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Mark Galeotti, Russia’s Wars in Chechnya

Oxford, Osprey Publishing, "Essential Histories", 2014, 96 pages
Aude Merlin

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Research Fields :

War Studies, Military Studies
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  • 1 This 96-page book includes an introduction, a timeline, a background to the war, a presentation of (...)
  • 2 The extensive historical background describes in details Russia’s conquest of Chechnya, in particul (...)

1The aim of popularizing the Chechen Wars is commendable, and the series “Essential Histories”, into which this book is published, seems well suited to this purpose. At the same time, it poses a challenge, as it is difficult to sum up two wars of such magnitude in such a short format1, especially since the author also devotes a part to the history of the region, going back to the nineteenth century and the colonization of the Caucasus2.

  • 3 Sergeant Pavel Klementyev reminds Arkady Babchenko (See Arkady Babchenko, One soldier’s war in Chec (...)

2The combination of factual and historical information with portraits is an interesting albeit unusual format, and the portraits allow a more vivid and personified approach to the issues at stake3. Biographical information is a useful benchmark for a non-specialist audience. Maps, photographs, and engravings offer rich and enlightening picture materials.

3In terms of analysis, the author rightly points out that the current situation in Chechnya cannot be described as a peaceful one. He also questions the existence and viability of Moscow's victory and the installation of Ramzan Kadyrov, described as "an erratic warlord-turned-president who for many years ran Chechnya as his own private kingdom” (p. 7). The persistence of an armed resistance and the necessity to “provide massive amounts of federal funding to rebuild the country and buy off Kadyrov and his allies” (p. 7) are two phenomena that stem directly from the war and from the way Moscow ended it. Galeotti also establishes a direct link between the Chechen war and the evolution of the post-Soviet Russian political regime.

4The unique way in which the author addresses the military and strategy issues are certainly one of this book’s added value. The part devoted to the purely military aspect of the contemporary conflict offers some technical details which may not be found in political science literature: military techniques and technologies are obviously one of the author’s strong points. Mentions of Tungunska, ZSU 23-4, AK-74 rifles, RPG-7, HJ4 KL anti-tank grenade launchers, disposable RPG-18 rocket launchers, 23-millimeter or 30-millimeter cannons are frequent throughout the book. Even if the reader may not be familiar with these terms and devices, they are the symbols of a guerrilla war and of an urban warfare.

5The detailed description of the battles and of hostage taking in Budyonnovsk (1995), Pervomayskoe (1996) and of Moscow’s reaction to these events is insightful. The book underlines constantly the asymmetry between conflicting parties, and explains how war and terrorism tended to merge gradually. It also sheds light on the failure of the Russian Army to cope with guerilla and urban warfare in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

6The detailed description of Chechen fighters' recovery of Grozny on the 6th of August 1996 is particularly interesting. It contains unresolved enigmas - the reason behind General Tikhomirov’s ill-timed holiday for example – but it also highlights the main tendencies of the war, such as the fierce motivation of the fighters. We understand why some Chechen witnesses spoke at that time of a "second war": the all-out assault on the 20th of August 1996 caused an exodus of 220,000 refugees which literally emptied the city of Grozny.

7Galeotti reminds us also that from a strategic point of view, Russian military authorities have drawn lessons from the ruthless defeat of 1996. The efforts and the military upgrades made in the Russian Army from one war to the next are striking: acquisition of new equipment, better military preparation, better training and especially creation of special detachments for urban warfare.

8Galeotti also emphasizes the weaknesses and disagreements within the Russian authorities, whose representatives span from doves to hawks. For example, the depiction of Gromov, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, pleading for the withdrawal of Russian forces, reminds the reader that senior officers had always been skeptical about the merits of Russian interventions in Chechnya. “Russians were deeply divided over tactics and aims and also between institutions and officers. Many within the military, especially veterans of Afghanistan, believed that they should withdraw. Others felt that Ermolov’s policies of ethnic cleansing were needed”, writes Galeotti (p.43). He also shows to what extent the Russian military fed the war by its indiscriminate violence:

"[…] with no clear sense of direction and no strong political pressure encouraging them to consider Chechen hearts and mind, they too often relied on discriminate firepower to solve any problem. In the process, while rebels were dying, others were joining up. […] The Russians were virtually Dudayev’s recruiting sergeants" (p. 43).

9On the political level, Galeotti rightly reminds the reader that Boris Yeltsin declared in August 1996, four months before the Russian intervention in Chechnya:

“Intervention by force is impermissible and must not be done. Were we to apply pressure by force against Chechnya, this would rouse the whole Caucasus, there would be such a commotion, there would be such blood that nobody would ever forgive us" (p. 29).

10The question of the military-political continuum is one of the interesting aspects of the book. Galeotti recalls how Ichkerian warlords, who had been militarily trained in the Soviet Army, became strategists for the independence cause. The problem of converting their military victory into political capital is particularly salient after the 1996 Khasav-Yurt agreement, and there is an obvious challenge for president-to-be Maskhadov, who “would discover that navigating Chechen politics would prove every bit as difficult, as well as dangerous, as fighting the war”.

  • 4 M. Evangelista, The Chechen wars. Will Russia go the way of the Soviet Union? Washington (D.C.), Br (...)
  • 5 I. Akhmadov, The Chechen Struggle. Independence Won and Lost, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 (...)

11The period between 1996 and 1999 has already been analyzed thoroughly (by Evangelista, Sokirianskaya or Merlin for example4) and has also been the subject of an innovative first-hand testimony (Akhmadov5), but the reminders put forward by Galeotti remain extremely useful. The author shows how different issues were intertwined: warlords transformed into hostage takers, the weakness of Maskhadov and his nascent and fragile State apparatus, Moscow’s lack of support and the lack of reconstruction of the economy against a backdrop of massive unemployment (80 %) and massive destruction.

  • 6 The timeline indicates that Ingushetia separated from Chechnya in December 1992 (and p. 21 – that I (...)
  • 7 P. 31 it is unclear what referendum Galeotti writes about: there was a presidential election on 27 (...)

12Nevertheless, such a book cannot be without its critics. First, because of some chronological6 or factual errors7, especially in the timeline, that could and should have been avoided. Second, because some inaccuracies may take on a political meaning. For example, in 1999, the Dagestani population made up half of the contingent of combatants that invaded Dagestan, which implies that this operation didn’t only involve "extremist Chechens". The author also writes that Moscow "declared the Second Chechen won" in 2009 (p. 7). In fact, Russian authorities never mentioned the end of the "war" since they did not use the word “war”, but talked about "the end of the counter terrorist operation" in April 2009. Finally we fully disagree with the author conclusion and his assumption that

“[…] looking beyond Kadyrov, there is no reason why the Chechens could not take advantage of the autonomy he has carved out within the Russian Federation and build for themselves the kind of country they want to see – and to be able to do so without another round of murderous war and rebellion” (p. 92).

13This optimistic prognosis seems to make light of the dozens of thousands of civilians who were killed during two large-scale wars, in a context of almost absolute impunity, and to forget that a Kadyrov-like governance is the denial of these massive war crimes. The Chechen society has been destroyed, atomized and corrupted to such an extent that Galeotti’s hopeful vision sounds either perfunctory or utopian. Moreover, how can we assume the capacity of Chechens “to build the kind of country they want to see” without taking into account Russian political context, especially since the Russian regime is becoming more and more authoritarian, and has become so owing to the wars in Chechnya. The author is certainly willing to give some hope to the Chechen people, but at that stage, this perspective sounds rather like wishful thinking.

14Apart from these reservations, we would recommend this book to a wide public wishing to get a general yet informed picture about the wars in Chechnya.

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Notes

1 This 96-page book includes an introduction, a timeline, a background to the war, a presentation of the warring sides, a description of the outbreak and the fighting during the "two wars", up to the end of the “counterterrorist operation”. The book analyses also how "the world looks on in horror" and provides "a portrait of a soldier" along with a “portrait of a civilian”. It includes also a bibliography and an index.

2 The extensive historical background describes in details Russia’s conquest of Chechnya, in particular the various battles of the first half of the nineteenth century, and provides several color reproductions of engravings from that period. Some details also add value to the book, as does, for example, the fact that "while two of Shamil’s four sons continued to fight in the Caucasus after Shamil was captured, the other two would become officers in the Russian military”: it shows to what extent loyalty to the resistance or to the Tsarist Army could be volatile.

3 Sergeant Pavel Klementyev reminds Arkady Babchenko (See Arkady Babchenko, One soldier’s war in Chechnya, London, Portobello, 2007). Ruslan Yusupov’s portrait is really moving and reminds us of the fate of thousands of Chechens. Both portraits are insightful, showing the perceptions and the war experience from both sides.

4 M. Evangelista, The Chechen wars. Will Russia go the way of the Soviet Union? Washington (D.C.), Brookings Institution Press, 2002, 244 p; E. Sokirianskaya, “State and violence in Chechnya”, in A. Le Huérou, A. Merlin, A. Regamey, E. Sieca-Kozlowski (Eds), Chechnya at war and beyond, Abingdon and NY, Routledge, 2014, pp 93-117; A. Merlin, "The postwar Period in Chechnya: When Spoilers Jeopardize the Emerging Chechen State (1996-1999)" in N. Duclos (ed.), War veterans in Postwar situations, Chechnya, Serbia, Turkey, Peru, and Côte d'Ivoire, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 219-240.

5 I. Akhmadov, The Chechen Struggle. Independence Won and Lost, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

6 The timeline indicates that Ingushetia separated from Chechnya in December 1992 (and p. 21 – that Ingushetia was created in December 1992). In fact it dates back to June 1992: the partition referendum that will lead to the proclamation of Ingushetia’s separation from Chechnya in June 1992 dates back to December 1991 (just after the Chechen elections that carried Dudaev to power and his subsequent declaration of independence). The hostage-taking in Budyonnovsk took place in June 1995 and not in May. These errors may seem irrelevant, but the result of these inaccuracies creates a sense of discomfort for the informed reader, all the more since the right date is mentioned on p. 40. Galeotti writes p. 30 that the Russians invaded Chechnya in 1995: actually Russian Army launched the war 11 December 1994.

7 P. 31 it is unclear what referendum Galeotti writes about: there was a presidential election on 27 October 1991, before the declaration of Independence on 1 November 1991. Or does Galeotti coin the presidential elections as a referendum? In May 2004, Ahmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov was not killed by a suicide bomber, but by a bomb hidden in the installations of Grozny stadium.

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References

Electronic reference

Aude Merlin, « Mark Galeotti, Russia’s Wars in Chechnya », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 18 January 2018, connection on 20 July 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4399

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About the author

Aude Merlin

Université Libre de Bruxelles

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CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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