From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 6 NO. 1
Campaign of Devastation: Assessing Motives for the Russian Government's 1999-2000 Destruction of Chechnya
Russian Devastation of Chechnya as a Strategic Mechanism – Rebel Resolve and Civilian Support
I argue that the main motivation behind the 1999-2000 offensive was its assumed precedent-setting value and reputational benefits. However, I posit the secondary consideration that the Russian government wanted to use a strategy of extreme force in order to crush the rebel movement and undermine civilian support for the rebel movement. While I place this hypothesis secondary to my main normative hypothesis, I nonetheless believe that it represents an important facet in the Russian government’s choice to act in such a brutal manner.
Valentino notes that fighting a counterinsurgency campaign is in itself an incentive for mass killing and states, “…regimes seeking to defeat major guerrilla insurgencies may be drawn to strategies of mass killing” because of the nature of insurgencies.27 Putin was facing a largely guerilla-based campaign, with militant groups striking Russian targets. Because the civilian population was much more readily available than the insurgent force, Putin and the Russian government had an incentive to attempt to defeat the insurgency by killing off all of its support, since it was a logistically easier maneuver.28
Civilians were not able to hide, and most of them were defenseless against Russian bombing and shelling. As Valentino predicts, this strategy did in fact lead to mass killing of Chechen residents; the Chechen people were easy targets for a government with enough air power to carry on such warfare, and the Russian government likely felt that there was no viable military alternative that would preserve their vital interests.29
The Russian government’s strategy was likely bolstered by various examples of how overwhelming force could effectively be used to crush an insurgency, or at least to win battles in a conflict. One example that the Russian government likely drew on was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Valentino postulates that even though the Afghan strategy was not a complete success, the Russians probably decided that there lacked a viable alternative for the Chechen situation.30
Jason Lyall’s study of Russian troops’ shelling and its impact on subsequent insurgent attacks surprisingly concluded that such massive violence actually reduced the number of insurgent attacks, rather than inspiring the rebels to attack more heavily.31 Therefore, the early devastation provided an incentive to continue that level of violence, because it appeared to be serving Russians’ strategic interests.
There are instances of Russian leaders explicitly expressing their desire to use force to crush the insurgent movement. On October 27, 1999, news reports relayed televised comments by Viktor Kazantsev, head of the federal forces in Chechnya, in which he stated, “taking Grozny is not the point, the aim is to free Chechen territory of the terrorist bands. They must realize they have just two options -- to lay down their arms or to be destroyed.”32 Other Russian leaders also spoke out on the strategic purpose of the violence. Before the campaign’s start, Putin himself expressed in earnest that the Russian military would “…deliver strikes against any place where gunmen are based [in Chechnya]… we will destroy the gunmen.”33
Examining the alternative military strategies available, it is easy to see why the Russian government settled on a strategy based on artillery and air power. The first phase of the conflict was considered a loss for the Russians and was marked by especially poor performance in urban combat, especially in Groznyy. This was probably a factor in the Russian military’s choice to use bombing and shelling as a means of attack – it could be carried out from far away, but it was necessarily more indiscriminate than using ground forces to take a city.
As Michael Coffy posits, “the Russian military learned to use brute force in the second Chechen war because it did not have a military that was capable of conducting a modern ‘bloodless’ war.” 34 As was previously noted, the Russian military did not possess precision munitions, only more indiscriminate weapons, which placed limits on how much they could avoid targeting civilians. Since the Russian military had no other viable strategic options, they were left with little choice to how they would rout the insurgents if they wanted to minimize Russian casualties while ensuring a cease to the insurgency.
The stakes were high enough that the Russian military could not take any chances with the campaign – they risked terrorist strikes on their homeland, as well as the threat of the secession of other parts of the Russian Federation if the Chechen separatists were successful. Therefore, the Russian military possessed many strategic incentives to utilize a campaign of destruction. On a theoretical level, the nature of the enemy meant that the use of massive violence against civilians was likely. On a practical level, the Russian military may not have had the ability or resources to conduct the campaign in any other way, given the stakes of losing. It was better for them to raze Groznyy than to risk protecting Chechen civilians at the expense of the safety and territorial integrity of the homeland.
Russian Devastation of Chechnya as a Strategic Mechanism – Deterring Secession
The Russian military wanted, as its ultimate aim, to crush the separatist movement. They could have done this by wiping out the rebels, starving them of support, or convincing them to give up their struggle. One way of achieving the aim of convincing the rebels to surrender their cause could have been to render the territory so devastated that the rebels faced little incentive to secede.
Chechnya’s destruction was so severe that repair of the region was likely inconceivable without financial support from the Russian central government. Chechnya was still reeling from the first phase of the conflict when the second phase commenced; a state budget had not existed since 1992, the collection of taxes had ceased and so Chechnya did not get its expected share of oil revenue, and in 1999 the region’s oil output had dropped to 400 tons per day, compared to 4,200 tons in 1998.35
In 2002, the UN named Groznyy the “most destroyed city on the planet.”36 Indeed, in 2000, the Russian government did pledge to provide support for Chechnya through the UN.37 Later, according to a January 29, 2001 news report by Agence France- Presse, Russia provided $514 million dollars worth of aid to Chechnya in 2001. In 2009, nine years after the Russian offensive, the Russian government was still pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into Chechen reconstruction.38 Had the separatists succeeded, it is unclear how they would have managed to rebuild without such funding, especially given that Chechen employment continued to be extraordinary – in 2009, Chechen unemployment levels remained over fifty percent.39
Russian government officials must have been aware of the region’s financial situation, and thus could have chosen to take advantage of it by creating even more weakness through gratuitous destruction and engendering dependence on Russian aid for rebuilding purposes. The need for funding would have been a powerful incentive to give up hope of independence, as otherwise, the Chechens would have simply seceded to a pile of rubble, hopeless to rebuild. The challenges of nation-building in post-conflict societies are great enough without having to physically rebuild a country from the ground up. It is entirely plausible that if the Chechens had succeeded in their quest for independence, the devastation wrought by the Russian attacks would have forced them back to Moscow shortly after independence because the financial strain of nation-building would be too large a barrier to overcome.
This argument, while logically plausible, currently suffers from a lack of supporting evidence. The evidence presented in support of this hypothesis could be used to support my other hypotheses, or could simply be written off as tallies of the destruction wrought as a side effect of a brutal military campaign carried out for the aforementioned normative and strategic reasons. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to discern whether this desire motivated the Russian military based on the available evidence. Therefore, this hypothesis remains only theoretically plausible until such time as it can be either confirmed or denied. Nonetheless, I offer it as a potential alternative or supplement to my main normative and strategic hypotheses, supported by the circumstantial evidence offered above.
The Russian attack on Chechnya from 1999-2000 was horrific. It left between 8,606 and 17,377 people dead, making it the two deadliest years of the entire conflict. It destroyed infrastructure, families, and an entire region. As former president Mikhail Gorbachev stated, “there were many guilty parties in this war, and history will put everything in its place. But the human lives lost cannot be brought back, and the destruction is difficult to reverse.”
This paper has put forth three potential motivations for Russia’s violence in Chechnya: Putin’s desire to restore the reputation of Russia, prevent other groups in Russia from considering secession, and further his own political career; the Russian government’s desire to find an effective way of combating the insurgent movement given their limited military capacity; and finally the Russian military’s desire to devastate Chechnya so that the rebels had reduced incentives to secede, given that their territory would be irreparably damaged. While this paper points to the normative, reputation-enhancing aspect of the extreme violence, it also implicates the second and third factors as contributing to the decision to use overwhelming force.
The odds, both circumstantial and strategic, were against the Chechen civilians. Because of the situation in which history and politics had placed them, over 17,000 Chechens lost their lives. In the end, Russia superficially achieved its stated goal of silencing the insurgency. However, in actuality, the rebellion lives on in the present movement to unite the Caucuses. While it is too late to save Chechnya from destruction, it is not too late for the international community and domestic political actors to understand the context historical events and the motivations of the Russian government.
Learning from Chechnya’s horror, the international community can reduce the amount of regions and groups that will have to experience such campaigns of destruction brought upon them by the government. With luck, international actors can fashion a world in which innocent civilians will no longer experience what it is like to struggle to live in and sometimes die in “a small corner of Hell.”