losses while killing thousands of Russian troops. They said the heaviest casualties had been among civilians, with nearly 5,000 killed. None of the figures could be independently confirmed, and both sides had tended to exaggerate enemy casualties while minimizing their own. As of early 2000 the Russian side admitted that over 1,100 of its troops had been killed since August 1999, but the Russian Soldiers' Mothers Committee reported 3,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Estimates of Chechen killed and wounded were far higher, and far less certain. Russian defense officials said at least 10,000 rebels had died. Chechen sources put the figure at less than half that, but said the number of civilians killed was far higher. The number of internally displaced persons was put at more than 230,000 people. Some were kept from fleeing the fighting when Russian authorities closed the Chechnya-Ingushetia border.

Each side accused the other of preparing chemical or toxic agents for use in the conflict. Chechen parliamentarians said they had information that Russian troops attacked 2 districts in Grozny with chemical weapons in early December 1999, though this report could not be independently verified. They said they were afraid Russian troops might destroy a nuclear waste storage facility just outside Grozny if the military was forced to leave. The Russian military said Chechen militants exploded canisters of toxic agents in a village on the outskirts of Grozny on 10 December 1999. General Alexander Baranov said he believed the canisters contained chlorine and ammonia and the blast resulted in a cloud of fumes. There was no way to verify the claim, since the Russian military had a near-monopoly on information coming from Chechnya. In early December 1999, Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felganhauer said that the Russian military's bombardment of Grozny would include "so-called aerosol bombs or vacuum bombs that can penetrate dugouts, bunkers and kill everyone inside of course, including civilians." Although widely reported, these comments represented a misunderstanding of the effects of fuel-air explosives. Such fuel-air munitions were reportedly used beginning on 6 December 1999.

The prospect of another full-scale war in Chechnya prompted Western governments to issue statements of concern over Russian tactics against rebels in the breakaway republic. However, there appeared to be little appetite among outside powers to intervene in the conflict with anything more than public complaints.

The Russian government benefited from the criticism, because it allowed Russian leaders to portray themselves as standing up for Russia against the West at no cost. Some observers connected the course of the war with the appointment of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in early August 1999. It was widely believed in Russia that the war has something to do with the presidential election coming up in mid-2000. With Yeltsin's approval rating standing at something near 2 percent in the polls, Putin won public support that he could not have gotten any other way. Russia's public expected the Chechen issue to be resolved for good, and the intervention enjoyed the support of practically all political forces in Moscow. Former Russian Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov estimated that the Chechen offensive was costing from 115-million to 150-million dollars a month.

Human rights groups had repeatedly charged Russian troops with employing brutal tactics, amid signs the conflict had attracted foreign fighters. The Kremlin's tight control over major broadcast media kept the conflict largely out of the public eye, in spite of an almost-daily death toll among Russians and Chechens alike. Russian President Putin ruled out negotiating with Chechen separatist leaders, whom he called terrorists. Any attempt to talk with moderate Chechen separatists would probably bring little result, as hard-liners would continue their fight against Russia.

From Moscow's point of view, it could not afford to lose the Caucasus, the pathway to Caspian Sea oil and to Russian influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. While Russia remained, it could block efforts by other powers like Turkey and Iran to become established in the Caucasus. Russia's policy in Chechnya was a part of a broader Russian policy across the entire Caucasus designed to freeze out other people and allow Russian influence to come back. By its re-conquest of Chechnya, Russia served notice to the US that Russia had stopped retreating from the Caucasus and intended to scuttle US plans to gain control over the region.

Historically, energy from the Caspian had gone north, only north, and then from Russia into world markets. In 1995 a consortium of international companies decided to build 2 pipelines from Azerbaijan. The western line to Supsa, Georgia, opened in April 1999. The pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossisk opened, and then closed because of events in Chechnya. The countries and the energy companies that operated in the region believed that they needed to have a multiple pipeline system.

After long negotiations, in November 1999 Turkmenistan, Azarbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and the United States agreed on the development of a commercial pipeline to sell gas from Turkmenistan through Georgia and Azerbaijan to Turkey and on to Europe. The pipeline would bring the Caspian Sea's oil to the Mediterranean without crossing Russia and Iran. The Turkish export route for Azerbaijan's huge reserves of oil and natural gas was aimed at reducing the former Soviet republic's dependency on Moscow. This deal represented a long-term strategic triumph over Russia's historic aspirations and interests in Central Asia. The second Chechen War was the best argument in favor of the agreement on an oil pipeline from Baku to Turkey as an alternative to a Russian pipeline, paradoxically confirming the Russian assumption that the United States benefited from Chechnya because it wanted to bring the Caucasus under its influence.

There was some speculation that the war ended in 2002 due to the cessation of major Russian military operations in Chechnya. The war then appeared to enter a transitional phase between 2002 to 2006, in which militant groups began to reorganize their structure and leadership. The leadership became more radical and heavily religious due to the increasing assassinations of the previous leadership by Russian forces. The militants moved away from the idea of creating an independent Chechnya and instead the resistance headed toward what seemed to be an autonomous Islamic region which incorporated the Caucasus republics. Their operations were no longer limited to Chechnya, with militants operating in Dagestan and Ingushetia as well.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:13 ZULU