Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 2

The Origin of the Chechen Conflict

by Dr. Evgueni Novikov

St. Sylvester’s Eve [December 31], 1995 was the one-year anniversary of the Russian army’s abortive attempt to take Grozny by storm. This date marks the beginning of the war officially declared by Moscow against the government of Chechen president Dudayev. For the majority of observers, these actions of the Russian army in Chechnya were a complete surprise. After all, Moscow, over the course of the three years since General Dudayev had come to power, had winked at all of the lawlessness of that regime, at the transformation of that Russian republic into a refuge for criminal organizations and bands from the whole territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States, at that government’s oppression and mockery of the Russian-speaking population living in Chechnya. So why was it that in December 1994, Moscow suddenly sent its tanks moving towards Grozny?

If such an action had taken place while the USSR still existed, specialists would have started looking for the answer to this question in Moscow’s Old Square, in the corridors of the Central Committee of the CPSU. But in contemporary Russia, there is no single source of power — no Central Committee or its Politburo. And even the Russian president, who has very broad authority and independence, is not the single decision-making center on important questions of foreign, and especially, of domestic policy. The initiative for making such decisions, like the decisions themselves, can come from the Duma, the Federation Council, the cabinet of ministers, the "power ministries," and, finally, from the Russian army.

For this question it is especially significant that, unlike the Soviet Army, the Russian army has no such institutions as the CPSU’s political departments or the Special Departments of the KGB, which controlled the political behavior of the Soviet army’s leadership. When it removed the political control over the army, the Russian state simultaneously sharply reduced its army’s material support. Of course, Russian military men can influence various leaders of post-Soviet Russia on this. But the reduction of subsidies to the Russian army was brought about, first of all, by objective causes: by the economic crisis and the sharp decline on the revenue side of the state budget. As was noted by Stanislav Lunev, a former colonel in Soviet military intelligence (GRU), "high inflation and lower production levels in the military-industrial complex resulted in large military budget deficits: The 1992-1993 military budget covered only one-third of actual defense spending. (1)

Thus, after the disintegration of the USSR, the Russian army has emerged from the political control of party and state structures and it has become possible for it to act independently as a political subject. But the reduction in budget appropriations for the needs of the army and its generals has forced Russian military leaders to look for their own sources of funding. As a result, the Russian military-industrial complex has entered into independent commercial activity on a grand scale. And army professionals, deprived of the production base of the military-industrial complex and possibilities for legal commercial activity, have turned to the illegal arms — and drug — trade.

Quite a bit has already been written about the participation of Russian military men in the underground trading of arms and other military property. This activity began during the war in Afghanistan and reached vast proportions in the last years of the Russian army’s presence in Germany. The same GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev noted that "It is not unusual for a criminal to purchase weapons from a warrant officer or a sergeant for a price as low as a case of vodka. In fact, it is hard to find a military district or navy fleet where there have not been large-scale thefts of arms over the last few years." But it was in Afghanistan that the attraction of Russian military men into the drug smuggling business began. Moreover, the army leadership skillfully exploited the fact that Soviet military transport planes were not inspected either by Afghan or by Soviet customs officials. And lead coffins, intended for bringing back the bodies of servicemen who died in the Afghan war, were used as containers for transporting narcotics.

Drug smuggling during the time of the Afghan war, was under the control of the "limited military contingent’s" command, which, in turn, could not but share the income with the highest Soviet party and state officials. The latter, naturally, felt themselves in the debt of the military narco-businessmen. Therefore, it is no accident that "Afghan" generals moved quickly up the military ladder. One of these "Afghan" heroes–Pavel Grachev–even became Russia’s defense minister.

With the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan, the drug-trading experience acquired there was perfected by the Russian soldiers serving in the republics of Central Asia, and first of all, in Tajikistan. In particular, as was admitted by Tajik officers who spoke to the author, Russian soldiers of the 201st Motorized Infantry Division (which, after returning from Afghanistan, was stationed in Tajikistan) were drawn into drug smuggling from Afghanistan and the purchase of narcotics raw materials in Gorny Badakhshan.

According to the Tajik officers’ stories, Russian soldiers from the 201st Motorized Infantry Division have organized a lightning-quick passage across the Afghan-Tajik border for their agents, buyers of Afghan narcotics. A buyer-agent, with a load of everyday objects (soldier’s blankets, kerosene lamps, primus stoves, clothes or shoes) is sent across the border. An Afghan drug dealer is already waiting for him there. A quick, natural exchange takes place, and the buyer-agent returns to the territory of Tajikistan. Within 10 minutes of the agent’s arrival on the other side, the soldiers settle up with the Russian border guards for one million Russian rubles.

And in Gorny Badakhshan, Russian soldiers openly meet with local drug dealers. And insofar as these dealers share their income with the leadership of that mutinous republic, the latter provide all possible help and cooperation to Russian soldiers in this business. It is paradoxical, but true, that soldiers of the 201st Motorized Infantry Division maintain good relations with the Tajik ruling regime at the same time, for the pro-Communist leaders of Tajikistan also wink at the Russian soldiers’ drug business. In the opinion of the Tajik officers, the participation of Russian military men in the drug trade explains the unwillingness of the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense to pull its troops out of Tajikistan and its interest in preserving the present situation of "no war, no peace." After all, it is easier to fish for drugs in the troubled waters of a civil war.

Of course, drugs have always been produced in small quantities in the republics of Central Asia. But this was done, as a rule, for local consumption, and only an insignificant amount of these drugs were smuggled outside the boundaries of Central Asia. Before the arrival of Russian soldiers from Afghanistan in Central Asia, both the production and the smuggling of narcotics outside the region were on a primitive level. The ringleaders of the local drug mafia simply did not have the capability to buy up, and most importantly, to ship drugs to Russia without any control, as Russian soldiers have. The latter can use aviation, auto transport, and railroad lines, because Russian military transport on the territory of Central Asia is not subject to customs inspection.

According to the Institute of Strategic Research of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Russian military men have worked out the following route for shipping the drugs brought in from Afghanistan and Tajikistan: Tajikistan-Turkmenistan (Krasnovodsk on the shores of the Caspian Sea)-Baku-Grozny(!)-Rostov, and from there, on to Western Europe through the ports of Estonia. Train crews brought the drugs from Baku through the territory of Chechnya to Rostov. There was an agreement between the army narco-mafia and Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev guaranteeing the unobstructed passage of drugs from Central Asia through the territory of Chechnya. Dudayev’s fighters regularly raided the passengers of the trains on the Baku-Grozny-Rostov line. According to Viktor Ilyukhin, a deputy of the Russian Duma, 559 trains were raided in 1993 alone, with 4,000 cars completely or partially looted, and 11.5 billion rubles worth of baggage stolen. Part of what was stolen went into the republic’s "defense fund." Over the first six months of 1994, 450 trains were raided. But in spite of this, the train crews and the freight they accompanied remained untouched.

Thus it continued until November 1994, when President Dudayev demanded a higher share of the Central Asian drug profit from the Russian military men. The latter refused to satisfy Dudayev’s demands, and the Chechen president gave an order to confiscate the drug shipments, and kill the train conductors accompanying them. In the middle of November, there were several reports on Channel One, the Russian government television station, of Dudayev’s fighters’ bestial reprisals against the conductors of the trains passing from Baku to Rostov through the territory of Chechnya. Pavel Grachev, in the beginning of December 1994, made a last attempt to come to terms with General Dudayev. The Russian minister of defense and the Chechen president met in the village of Slertsovskaya (in the Sunzhensky rayon of the republic of Ingushetia). The meeting took place behind closed doors, but the Chechen leader did not agree to Pavel Grachev’s proposals. And in response to this, the Russian high command decided to strike a mortal blow against Dudayev. Russian troops began to move towards Grozny, although Pavel Grachev, right up to the beginning of the New Year’s assault, denied any intention on the part of the army to take Grozny by storm.

The desire for vengeance is a poor advisor in affairs of military strategy. Without taking their own forces, and most important, those of their adversary, into account, the Russian defense minister promised President Yeltsin that the military could deliver a swift and painless victory in Chechnya. The swift victory did not take place, nor could it have taken place. The Russian military leadership wanted to take revenge as fast as possible, and only a week was spent in preparing the operation. Representatives of the Russian high command, including deputy defense ministers and leaders of the General Staff, who were not involved in the army drug business, did not want to have anything to do with this adventure and preferred to leave their posts. Even the legendary General Gromov left the Ministry of Defense and went over to work in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But these generals’ protests did not help. Russian defense minister Grachev, whom journalists call "Pasha-Mercedes" for his love of luxury, insisted that the path for narcotics from Tajikistan to Russia remains clear. And for the sake of this, the criminals in military uniforms decided to pledge the lives of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and innocent inhabitants of Chechnya. Thus, the secret of the mysterious decision of the Russian Ministry of Defense to launch a blitzkrieg in Chechnya is explained by the wolfish laws of the drug business, in which the highest ranks of the rapidly-collapsing Russian army are involved.

A year ago, the dirty goals of the Russian military narco-mafia drew the Russian army into a war against the citizens of Russia itself. And Russian public opinion has justly condemned this war as the dirtiest in Russia’s entire history.


1. Prism, December 22, 1995

2. Prism, December 22, 1995

3. Zavtra, No. 49 (54), 1994

4. Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 8, 1994.

Dr. Evgueni Novikov is a fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.

Translated by Mark Eckert