Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 5

Chechnya: Seeds of the Debacle

By Maria Eismont

In a recent campaign speech, President Yeltsin admitted that the introduction of Russian troops into Chechnya had been one of his mistakes. But on November 28, 1994, when the Russian Security Council resolved to use force against Djokhar Dudaev, the majority of Council members viewed that decision as the only one possible.

It was not until the spring of 1994 that the Russian leadership developed a keen interest in the Chechen problem. Before the spring of 1994, only two persons in the Russian political establishment called for the Dudaev regime to be overthrown: the former Communist leader in the Chechen-Ingush republic, Doku Zavgaev, and the Minister for Nationalities and Vice Premier Sergei Shakhrai. After having been removed from power by Dudaev in the fall of 1991, Zavgaev left the republic, publicly announcing that he would return. Shakhrai became acquainted with Dudaev in the fall of 1992: at that time Dudaev’s commandos supported the Ingushi, who are ethnically akin to the Chechens, in the Ossetian-Ingush conflict. Shakhrai was assigned to serve as administrative head in the Ossetian-Ingush conflict zone and, on one occasion, he barely escaped arrest when he arrived in Grozny to conduct negotiations with Dudaev.

By the spring of 1994 Shakhrai and Zavgaev managed (at last) to convince both the president of Russia and the heads of the "force" ministries" that the Federation should actively intervene in the events in Chechnya. By that time Zavgaev and Shakhrai had acquired additional arguments to support their position. Russia had gotten involved in the competitive struggle for the right to participate in the Azerbaijani oil project. The so-called "project of the century" provided for an international consortium (which included American oil corporations and Russia’s LukOil) to begin development of what is believed to be one of the largest oil fields in the world on the Caspian Sea shelf. The first oil is expected to be extracted by the end of the century and Russia’s interest is that this "early oil" be transported via the North Caucasus in order to improve the chances that subsequent oil will also be transported through Russian territory, giving Russia leverage over all of Transcaucasia for the next century.

In fact, a pipeline already exists in the North Caucasus, but its route goes through Chechnya. The existence of this pipeline gives Russia an advantage compared to "alternative" Turkish and Iranian routes, but only if it can be used. It is Turkey and Iran which are Russia’s major rivals in the struggle for influence in Transcaucasia following the collapse of the USSR.

It was precisely these, Russia’s geopolitical and economic interests, that helped convince the Russian leaders to act against Dudaev making use of the Russian secret services. At the same time, a number of centers of anti-Dudaev resistance emerged in Chechnya: the Upper Terek district (Doku Zavgaev’s homeland) and the Urus-Martan district.

It is difficult to say today which side the majority of the population of Chechnya were on. Only a small minority of the Chechens were involved in the intra-Chechen clashes which began in the summer of 1994. Nevertheless, the federal authorities have maintained consistently that the purpose of using force in Chechnya was to free the "Chechen people of the illegitimate and dictatorial rule exercised by Dudaev and his bandit formations." The federal authorities maintained and continue to maintain that this decision was supported by the majority of the Chechen people, although the majority of Dudaev’s opponents were opposed not to Chechen independence but to the policies of Dudaev’s government which led to the collapse of the republic’s economy. As a result, in December 1994, the majority of these people forgot their aversion to Dudaev and joined the Chechen resistance to the Russian intervention.

By the fall of 1994 yet another center of anti-Dudaev opposition was added to those already existing in the Upper Terek and Urus-Martan districts: Ruslan Khasbulatov arrived in the Chechen settlement of Tolstoi Yurt which is located within 20 kilometers of Grozny. Mr. Khasbulatov set up the so-called "peacekeeping group." The group declared itself as an advocate of a "general reconciliation." Nevertheless, Mr. Khasbulatov had been actively involved in a plot designed to overthrow Dudaev. Furthermore, a battalion, which included armored vehicles, set up by Khasbulatov’s group (allegedly for "guarding the peacekeeping group") had more than once supported the opposition in its clashes with Dudaev ‘s troops.

Because of Khasbulatov’s role as the leader of the opposition to Yeltsin in October, 1993, the Kremlin which was going to recognize the Chechen opposition as "the only legitimate power in the republic" was not prepared to support his "peacekeeping group." Therefore, Khasbulatov’s name was not even mentioned at the secret meetings in the Kremlin where the question of rendering assistance to the opposition was considered.

Umar Avturkhanov, head of the so-called Chechen Provisional Council and head of the Upper Terek District of Chechnya, proved to be the best candidate for Moscow to support in Chechnya. The Provisional Council was composed mainly of former Communist functionaries and associates of Zavgaev’s who had lost everything when Dudaev came to power.

Simultaneously, new persons seeking to become the Chechen head of state appeared in the Kremlin, specifically the former USSR oil and petrochemistry industry minister, academician Salambek Khadzhiyev. However, on August 25, 1994, the Russian government resolved to put its bets on Umar Avturkhanov and his Provisional Council.

In accordance with a secret resolution of the Russian government the Chechen Provisional Council was recognized as a the "only legitimate power structure in Chechnya." Simultaneously, Umar Avturkhanov was promised all possible support in both the military and economic spheres. The Russian government began to pay wages and pensions to the people of the Upper Terek and Urus-Martan districts of Chechnya; these allocations were "frozen " by the Dudaev government. Moscow also began to supply arms and ammunition to Avturkhanov. The supplies were very substantial: they included heavy armored vehicles and artillery installations. Moreover, a number of aircraft of the North Caucasus military district were put at the disposal of the Chechen Provisional Council.

Despite the fact that all these preparations were made in an atmosphere of strict secrecy, the information about Moscow’s plans to overthrow Dudaev’s regime quickly leaked out. Assigned to coordinate all activities of the Chechen opposition were: Nikolai Yegorov (at that time he had just replaced Sergei Shakhrai as Russian minister for nationalities), his senior deputy Aleksandr Kotenkov and Federal Counterintelligence Service colonel Khromchenko. The latter two were responsible not only for the arms supplies from Russia to Chechnya, but also for the recruitment of Russian servicemen to take part in the military operations in Chechnya under FCS patronage.

Kotenkov and Khromchenko made an attempt to unite all the anti-Dudaev forces and to show to Ruslan Khasbulatov that his presence in Chechnya was not desired. The author of this article obtained a secret coded cable, sent by General Kotenkov, to Khasbulatov. In the cable the deputy minister for nationalities reminded the "peacekeeping group" leader that by being present in Chechnya he "only endangers the Russian efforts designed to help the Chechen opposition." Khasbulatov, for his part, sent an answering coded cable to Kotenkov informing him that he would not comply with the federal authorities. In explaining his reasons Khasbulatov remarked that he was popular with the Chechen people and that these people needed him.

On October 15, 1994, Khasbulatov, with the support of Chechen opposition force commander Bislan Gantemirov, undertook his own attempt to storm the city of Grozny. Gantemirov’s units, supported by those of Khasbulatov’s "peacekeeping group" entered Grozny. They met almost no resistance and even managed to occupy a number of administrative buildings. However, neither Umar Avturkhanov, nor the North Caucasus Military District aviation, provided even the slightest support to them and on the same day Bislan Gantemirov ordered his units to leave the city.

As far as the plans of the Chechen opposition to take Grozny were concerned (these plans were not a secret to anyone) Dudaev supporters were sure of their ability to effectively resist the impending attacks by Avturkhanov and Gantemirov and did not even make any large additional arms purchases. Unlike the Dudaev formations, the Provisional Council of Chechnya was actively stockpiling arms and preparing for storming the Chechen capital and these efforts were supported by Russia. During the preparations it turned out that the opposition lacked tanks and tanks crews: As of mid November both tanks and crews for them had been provided by Russia (crews were recruited with the active participation of the Federal Counterintelligence Service). Tank drivers from Russia’s elite formations were recruited for the task under the direct supervision of Colonel Khromchenko and General Kotenkov; the work was being done in strict secrecy. Tank commanders were recruited for money (citing information received from those Russian tank commanders who were taken prisoner, Dudaev’s men reported that they were offered 6 million rubles, the equivalent of $1,500). Furthermore, they were provided with fake documents. Upon recruitment, Russian military leaders promised these tank commanders that victory would be quick and the Chechens would not offer substantial resistance.

The Kremlin leaders believed that the Chechen opposition units reinforced by Russian tank crews would take Grozny. they believed that the Chechen president was unpopular and would fall if the slightest force was applied. Shortly before the storm of Grozny, Main Intelligence Department (GRU) agents reported that Dudaev’s army was completely incapable of offering serious resistance. Being sure of themselves, members of the Chechen Provisional Council openly declared that in a day or two they would take seats in Grozny: They made announcements to that effect to all mass media. In addition, they made no secret of the plan elaborated by General Kotenkov to storm Grozny.

The plan, in its initial stage, involved helicopter raids against the positions of the Dudaev army throughout all of Chechnya, specifically their strongholds around the city of Grozny. Chechen opposition representatives had long claimed that these helicopters were "bought by Mr. Avturkhanov from Russia, were the property of the Chechen Provisional Council and were piloted by Chechen pilots." Despite the fact that very few had any doubts about the origin of the flying machines which delivered strikes in Chechnya, (the Chechen opposition did not have a single airfield at their disposal), it was not until December 1994 that the myth of Russian aviation not being involved in the shelling of Chechnya was exploded. Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev exploded this myth himself when he admitted that it was Russian SU-25 aircraft that had bombed the Chechen capital.

The second part of Russia’s plan involved the "delivery" of 50 tanks from the military base in Mozdok to the Chechen settlements of Tolstoi-Yurt and Urus-Martan and subsequently — to Grozny. On November 22, 1994, a convoy of Russian armored vehicles piloted by Russian crews entered the territory of Chechnya. The operation was commanded personally by then-deputy minister for nationalities General Kotenkov. The first clash between the convoy and Dudaev army units took place on the territory of the Upper Terek district ten kilometers from the Russian-Chechen border. Dudaev militants, who were few in number, were overcome, nevertheless they managed to destroy two Russian tanks. On the following day, en route towards Urus-Martan the convoy was once again attacked by Dudaev militants near the settlement of Yermolovka. This clash cost the "Chechen opposition" one more tank. At dawn on November 26, 1994, following repairs and the recruitment of additional drivers and Chechen guides, the Russian tank convoy, together with the Chechen opposition’s formations, stormed the Chechen capital.

Officials in Moscow were so sure that the storm would be a success that they took no care in providing for the necessary secrecy (Dudaev’s headquarters possessed full information about the storm, including the radio frequencies to be used by the units involved in the storm, and the precise number of armored vehicles to be involved in it). Moreover, the Chechen opposition did not have well-trained infantry units; therefore the 47 Russian tanks were unable to fight effectively in the streets of Grozny.

The Russian military believed that several thousand opposition combatants would be sufficient to set the stage for the introduction of Russian Interior Ministry units. This was a big mistake: Discipline in the Chechen opposition units was extremely poor. Ultimately, not more than 1,000 of Umar Avturkhanov’s men were actually present in Grozny.

On November 26, following a 10-hour long battle, all that remained of the Russian tank unit and the supporting formations of the Chechen opposition had left the city of Grozny. More than 50 percent of the tanks were destroyed or seized by the Dudaev men who defended the city.

The failure of the storm of Grozny placed the Russian authorities in a ticklish position. To abandon plans of overthrowing the Dudaev regime would have meant that President Yeltsin and his "force" ministers were admitting their helplessness. The only solution appeared to be to demonstrate Russia’s might by introducing the regular army in Chechnya. Immediately after the abortive storm of Grozny, Yeltsin limited himself to delivering an ultimatum demanding that "all the illegal armed formations [he meant the Dudaev army] should lay their arms down in the next 48 hours." Later, the ultimatum’s term was extended until December 15th, however, the introduction of Russia’s army units in Chechnya had already been scheduled for December 11th.

On November 28 the Russian Security Council convened for an emergency meeting in the Kremlin. The meeting adopted a secret decision to prepare (within 14 days) a plan for a military operation in Chechnya. On the same day, Russian military aviation eliminated all the aircraft available to the Dudaev government, both military and civilian, and destroyed the runways of the two airfields located near Grozny.

Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev, then-minister for nationalities Nikolai Yegorov and then-Federal Counterintelligence Service head Sergei Stepashin — who were the main authors of the invasion plan — had decided that Russian units should capture the western, northern and eastern areas of Chechnya by daybreak, December 11th, so that Russian soldiers (including units of the North Caucasus Military, several airborne divisions, mechanized infantry divisions from other military districts and Interior Ministry troops together with their artillery and armored machinery) could mass on the outskirts of Grozny. The operation was planned on the assumption that the Chechen army and the population would not offer any serious resistance to the Russian army. The officers in Dudaev’s headquarters were also sure that they would not be able to resist the Russian Army for long but, nonetheless, they prepared to fight.

After the abortive storm of Grozny by the Chechen opposition Dudaev supporters were aware of the fact that a war against Russia was in the offing. Therefore, they mobilized their forces to stockpile arms. According to Shamil Basaev, arms were purchased mainly from the North Caucasus Military District. Several hours before the Chechen airfields were destroyed by Russian aviation, two transport aircraft of unidentified origin loaded with arms landed at one of the Chechen airfields.

During the two weeks that the federal intervention in Chechnya was being prepared, the mood in Chechnya underwent a dramatic change. The first bombardments of Dudaev’s communications and strongholds led to casualties among Chechen civilians — public discontent with the opposition began to increase. In a situation of war with Russia, many of those who had opposed Dudaev became his supporters. Furthermore, many of those who had been neutral took up arms and massed near the presidential palace in Grozny. Simultaneously, people left their homes and headed for republic’s mountainous districts. In those days the streets of Grozny were jammed with cars. Nevertheless, the number of persons ready to leave Grozny turned out to be much smaller than the Russian authorities had expected. The majority of Grozny residents did not believe that a "real war" would break out; hence, they preferred to remain in their homes. It is for that reason that the number of victims among civilians was so large beginning with the first day of the hostilities.

At daybreak on December 11, 1994, two tank units numbering several hundred armored vehicles crossed the border of Chechnya. A war had begun. Defense minister Grachev boasted that Chechnya could be subdued by one airborne regiment in two hours. But this war has snuffed out tens of thousands of lives, resulted in cities and villages being destroyed and led to huge financial losses – and it is far from over.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky

Maria Eismont is a correspondent for Segodnya