The Republic of Chechnya, located on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains within 100 kilometers of the Caspian Sea, 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 declaration of full independence issued in 1993 by the Chechen government of Dzhokar Dudayev led to civil war in that republic, and several Russian-backed attempts to overthrow Dudayev failed in 1993 and 1994. 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 in 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. 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.
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, and the total killed was estimated as high as 40,000 one year later), 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 (see Movements Toward Sovereignty, ch. 4). Yeltsin fired several top generals, including Deputy Minister of Defense Boris Gromov, who were critical of the war.
In 1995 and early 1996, Chechen forces fought from mountain enclaves, into which they had been driven by Russian forces with superior firepower and air support. The Chechens used various opportunities to attack targets outside their enclaves, including the Budennovsk raid of June 1995. On several occasions, Russian forces continued bombardments of Chechen strongholds after Yeltsin had announced a cease-fire. In May 1996, Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev signed a cease-fire with Yeltsin in Moscow, followed by full armistice protocols negotiated by the OSCE in the Ingush city of Nazran. The protocols set August 30 for withdrawal of "temporary" Russian forces (plans already existed for permanent stationing of two brigades), contingent on parallel disarmament of Chechen forces. At the end of June, Russian forces began a partial withdrawal, but fighting continued in some regions, and negotiations stalled amid mutual recriminations. In July Russian forces began a new assault on villages described as harboring guerrilla forces, and Russia again seemed to lack a unified policy toward Chechnya.
Russian military and political actions immediately before and after the protocols indicated little respect for their terms. The Russian-supported regime in Groznyy signed a draft political status on Chechnya without consulting the rebels, and the Russian Ministry of Defense reaffirmed its plan to keep troops in Chechnya indefinitely. Those circumstances indicated strongly that peace negotiations were a short-term strategy to reduce the Chechnya obstacle to Yeltsin's reelection in the summer of 1996.
Because of the poor performance of regular troops in Chechnya, Russia had been forced to use elite naval infantry and airborne assault units--the former gathered from fifty units of the Baltic Fleet and more than 100 ships or units of the Pacific Fleet. Airborne units from two divisions were used to end the Pervomayskoye hostage crisis in January 1996.
According to Russian and Western experts, the many serious command errors made in the Chechnya campaign were at least partly the result of a fragmented command system in which the lack of direct coordination deprived commanders of the ability to make timely decisions. A major cause of this problem was the lack of field training among all levels of the officer corps (see Training, this ch.).
The Chechnya crisis was the most visible indication of the division in Russia's government over the application of military doctrine, and of a disintegration process that even Boris Yeltsin had recognized in 1994. With numerous declarations of sovereignty having emerged from ethnic republics and regions in 1991 and 1992, the 1993 military doctrine had stipulated that the military could be used against separatist groups within the federation, providing a theoretical justification for the Chechnya action. Many military authorities argued that such a campaign was foolhardy, given military budget cuts that made proper training and equipping of troops impossible. Nevertheless, the "war party" of officials and advisers surrounding Yeltsin failed to foresee the media storm that resulted from a bloody military struggle within the federation. 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.