Note: the following was written as a summary of my recent reading on post-Soviet conflict in the Caucasus. As my research is still in progress and will remain so for as long as I find it interesting, I can not claim to be an expert on Caucasian affairs, which can be complicated and contentious. Should you wish to offer correctives or insults, you can contact me via email.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Russian Federation saw serious hardship. Murder rates soared, as did corruption and organised crime, and the economy was undergoing shock therapy. Naturally, this came with an existential crisis. A nation whose people were habituated to a controlled economy with relative job security, price controls, and a sense of order, was now confronted with unfamiliar concepts of profit and inflation. Furthermore, the country that had been the seat of two former empires was suddenly less relevant on the world stage, losing old territories and at risk of shedding more.
Advance thirty years, and Russia is in a very different place. To be sure, its reliance on natural resources puts its already weak economy in a precarious situation. But, due to election meddling, overseas poisonings, and successful military interventions in Ukraine and the Caucasus, Putin’s regime is considered significant enough to be a major threat to western powers. Reasons for Russia’s renewed status are plenty and can be blamed on western mistakes as much as on the Kremlin’s actions. One particular moment in Russia’s post-Soviet history is a useful vassal for understanding this rise: the wars in Chechnya.
From the start of the Chechen conflict in 1991 to its official end in 2009, Russia’s status in the world had significantly changed. Its treatment of Chechnya over these decades was not only a symptom of this but to a certain degree its cause. In the aftermath of Russia’s eventual subjugation of an old colony, it now exercises great power in the Caucasus, interacting with other powers in the area. Its military, more suited to modern combat, is involved in regions ranging from Russia’s southern border to Syria.
Chechnya before 1991
To understand the mechanics of the Chechen conflict, we must delve all-too-briefly into its history.
As the Russian Empire sought to extend its power into the Caucasus in the 18th century, it found a tough opponent in the form of the Chechens. They were mountain people who lived in clans, were hardy fighters, and were distinct from Russians in many ways, not least in their Muslim faith.
During the era of imperial conquest in the Caucasus, which was slow and violent, Chechnya developed from being but a group of scattered Vainakh clans to a people with a unified distrust towards their Russian colonisers. Indeed, it was in this era that Chechnya gained its enduring icons. One – Sheikh Mansur – fought off Russian forces in their initial invasion and today remains a hero for pro-independence Chechens. In the next century, Imam Shamil became another hero; a Dagestani, his defence of the North Caucasus and opposition to the cruelty of Russian forces, such as the brutal viceroy Alexey Yermolov, endeared him to the Chechen peoples. As we see throughout history, attempts to subdue Chechnya only strengthen their solidarity as a people.
Such was the case in the Soviet era. As with elsewhere – including the eventual conflict zones of Eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – the early Soviet Union was irresponsible in drawing up its republics’ borders. Chechnya was left generally intact as the Chechen-Ingush ASSR – an autonomous region within Russia. Like in the Tsarist days, it was poorly treated by Moscow: in 1944, out of fears of revolt and after years of relative unruliness from the Caucasian people, ‘Operation Lentil’ was enacted. A mass exodus moved the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan under direct orders from Stalin. Many perished, resembling genocide, and those who survived were only allowed to return in 1957 under Khrushchev.
At the end of the Soviet Union, the Chechen-Ingush ASSR attempted to assert its independence from Russia. Dzhokhar Dudayev, a charismatic former general in the Soviet air force, took the helm of the independence movement. He was elected president in 1991 in an election not recognised by then-President of Russia Boris Yelstin, who subsequently flew MVD troops into Chechnya in a failed attempt to arrest Dudayev. Once again, this only emboldened the Chechens.
The Chechens were further emboldened by an incident in 1994 when the provisional ‘Chechen Council’ – a group of anti-Dudayev Chechens armed and supported by Russia – launched attacks into Chechnya under orders from Russian security services. Their attempts to gain control resulted in violent failure, and among troops captured by Dudayev’s forces were Russian soldiers, who were subsequently paraded in public to show Yeltsin’s embarrassing attempts to quash Chechen independence. This incident, reminiscent of the American ‘Bay of Pigs’ disaster, was a turning point. Russia had a choice: back down and risk appearing weak, thus sending a message to any hopeful secessionists elsewhere in Russia, or step up and put an end to any attempts at asserting independence. Yeltsin chose the latter.
The first war: Russian power tested
Pavel Grachev, then Minister of Defence in Yeltsin’s government, famously stated that he could take back Chechnya within two hours using only one regiment. He was one of the optimistic – or rather arrogant – figures in the Russian government at the outset of the First Chechen War in late 1994. As he and others would soon discover, this was not to be an easy war.
As already noted, the leader of the Chechen independence movement, Dudayev, was a former Soviet general; many of the Chechen forces themselves had fought under the Soviet flag. So bar any young conscripts and teenage soldiers, this was a war fought between old comrades. Morale on the Russian side was unsurprisingly very low, worsened by brutal guerrilla combat and a cruel hazing culture within the army. The existential crisis of the post-Soviet era thus intensified.
Vladimir Makanin’s 1994 novella ‘Kavkaskiy Plenniy’, ‘Caucasian Prisoner’ (a titular reference to earlier novellas of Pushkin and Tolstoy), details the brutality and strangeness of the conflict. In it, a Russian soldier becomes sexually attracted to a young captive Chechen soldier. They share a bond and, multiple times in the novel, Makanin questions – through the oppressive natural landscape that seems to entrap the Russian troops and the close ties between the two sides – who truly controls the battlefield. It is for the most part a depiction of Russian defeat. Ultimately, the Chechen boy is strangled to death by the Russian soldier in an oddly erotic act of consensual suffocation, and thus ‘Russian might’ beats Caucasian will.
Makanin’s novella was released just before the outbreak of war. He was not to know that, in real life, Russian military might would not win out against the Chechen struggle for independence. The Russian forces were not fit for guerrilla combat in this. Its army of a million was pointless if its poorly-trained conscripts could be routed by militia ambushes by savvy, uncompromising enemies. The battle for Grozny was then slow and costly in terms of civilian casualties; it would foreshadow familiar scenes from the Battle for Mosul that played out in the news during the recent conflict with the Islamic State.
Morale, as mentioned, became a huge problem. The surprising difficulty of the war and the nature of the enemy left many Russians to see it as pointless and potentially endless. At this time groups of activists expressing their opposition to the war began to gather steam. The ‘Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia’, for example, was active at this time, criticising the treatment of conscripted troops in training and on the field.
The First Chechen War ended ultimately with a Russian compromise. The two sides signed a peace settlement that delayed the need for conclusive answers on Chechnya’s status in Russia for five years: the Chechens had de facto independence. Rather than overseeing the defeat of the 20th century’s answer to Imam Shamil and Sheikh Mansur, the likes of Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, Russian forces were instead made to leave Chechnya and see these two leaders vie for power and influence alongside other corrupt warlords. The peace settlement was signed, but quite clearly the Chechen conflict was far from over.
How Putin changed Russian fortunes in Chechnya
Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister in August 1999. He was the sixth since 1996. President Yeltsin at the time was visibly of ill health, slurring his words and losing credibility. Putin, a Yeltsin loyalist, was not expected to last long.
Not long after, the soon-to-be President’s fortunes changed. The Second Chechen war broke out just weeks after Putin’s appointment, although fighting had been sporadic beforehand following a jihadist invasion of Dagestan. A massive increase in Russian activity was prompted by a series of deadly apartment block bombings in September, in which over 300 people were killed. Although certain dissidents and historians have since claimed that the Russian security services were responsible for the attacks, the official suspects are Chechen nationalist terrorists. Whatever the truth, the bombings effectively drummed up support for the war and bolstered Putin’s strong image. Anger and fear in the wake of the attacks fed into increased enthusiasm for war against Chechnya.
Before the apartment bombings though, lots had already been done to create an effective enemy in the Chechens. Another series of terrorist incidents and the rise of specifically jihadist warlords turned a territorial conflict into a civilisational one. Russia was now fighting people whose concept of governance and society was directly opposed to their own, and who would enact brutal attacks to achieve their goals.
Perhaps the most notorious was Ibn al-Khattab the principal jihadist-held responsible for the apartment bombings. He became a terrorist lynchpin the way Osama Bin Laden would become for America following the 9/11 attacks in New York. Indeed, after 9/11, Putin was one of the first leaders to call President Bush to offer sympathy and support, echoing the devastation left by the attacks on Russia two years prior.
Khattab was no lone wolf. The brutality of the first war and the period of insurgency following had provoked a rise in extremism and fuelled existing separatist ideology in Chechnya. To some Chechens, the terrorist acts of Khattab and other warlords were small victories against oppressive Russian forces. The fallout from the conflict in terms of extremism is still being felt today, in Chechnya and around the world; the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty last year, for example, was carried out by a Chechen refugee, and others were arrested in subsequent investigations.
Returning to the war, the second was officially much shorter than the first, although conflict continued well into the noughts as continued Chechen insurgency led to a period of violent terrorism. Beslan and the Moscow theatre hostage situation were the two most major incidents to spur on Russian action in the region. Federal forces officially left Chechnya in 2009 when the Chechen insurgency was declared defeated and all its leaders killed in action, but remained in the region to fight against further insurgency in the form of the Caucasus Emirate and, later, the Islamic State.
Throughout this period of insurgency, Russia had managed to install a relatively loyal Chechen leader in the form of Ramzan Kadyrov. They had done this through cutting deals with Chechen militia who were pro-independence in the first war and using them to fight against the forces of Basayev, Maskhadov, and other major warlords. Kadyrov’s private army was efficient and brutal. Even throughout presidency, Chechen warlords at risk of undermining Kadyrov’s leadership were killed both abroad and at home; the fate of the Yamadayev brothers is but one example. Much of the fighting in Chechnya was effectively conferred to Kadyrov. Thus, both through brute force and politicking, Russia was able to contain the insurgency that brutalised the region at the start of the century.
From the beginning of the Second Chechen War in 1999 to the end of its subsequent insurgency a decade later, the change in Russia’s status was drastic. From an ailing former power trying in vain to control a small province, it had once again taken up its place as a key player in Eurasia. Its consolidation of Chechnya meant it could use its territorial advantage and newly allied militia in the 2008 war against Georgia, which resulted in a decisive Russian victory against a West-allied neighbour. As a result of such victories in the North Caucasus and alongside interferences in the Middle East, Russia is once again a major power in the region between the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. Techniques used to subjugate Chechnya would be used elsewhere much later on, notably in Eastern Ukraine where Russia has been arming and aiding separatist militia to conduct much of the fighting. This would allow Russia to claim, usually unconvincingly, that it had no hand in the conflict there.
Thus, the Chechen wars foresee what was to come for Russia’s foreign policy in the next decade. Political interferences mixed with uncompromising military might have made it a force in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The result of this can be seen as recently as last year’s major war in the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh: Russia as a dominant power in the Caucasus
The 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reflects quite clearly the power dynamics in the Caucasus and its implications for the world as a whole. Sociologist Georgi Derluguian convincingly referred to the conflict as “a small world war” in fitting with its global significance, and his understanding of its relevance has been carried forward here.
Like Chechnya and many of their fellow post-Soviet states or republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan are victims of the rudimentary border-setting of the Soviet Union. And also like their fellow post-Soviet states, strong nationalism crystallised in both countries in absence of Soviet rule post-1991. Armenia is well aware of its vulnerability as a small nation; a major moment in its modern history was genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Many Armenians look to Azerbaijan as a potential threat to their very existence. A Turkic country, Azerbaijan is closely allied to Turkey, whose President Erdogan seems to glorify the Ottoman Empire and deny the Armenian genocide.
Here follows an incredibly simplified background to the war. Nagorno-Karabakh is a region contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Despite its people being largely Armenian, Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh existed as an autonomous region within Azerbaijan. Towards the end of the USSR, it declared independence from Azerbaijan and pledged allegiance to Armenia, a move rejected by Moscow. A few years later, at around the same time as the First Chechen War, fighting broke out in the region and Armenia captured Azeri regions around Karabakh as a buffer zone. In 2020, Azerbaijan retook parts of Karabakh.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, then, are ostensibly localised: a small region housing not even two hundred thousand people, locked in contention between two small nations that many would struggle to place on a map. Yet, for anyone paying attention, the 2020 war was something much bigger, and at the centre of it were Turkey and Russia.
Turkey under Erdogan has been known to evoke the concept of Pan-Turkism, which sees the unity of the Turkish people from its Western borders to Xinjiang. Azerbaijan is a central part of this as a fellow Turkic nation; it has solid relations with Turkey, the two countries connected on either side of Armenia by arms shipping routes, pipelines, and railways. Indeed, looking specifically at the war last year, if we are to credit one nation with Azerbaijan’s victory it is certainly Turkey. Its weapons, vehicles, and even personnel all assisted in the fighting. Most crucially, Turkish drone strikes disabled Armenian air defence and accelerated Azerbaijani advances.
On the other side of this is Russia, a close ally of Armenia. But Russia did not assist its ally as Turkey did Azerbaijan. Russia and Turkey, to be sure, are often at odds when it comes to foreign policy. Each country’s interference in Syria led, in 2015, to a Russian jet being shot down by Turkish forces, and crisis ensued. With regards strictly to Armenia, both countries are at odds in their acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide. But despite these barriers to cohesion on foreign policy, the two nations try to remain on amicable terms. In 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a Turkish police officer, a moment which could have caused further rifts. Instead, both nations made efforts to ensure the murder would not worsen their relations. The two countries are close trading partners and Turkey is one of the top destinations for Russian travellers. But despite not supporting Armenian military operations as closely as the Turkish forces did with Azerbaijan, Russia’s presence was hovering over the conflict and would eventually be influential in its conclusion.
Notably, Western powers were not relevant in the conflict. Despite pro-Armenia rhetoric from France’s Emmanuel Macron and even less consequential words from leaders of the European Union, no solid action was taken. Indeed, support often shifted to Azerbaijan. Israel has in the past provided Azerbaijan with drones in exchange for access to airfields near the Iranian border; the United Kingdom has more interests in Baku than in Yerevan due to its oil and mining companies. The UK, too, has historically been sympathetic to Turkey.
Thus we saw a situation where former empires and rising powers are engaging in or involved with a significant war, meanwhile little attention is paid by the West on the whole. On one hand, Russia, a dominant power in the Caucasus, policing its former subject states from the North but hesitant to worsen relations with Turkey. And then Turkey, a NATO member but ostensibly making its own way in the region, playing proxy war through Azerbaijani forces. Meanwhile, Iran is cautiously watching the border from the south, and China to the east monitors any potential impact on its silk road initiative and harbours concern about Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman war cries.
The peace settlement ending the war was mediated by Vladimir Putin. Pundits have gone back and forward arguing who ‘won’ from its terms. The settlement provided few territorial concessions to a defeated Armenia but created a peacekeeping corridor where thousands of Russian troops would be stationed to maintain calm. Notably, on paper, there are no Turkish troops to be involved in the peacekeeping operation, only Russians.
Turkey did not leave empty-handed. The settlement also mentions the rebuilding of a Soviet-era railroad between Nakhchivan – Azerbaijan’s western region bordering Turkey, separated from the mainland by a slither of Armenian territory – and Baku makes Turkey and Azerbaijan less reliant on the sketchy transport corridor through Georgia. It also improves Turkey’s access to China’s silk road trade initiative due to restored links with Central Asia.
It might be fair to conclude, then, that the result of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war is an age-old story of small peoples being trampled on in a larger fight between greater nations. In this case, it is a story of two former empires attempting to demonstrate their power in the world, starting with the Caucasus.
For Russia, this would have not been possible if not for prior success in Chechnya and Georgia. Any concession to the Chechen separatists could have seen further losses in Dagestan, losing a great chunk of Russia’s Caucasus border. The subjugation of Chechnya aided Russia’s campaign in South Ossetia in 2008, which further solidified its position in the region. This is not to mention the importance of the Chechen war in the creation of Vladimir Putin, his rise to power confirmed by his foreign policy and solidified by rigid domestic governance.