The Other Side of the COIN: The Russians in Chechnya

The Other Side of the COIN: The Russians in Chechnya

Joss Meakins


Russian rule of Chechnya has been contested since before Pushkin’s time. The two most recent wars should be viewed in part as chapters in a historical narrative which stretches back more than two centuries. A great deal has been written about the terrible atrocities and human rights violations committed by both sides during the First and Second Chechen Wars but considerably less attention has been devoted to the study of Chechnya as an example of success in counterinsurgency. In 2014, there were 525 victims of armed conflict in the North Caucasus—341 killed and 184 wounded, while ‘the figures for 2015 are likely to be around 260 victims—about 200 killed and 50 wounded’(Vatchagaev 2016). Although such numbers are significant, they are a mere fraction of the death rate at the height of the war. According to statistics from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), 26,000 people were killed in armed conflict from 1994-1995, including 2,000 Russian servicemen (Izvestia 1995). Considering that the real figures may be much higher and that the Second Chechen War was declared to have ‘officially ended’ (BBC 2009) only in 2009, the relative peace of recent years is impressive.

Yet in spite of this, Western scholars have seemed reluctant to engage with Chechnya as a COIN success. Such hesitancy may be partly due to the extreme unpalatability of Russian tactics, as well as a sense of consternation and bewilderment at their efficacy. Russian counterinsurgency methods in Chechnya read like a checklist of ‘Bad COIN Practices’, as defined by the RAND Corporation’s ‘Counterinsurgency Scorecard’. The Russians used ‘both collective punishment and escalating repression, there was corrupt and arbitrary personalistic government rule’ (RAND 2016, p. 3) and much of the local population was swiftly alienated. These methods stand diametrically opposed to the Western fixation on ‘hearts and minds’, as framed by the 2014 US Military Counterinsurgency Manuel (FM 3-24, chapter 7.8). Numerous Western theorists have underlined the foundational importance of winning and retaining the goodwill of the indigenous population (Thompson 1966, Kitson 1971, Nagl 2005, Kilcullen 2009). David Galula presciently foreshadowed much of this theory when he stated that ‘The soldier must then be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout’(Crandall 2014, p. 187).

In defiance of such a position, several Western theorists have outlined a more coercive approach to counterinsurgency. In their seminal study ‘Rebellion and Authority’ (1970) Leites and Wolf outlined their ‘systems approach’ which modelled counterinsurgency as a competing system of inputs and outputs which dictate the success or failure of rebellion. According to this framework, coercive force is a valuable tool because ‘the contest between R [Rebellion] and A [Authority] is often as much a contest in the effective management of coercion as a contest for the hearts and minds of the people’ (Leites and Wolf 1970, p. 155). This approach came to be known as the ‘cost/benefit’ theory which framed the population as ‘rational actors’ whose cooperation could be won by a combination of coercion and reward, or ‘carrots and sticks’ (Long 2006, p. 25). Following in a similar vein Stathis Kalyvas in ‘The Logic of Violence in Civil War’ argues that ‘Irrespective of their sympathies (and everything else being equal), most people prefer to collaborate with the political actor that best guarantees their survival’ (2006, p. 12). These theoretical paradigms suggest that the authoritarian model of counterinsurgency can prove highly effective if the population is convinced that their best chance of survival lies in complying with the counterinsurgent.

One of the best illustrations of the ‘authoritarian model’ is provided by Russian experience in Chechnya and several other conflicts. Russian counterinsurgency practitioners have consistently flouted Western counterinsurgency best practices while continuing to enjoy considerable success in quashing insurgencies. Yuri Zhukov notes that Russia has successfully defeated 18 out of 21 insurgencies fought since the start of the 20th century, the vast majority of which occurred within the territory of Russia (Zhukov 2010, p. 12). Chechnya seems to be no exception to this trend and in spite of the brutality of the Russian campaigns, the republic is now firmly under federal control. Whatever the failings of Putin’s Chechnya policy, it is clear that the insurgency of the 1990s has been decisively defeated and that the secession of Chechnya is highly unlikely in the near term.

It is this author’s contention that the authoritarian nature of the modern Russian state allowed the adoption of tactics which were highly effective in ending the insurgency but would be anathema to Western COIN practitioners. These methods will be elaborated on in the third part of this article and include: stage-managing the presentation of the war for the domestic audience to win popular support and terrorizing the Chechen population to make the cost of supporting the insurgency prohibitively high. In order to illustrate this argument, this article has been divided into three sections: a brief history of the conflict and its context, an evaluation of the problems facing the Russians and an assessment of the four key factors which enabled the Russian victory.

Historical Outline

Chechnya has had a long history of resistance to Russian imperial expansion. The area now known as the ‘North Caucasus’ was originally annexed to Imperial Russia through a series of long and bloody campaigns in the 18th and 19th centuries yet the region was never fully subdued. The first substantive rebellion occurred in 1784 and was led by Sheikh Mansur who called for a ‘gazavat’ or jihad against the Russian occupiers (Galeotti 2014, p. 13). Although this uprising failed, it was followed by a much longer insurrection led by Imam Shamil from 1834-59 which has become mythologized in Chechen folk tradition. The breakdown of the Russian Empire allowed Chechnya to indulge in a brief flirtation with independence from 1917-1921 before the republic was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1944 Stalin unjustly accused the Chechen-Ingush Republic of mass collaboration with the Nazis and decided to abolish the republic and deport all of its inhabitants (around half a million people) to Kazakhstan. Approximately a third of the population died during the roundup, journey and subsequent exile (Miakinkov 2011, p. 655) and the Chechens were only allowed to return in 1957. This terrible collective trauma proved to be a ‘formative experience’ in shaping the mentality and attitude of many Chechens at the time of independence, including Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Indeed, in spite of numerous Tsarist and Soviet attempts to ‘Russify’ Chechnya, the region has remained ethnically distinct. Strong clan structures, low levels of industrialization, an unrelated language and adherence to Islam serve to differentiate Chechnya from largely Orthodox and formerly Soviet Russia. Chechen society is traditionally split into clans (teip) which are made up of bloodlines (gars) and families (nekye), led by male elders who uphold and interpret the ‘adat’ or traditional Islamic custom (Galeotti 2014, p. 12). Such a code of conduct is reminiscent of the Pashtunwali observed in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and parallels can be made between Chechens and Pashtun society. Both groups experienced successive bloody counterinsurgencies, both are Islamic cultures in which kinship bonds are hugely important and in both societies young men prize honor and many carry weapons as a matter of course.

Nevertheless, unlike Afghanistan, Chechnya had been considered a Russian territory for a very long time and the First War was essentially an issue of contested sovereignty. Elites in Grozny saw the breakup of the Soviet Union as a chance to follow Estonia’s example and set up their own ethnic republic while Moscow disagreed. Control of Chechnya was important for the transportation of energy resources and the Russian authorities feared that allowing independence might set a precedent and trigger a domino effect. If Chechnya left, it was possible that Balochistan and oil rich Tatarstan would try to secede and Russia might lose all of the remaining ethnic republics. To prevent such an outcome, Yeltsin made Chechnya his line in the sand by declaring that ‘no geographic area has the right to secede from Russia’ (Miakinkov 2011, p. 656). Given this position, Dudayev’s declaration of Chechnya’s independence in 1994 could not go unchallenged and Yeltsin decided to send an armored column to Grozny. However, the Chechens were ready and waiting – one Russian military analyst estimates that 6,000 Russian soldiers were facing 10,000 Chechen fighters with tanks, artillery pieces and an assortment of anti-armor weaponry (Raevsky 1995, p. 685). Unsurprisingly, the column was severely defeated, with several tanks and soldiers being captured, thereby pushing Yeltsin to a full-scale invasion. The First War killed several thousand civilians and turned almost a third of the republic’s population into refugees (Nichols 2000, p. 241). The conflict was ended by the fragile ceasefire known as the Khasavyurt Accord which led to the withdrawal of Russian forces and the election of Aslan Maskhadov as President (Dudayev had been killed in 1996).

During the interbellum, Islamic factions became increasingly powerful within Chechnya and they eventually forced Maskhadov to adopt Sharia law in 1999 (Kommersant 1999, p. 3). In the same year, Shamil Basayev, a prominent warlord and unsuccessful presidential candidate, together with Saudi cleric Ibn al-Khattab, launched raids into Dagestan accompanied by 1,500 fighters (Schaefer 2011, p. 182) with the ostensible aim of founding a Wahhabist Caliphate in the Caucasus. The attacks killed many ethnic Russians and represented a serious threat to the country’s security. It seemed that the Chechen contagion might spill over into neighboring republics and that Russian control of the region could be lost. At around the same time there were a string of highly-publicized apartment bombings in 1999 which killed over 300 people and wounded many more. Another bomb was found in the basement of an apartment block in the city of Ryazan and two men were arrested. It later emerged that the two men were FSB agents, the bomb was live and that it had been made of RDX – the same component used in the other bombings. The FSB in Moscow claimed that the incident was a training exercise and four people who investigated the FSB’s possible involvement died in mysterious circumstances, including a member of the Russian Duma and a prominent journalist (Schaefer 2011, p. 185). The Ryazan incident is ‘increasingly seen as false flag operation’ (Ucko 2016, p. 39) to provide Putin with a casus belli. By ordering the troops into Chechnya shortly after the explosion, Putin won plaudits for being a hardliner and became the most popular politician in Russia ahead of the Presidential Elections in 2000.

In operational terms the overwhelming lesson of the First Chechen War was, as a RAND report notes, ‘that urban combat was to be avoided at all costs’ (Oliker 2001, p. 84). To do this Russian forces resorted to massive air and artillery bombardments before entering urban centers, meaning that Grozny was ‘reduced practically to rubble’ (Hodgson 2003, p. 72). One scholarly analysis estimated that up to 80% of the city’s high rises and 50% of its homes were destroyed (Garwood 2002, p. 71). Yet taking the city still meant a great deal of hellish urban fighting involving flamethrowers and close artillery strikes. Needless to say, large numbers of civilians died in the fighting, along with many Russian soldiers. Nevertheless, by mid-March of 1999 all of the large urban centers were under Russian control and the war metastasized into a more traditional guerrilla war fought from the mountains. By the early 2000s the pro-Russian paramilitary units loyal to Akhmad Kadyrov known as the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ had begun to be deployed as the main counterinsurgency force. The Kadyrovs had switched sides in 1999 and their fighters proved to be very effective in combatting the separatists (Šmíd and Mareš 2015, p. 653). After Akhmad’s assassination in 2004, his son Ramzan became President of Chechnya in 2007 after a brief interregnum and consolidated his control with Putin’s blessing. Under Ramzan’s rule, the counterinsurgency has been ruthlessly quashed and his personal powerbase greatly consolidated. Allegations of human rights abuses are widespread but his control of the Republic’s military and political structures is largely undisputed. While Kadyrov remains in charge, a reignition of the insurgency is unlikely.

The Problems Facing Russian Forces          

Russian forces in Chechnya were confronted with a bewildering array of difficulties. Certain problems were commonplace to all COIN endeavors: state building and winning over the local population, while others were largely self-inflicted: high civilian casualties, inter-service infighting and poor military performance. This article will evaluate both by examining seven key factors: geography; the brutalization of Chechens; structural weaknesses within the Armed Forces, equivalent deficiencies within the Special Forces, difficulties with state building, foreign fighters and terrorism within Russia and the tactical success of the insurgents.


Geography has always been an important consideration in counterinsurgency. Unsurprisingly, flat and sparsely forested landscapes and islands favor the counterinsurgent as they leave the enemy with few places to hide and make moving undetected difficult. David Galula went so far as to say that if the geography was unfavorable to the insurgent, ‘he may well be condemned to failure before he starts’ (Galula 1964, p. 23). By contrast, many successful insurgencies have taken place in large, mountainous and inaccessible areas such as Afghanistan, Vietnam and Algeria. The mountains of southern Chechnya (part of the Greater Caucasus chain) provided excellent cover for the rebels, allowing them to frequently ambush Russian forces, conceal ammunition and weapons and move practically unhindered between safe havens in Georgia and neighboring republics. Moreover, the renowned counterinsurgency theorist Roger Trinquier’s description of ‘medieval fortified villages’ (Marshall 2010, p. 249) in Algeria could just as easily have been applied to Chechnya. The hilltop village structure of many Chechen settlements provided excellent elevation and vantage for the rebels to survey or attack Russian forces. In order to gain control of the republic the Russians flooded Chechnya with security and military personnel. At the height of the ‘surge’ there were 140,000 Russian troops stationed in the republic of 1.2 million people, creating a force ratio of 1:9 (Ucko 2016, p. 45). If active and armed insurgents were separated from the population at large then Russian troops and police outnumbered the rebels by more than 50:1. These numbers are significantly higher than the force ratios suggested by Galula yet the guerrillas consistently outmaneuvered Russian troops for more than a decade. By 2006, ten years after the start of the First Chechen War, there were 1,600-1,800 guerrillas facing off against 90,000 Russian troops yet the insurgents were able to repeatedly inflict heavy losses on government forces and survive (Kramer 2004, p. 13). Although geography was not everything in the Chechen Wars, it certainly enabled the insurgents to sustain a protracted and seemingly inexorable war against the Russian military.

The Brutalization of Chechens     

Russia’s wars in Chechnya caused enormous devastation to a relatively small population. One author in the Journal of Small Wars & Insurgencies estimates that between 1994-2004 Russian military operations created ‘200-250,000 civilian casualties and as many 300,000 refugees’ (Janeczko 2014, p. 435) in a population of just over a million. A more conservative reckoning puts war-related deaths for the First Chechen War alone at 35-50,000 people or 5% of the republic’s pre-war population (Lyall 2010, p. 2). Whatever the true figure, it is certain that the Wars were cataclysmic events for Chechen society and that the Russian authorities were ready to accept extremely high levels of civilian casualties. One scholar states that winning Chechen ‘hearts and minds’ was ‘clearly the lowest priority for the Russians’ (Schaefer 2011, p. 210) and atrocities were widely reported by monitoring groups like Human Rights Watch. Pavel Felgenhauer (2002, p. 159), a respected Russian military analyst, has described ‘massive war crimes’, as well as the use of cluster munitions and flamethrowers outlawed by the Geneva Convention. Thus, Russian brutality ‘quickly alienated many Chechens’ (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015a, p. 692) and made them feel that they were facing an existential threat – a second attempt to remove them from the homeland barely fifty years after the first onslaught. Consequently, civilian cooperation with the rebels was extensive and one commander stated that ‘virtually every Chechen was an intelligence collector’ (Dilegge and Van Konynenburg 2002, p. 181).

Additionally, Russian forces fell afoul of crucial clan and honor structures in the highly traditional society. In Chechnya the code of male honor (k’onakhalla) is extremely important and insults to it can lead to the declaration of a ‘blood feud’ (ch’ir) by the aggrieved party (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015b, p. 170). Failure to avenge an insult leads to a loss of face and decline in status, meaning that an attack upon an individual becomes an attack upon the clan. In fact, one scholar estimated that the murder and particularly rape of a single Chechen could trigger the mobilization of an average of 3-5 male relatives seeking revenge (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015a, p. 693). Thus, atrocities perpetrated by agents of the Russian state inadvertently ignited the tradition of blood feud and honor killing. This certainly inflamed and prolonged the insurgency, with one study finding that 56% of Chechens believed that the fighting continued due to a desire for revenge, while only 24% thought that independence was the reason (Janeczko 2014, p. 435).

Structural Weaknesses within the Armed Forces

The breakup of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic turmoil led to a serious deterioration in Russia’s military capabilities. By 1994 the Armed Forces were receiving between 30-40% of the funding ‘needed simply to maintain themselves in fighting condition’ and by 1996 pay arrears had reached $889 million (Galeotti 2014, p. 22). The Russian army had no professional NCO corps and most of the troops in Chechnya were conscripts with terrible morale and, in the words of one Russian general, ‘no ideology whatsoever’ (Argumenty i Fakty, 1996). The majority of Russian troops suffered from inadequate training, outdated equipment, poor healthcare and dedovshchina. This term comes from the Russian word for grandfather ‘ded’ and describes the systematic abuse of younger conscripts by salaried professionals or older conscripts (collectively known as ‘stariki’ or elders). Abuse, beatings and rapes were widespread and the Soviet era refusal to ‘create an effective NCO corps’ meant that many units were effectively self-policing (Herspring 2005, p. 611). The officer corps was overworked, underpaid and largely unconcerned by troop welfare, meaning that life in many army units was similar to prison conditions. Well-founded statistics estimate that during the Wars in Chechnya Dedovshchina accounted for 10% of casualties in the army as a whole (Schaefer 2011, p. 194) and more than 50% of casualties in certain units (Kramer 2004, p. 16). Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that Russian soldiers were fighting a war on two fronts; one against the rebels and another against their own comrades.

Furthermore, due to the high casualty rates in Chechnya and the terrible conditions within the army, the majority of military aged men tried to dodge the draft as best they could. There were as many as 31,000 dodgers in the autumn of 1995 (Dick 1997, p. 4) and one officer calculated that a law on deferment exempted 77% of potential recruits (Simunovic 1998, p. 78). This meant that many of the draftees were those who were too poor or too powerless to pay their way out of conscription. Many had only basic education and were medically unfit due to the scourges of drug usage, alcoholism, STDs, malnutrition and pleurisy which were rife in the 1990s in Russia (Herspring 2005, p. 619). Unsurprisingly, the conduct of many Russian soldiers was equally unimpressive and Russian units in Chechnya have been linked to ‘narcotics trafficking, prostitution rings, illegal arms-dealing, and kidnappings for ransom’ (Kramer 2004, p. 18). Low levels of pay meant that both officers and soldiers tried to make money on the side and sales of weaponry and explosives by Russian soldiers to insurgents were common (Baev 1997, p. 7). Even more shockingly, Russian soldiers frequently accepted bribes to allow insurgents past military checkpoints. An analysis from JSOU states that getting to the Dubrowka theatre required bribes to be given to 100 MVD officials (Turbiville 2005, p. 10) while Mark Galeotti writes that during Shamil Basayev’s infamous raid on Budyonnovsk he spent $9,000 in bribes to get past checkpoints and security officials (Galeotti 2014, p. 40).

Deficiencies within the Special Forces

The untrustworthiness, poor morale, inadequate training and general unreliability of Russian conventional forces certainly took a toll on their ability to fight an effective counterinsurgency. This situation placed particular strain on Russian Special Forces or ‘Spetsnaz’ as they were (supposedly) the only forces with sufficient training and unit cohesion to conduct the most difficult operations. Spetsnaz units were better able to operate in the remote, mountainous terrain and hunt the small bands of insurgents (Khodarenok 2003). However, the professionalism of the Special Forces was also under question as even they suffered from corruption, a shortage of equipment and links to organized crime. In 2003 a number of operators from the elite counterterrorist Al’fa Unit wrote an open letter to a Russian newspaper accusing their operational command of widespread corruption (Turbiville 2005, p. 11) – the equivalent of Delta Force complaining to the New York Times about corruption in JSOC. Additionally, it is clear that very few of the COIN lessons from Afghanistan were applied in Chechnya and many of them had to be relearned the hard way.

Indeed, in the 1990s Russian Special Forces were woefully underprepared for counterinsurgency because the focus in preceding years had been on a mass-mechanized war with the West. As one colonel said in an interview ‘Unfortunately, we continued to prepare Spetsnaz for participation in a global war’ (Kozlov 2000, p. 378). Moreover, Russian Special Forces in Chechnya frequently lacked crucial language skills and extremely few of them spoke Chechen, making good intelligence work complicated. Nevertheless, Russian Spetsnaz were still a cut above the rest and over the course of the conflict their use and usefulness increased dramatically as they focused more on sniping, high-value targeting (HVT) and intelligence gathering.

Difficulties with State Building

As with many counterinsurgencies, one of the most difficult tasks facing the Russians in Chechnya was the creation of a strong and stable Chechen government which would be completely loyal to Moscow. The first pro-Russian Chechen government was notoriously corrupt and relied on violent coercion to win support. Russian forces ran into many of the same issues they had encountered in Afghanistan, especially the unreliability of indigenous friendly forces as local Chechen police would ‘routinely turn over crucial information to Chechen guerrillas to help them prepare ambushes and lay explosives’ (Kramer 2004, p. 10). In the early days, such double-crossing eroded much of the trust that Russian soldiers might have extended to Chechen loyalists and hindered the construction of an effective security architecture. So as to aggravate this situation still further, the Chechen rebels sought to discredit those who kept faith with the Russians, deriding them as ‘munafeeqin’ or make-believe Muslims (Thomas 2005, p. 738). Much like the Taliban’s activities today, the insurgents targeted Chechens who worked with the Russians, seeking to make an example of them and thereby dissuade others from ‘collaborating’. Although the tide was eventually turned by the rise of the Kadyrovtsy, state building in the First Chechen War and the start of the Second was at best a mixed success.

Foreign Fighters and Terrorism within Russia

The role of foreign Islamic fighters in Chechnya has been much debated and is an issue which must be dealt with carefully. On the one hand, it is clear that Islamist groups certainly played a role, yet it would be erroneous to portray the Wars in Chechnya as simply a ‘jihad’ against the Russian unbelievers. Although the Russian government has sought to do exactly that, it is important to remember that political, cultural, strategic and anthropological considerations played an enormous role in engendering the conflict and that the religious dimension should not be championed above all else.

Nevertheless, it is certainly true that Islamic fundamentalists set up training camps in Chechnya, providing both religious indoctrination and military training to would-be Chechen jihadists. Moreover, like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the war in Bosnia, Chechnya became a cause célèbre for Islamic extremists, attracting numerous foreign fighters. As many as 500 of them fought alongside the Chechens at different points since 1994, (Tumelty 2006) including up to 300 Afghan-Arabs  fighting in Ibn Al Khattab’s Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade (Janeczko 2014, p. 442). Both Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Mohammed al-Atta (the chief organizer of 9/11) attempted to ‘join the Chechen struggle in the late 1990s’ (Hahn 2005, p. 543). In fact, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and two of the 9/11 hijackers had actually fought in Chechnya (Moore and Tumelty 2008, p. 423) and Al-Qaeda and the Taliban certainly gave funding to Chechen fighters. According to US State Department Estimates, since 1997 Islamic groups and sympathizers have given the Chechen cause around $100 million in funding (Janeczko 2014, p. 442). Even so, with the exception of the Boston bombings, Chechen extremists have been responsible for relatively few terrorist attacks outside Russia itself, suggesting a localization of the conflict. Of course this may well change given the rise of ISIS and the possibility of further radicalization amongst Russia’s Muslims.

However, if Chechen terrorists have been relatively inactive abroad, unfortunately the same cannot be said for Russia itself and the violence in Chechnya has frequently spilled over into neighboring republics and Moscow. As early as 1995 Shamil Basayev launched a large raid on a municipal hospital in the Russian city of Budyonnovsk outside Chechnya. More than 1,000 hostages were seized and the rebels managed to extort several concessions from the government, probably encouraging more raids (Baev 1997, p. 4). In 2002 armed Chechens attempted a similar operation by seizing the Dubrowka Theatre in Moscow and demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Chechnya. Russian Special Forces pumped a gas into the building to knock everyone out but as many as 130 hostages died due to the effects of the gas. In 2004 two so-called ‘Black Widows’ or female suicide bombers blew up two separate passenger airlines leaving Moscow airport, killing 93 people with no survivors (Kommersant 2004). Finally and most tragically, in the Beslan school siege of 2004 33 heavily armed Chechen militants took 1,300 parents and primary school children hostage. During negotiations a bomb exploded apparently by accident, leading the insurgents to open fire. Russian forces stormed the building and in the ensuing firefight between 300-500 adults and children were killed. All of these terrorist attacks served to harden Russian attitudes against Chechen separatists.

The Tactical Success of the Insurgents

In contrast to the deficiencies of the Russian Armed Forces, the Chechen rebels demonstrated an almost textbook application of tried and tested insurgent tactics which proved highly effective. Chechen fighters became adept at laying ambushes, creating mines and IEDs, employing sniper warfare, using suicide bombers and bringing down Russian aircraft with SAMs. Right from the start Chechen guerrillas were well-armed as they had freely looted Soviet stockpiles of weapons in Chechnya and neighboring republics. One scholar estimates that the Chechens had ‘139 artillery pieces, numerous anti-tank weapons and nearly 40,000 firearms’ (Hodgson 2003, p. 68). Such a proliferation of weaponry allowed the rebels to target the convoys and armoured trains used to move troops and supplies between bases, usually at night. They became skilled at such attacks and in one ambush in 2004 98 Russian troops and officials were killed and 104 wounded, while all but 2 of the rebels escaped (Kramer 2004, p.24). The Chechens were also effective at urban warfare and always tried to ‘hug’ Russian units by staying within one block so that the Russians couldn’t call in artillery on their position without being hit.

Mine warfare also became highly important, causing a significant proportion of Russian deaths. Chechen rebels became highly proficient at bomb making, managing to successfully assassinate Akhmad Kadyrov, the then sitting President of Chechnya. Moreover, Chechen rebels had access to large stockpiles of Russian shells which were unexploded, bought or stolen (Kramer 2004, p. 28). This allowed the rebels to create bombs using dynamite which had a much higher explosive yield than is usual for IEDs. To make matters worse, the insurgents would use these bombs to set booby-traps, rigging everyday objects like books, beer cans and flashlights to catch Russian soldiers unawares (Thomas 2005, p. 746).

Furthermore, like ISIS today, Chechen rebels made extensive use of suicide and car bombs, employing women and children and turning every civilian into a potential threat. The insurgents were able to orchestrate multiple simultaneous attacks and in one particular incident, five coordinated car bombs at five different locations killed 24 people (Jamestown Monitor 2000). These attacks created a climate of constant fear and ensured that Russian soldiers were in a permanent condition of stress and anxiety. Another form of demoralizing, psychological warfare practiced by the rebels was sniper warfare. The Chechens relied heavily on sniper tactics, usually at night because Russian troop lacked night vision (Thomas 2005, p. 746). As well as being a highly effective way to kill enemy combatants, sniper attacks sow confusion and destroy morale. Chechen fighters relied on age-old tactics such as shooting troops when they lit up a cigarette or aiming for the groin to demoralize a soldier’s comrades and kill them when they attempted a rescue. Such methods are clearly terrifying and difficult to counter.

Finally, the Chechen guerrillas became very proficient at bringing down Russian aircraft with SAMs, ATGMs or RPGs. At the start of the war the rebels had several thousand MANPADs including the SA 7 and 14, as well as the Gremlin and Igla systems (Lambeth 1996, p. 368) which are similar in capability to the US Stinger (Raevsky 1995, p. 683). The ready availability of these weapons meant that the skies over Chechnya were far from safe and during the first six months of the First War, at least four Russian helicopters crashed or made forced landings, while another four experienced ‘significant combat damage’ (Kramer 2004, p. 34). Throughout the First Chechen War the Russians lost about 10% of their deployed helicopters due to enemy fire or malfunctions. Indeed, it is fair to say that the Russians had plenty of their own versions of ‘Black Hawk Down’. In one particularly notable incident a Su-25 was shot down. A Mi-8 Spetsnaz helicopter sent to recover the crew was then shot down before a Mi-24V Hind gunship sent on a second rescue mission was also shot down (Kramer 2004, p. 34). In another equally disastrous incident 127 Russian troops were killed when a Mi-26 Halo military transport helicopter which had been overloaded was shot down by the rebels (BBC Russian 2002).

However, the high losses suffered by Russian Air Forces were also due to insufficient pilot training and ageing equipment, as well as enemy action. In 1998 only 57% of planned air force training hours were flown and between 1990 and 1999 the number of hours flown by the Russian air force as a whole dropped from 2 million to 200,000 (Lambeth 2001, p. 13). Military pilots were supposed to fly at least 80 hours a year, an already lamentable figure compared to the Western norm of 180-220 hours, (Lambeth 1996, p. 380) yet the average Russian combat pilot in Chechnya would have flown just 30 hours a year (De Haas 2004, p. 143). Similarly, the majority of the helicopters deployed to Chechnya were produced at the beginning of the 1980s for service in Afghanistan and had not been upgraded since. In fact, the average service time on the ubiquitous Mi-24 airframes used in Chechnya was 15 years (Lambeth 1996, p. 381) and at the start of the war no Russian planes or helicopters were technologically equipped to fly in fog or at night which left ground troops vulnerable (Felgenhauer 2002, p. 161).

Reasons for Russian Success

However, in spite of all of these obstacles and impediments, the Russians still managed to succeed in bringing the wider insurgency to a close and largely pacifying the region. Seemingly against the odds, what Clausewitz would have termed ‘the fog and friction of war’ (Clausewitz 1993, Book 1, Chapter 7) did not prevent the Russians from ultimately achieving their objectives. This success can be attributed to four key reasons: manipulation of the media and a peculiar reversal of the traditional ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, the brutal tactics adopted by the Russians, the ‘indigenization’ of the conflict and a Russian campaign to rebuild the republic. Furthermore, the first three of these elements could not have been achieved in a functioning liberal democracy with an accompanying aversion to violence. The authoritarianism of the Russian state allowed it to take all necessary measures to eradicate the insurgency, irrespective of international human rights norms. Although the Russians in Chechnya seem to have contravened many of the golden rules of Western COIN doctrine, they have been ultimately successful in quashing the rebellion. That is not to say that the West should emulate Russia but it is obviously important to analyze the reasons for such success.

Media Manipulation: Whose HAM?

Most COIN practitioners agree that winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population is crucial to winning the conflict. The Russian authorities seemed to agree with this idea but reinterpreted the rulebook by focusing on winning the hearts and minds, not of the Chechen population, but of the Russian domestic audience (Ucko 2016, p. 39). During the First Chechen War there had been few press restrictions and many Chechen rebels who were willing and able to broadcast their version of events to win over Russian viewers, as well as international sympathy. By contrast, the Soviet era army of the 1990s was not used to media coverage and largely ignored it, meaning that the rebels were handed a platform from which to broadcast their message. Unsurprisingly, there was a good deal of sympathy for the rebels at home in Russia and abroad and widespread condemnation of the ineptitude and brutality of Russian forces, as atrocities were widely reported by journalists and human rights groups.

When the Second War erupted, the media coverage was much more stage-managed. Russian General Staff swiftly adopted an ‘airbrushing policy’, dismissing claims of atrocities by Russian troops and suppressing the number of soldiers killed by insurgents (Garwood 2002, p. 83). NGOs and journalists were excluded from the contact zones and the Russian government was highly successful in deftly manipulating public perceptions so that Chechnya quickly came to be seen as an outpost of international terrorism rather than an aspiring nation state (Miakinkov 2011, p. 648). By conflating the War in Chechnya with the Global War on Terror, the Russian authorities won support at home and abroad and Putin even managed to induce the US to add Chechen groups to international terror lists in exchange for Russian support (Schaefer 2011, p. 208). Moreover, in an article for European Security Stephen Shulman has analyzed the Russian government’s success in smearing Chechen secessionists as ‘criminals’ and ‘gangsters’, thereby denying them democratic or national legitimacy in the eyes of the ethnically Russian population (Shulman 2001).

Moreover, the string of terrorist attacks within Russia in 1999 hardened the population’s attitude (Hodgson 2003, p. 75) and any Russian liberal sympathy for the Chechen cause vanished after Beslan. The lack of political freedoms in Russia and a pride in the armed forces were instrumental in allowing the Russian forces to continue the bloody and protracted war in Chechnya. In the words of one scholar, ‘an authoritarian semi-democracy can more easily manipulate the media’ and Russian society remains accepting of ‘brutal counterinsurgency methods’ (Miakinkov 2011, p. 674).

Terror Tactics

The Russian army suffered greatly during the urban fighting of the First Chechen War and during the Second War the Russian High Command was eager to avoid repeating the same mistakes. As an alternative strategy the authorities opted for devastating air and artillery strikes to ‘preserve infantry fighting strength and combat effectiveness’ (Blandy 2003, p. 428). This approach reduced urban centers practically to rubble and made plain to the local population that the cost of supporting the insurgency would be prohibitive. The general in charge of the operation wrote that the bombing of the city of Komsomolskaya forced the Chechen inhabitants ‘to say a permanent farewell to their town’ (Argumenty i Fakty 1996). The enormously high civilian casualties which such methods incurred would have provoked outrage and protest in liberal democracies but in Russia the coverage was limited and the war weary public was largely uninterested.

From a strategic perspective, these tactics were effective and the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (2001, p. 170) reports that 841 Chechen fighters were killed in the battle for Komsomolskaya. By bombing urban centers into submission and using overwhelming force, the Russians gradually gained control of all big cities and population points. This had the effect of forcing the rebels to flee to the mountains and therefore lose their material support base. From then on the Russian campaign was ‘a containment mission’ (Miakinkov 2011, p. 672) and the security forces adopted a ‘village-targeting strategy’ (Baev 1997, p. 13) to deprive the guerrillas of support in the mountains. Indeed, by targeting the civilian population, Russian forces were able to gradually strip the rebels of ‘sanctuary and social support’ and thereby grind them down. Russian intimidation and brutality confirmed to the general populace ‘the futility of further resistance and the risk of genocidal collapse of the Chechen population’ (Miakinkov 2011, p. 673). By adopting strategies reminiscent of 19th century counterinsurgency policy (Marshall 2010, p. 250), the Russians left the population in no doubt that any collaboration with the insurgents would be punished.

Finally, the Russians conducted a ‘relentless, extensive and protracted HVT campaign’ (Schaefer 2011, p. 218) which yielded numerous scalps. Although the intrinsic value of decapitation campaigns has been questioned (Jordan 2014), it is surely significant that ‘the past four top leaders of the Chechen militants have been removed from their posts due to their loss in targeted killings’ (Morehouse 2015, p. 272). The decimation of the Chechen leadership would have degraded the rebels’ combat effectiveness.

The ‘Indigenization’ of the Conflict

One of the most intriguing and controversial pillars of Russian strategy has been the decision to ‘outsource’ the counterinsurgency to the Kadyrovs and other loyalist Chechens. IF (Indigenous Forces) have been crucial to many counterinsurgencies, proving their worth in Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan and many other conflicts. They can provide the counterinsurgent with irreplaceable local knowledge and skills, as well as a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Serious attempts to ‘Chechenize’ the conflict only came during the Second Chechen War when the Kadyrovs switched sides. The mass deployment of the Kadyrovtsy began in 2003 with the creation of Vostok and Zapad – two Spetsnaz units staffed almost entirely by Chechens (Lyall 2010, p. 3). The Kadyrovtsy gradually became ‘the main COIN force’ (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015a, p. 689) in the republic, even though 70% of them were former ‘boeviki’ (rebels) (Šmíd and Mareš 2015, p. 656).

The brutality of the Kadyrovtsy was and continues to be a subject of indignation for human rights observers in Russia, Chechnya and the West. The Kadyrov cadres killed, tortured and ‘disappeared’ military aged males who didn’t join with them, as well as threatening to terrorize their relatives. The use of indiscriminate violence was widely reported and numerous mass graves have been found throughout the republic (Kavkazsky uzel 2003). This meant that for many young men the only guaranteed method of survival was to join the Kadyrovtsy and be under their protection (Souleimanov and Aliyev 2015a, p. 691). Furthermore, collective punishment effectively became official policy in Chechnya; with Ramzan Kadyrov stating openly that ‘we will punish their (the rebels) relatives according to the law’ (Uzzell 2005), while a member of Putin’s Human Right’s Council made a similar statement which was subsequently quoted in a recent New York Times article (Kramer 2016). Unsurprisingly, the tenet of collective punishment is not new to Russian counterinsurgency strategy and during the Tambov Uprising Tukhachevsky wrote that ‘The struggle must be waged not primarily with the rebel bands, but with the entire local population’ (Zhukov 2010, p. 8).

In spite of their brutality, it seems that the Kadyrovtsy caused fewer civilian casualties than Russian troops. Jason Lyall’s research demonstrates that 25% of Russian village sweep operations ended with a civilian death, while only 11.7% of Chechen sweeps did. Chechens were also considerably less likely to steal than Russian troops and Chechen sweeps usually ended with fewer disappearances. On average, there was a 40% decrease in the number of insurgent attacks following Chechen sweeps compared to those conducted by Russian soldiers (Lyall 2010). This is either due to greater co-ethnic affinity or local fear of the Kadyrovtsy. One resident declared that ‘The kadyrovtsy are much more dangerous for local residents in terms of persecuting entire families…….The federal troops simply don’t have such complete information about the local residents’ (Jamestown North Caucasus Weekly 2005). Either way, the Kadyrovtsy have undeniably been effective in uprooting and exterminating the insurgency.

Rebuilding the Republic

In spite of the destruction caused by the Russians, Putin appears to have adopted Colin Powell’s famous Pottery Barn rule – ‘you break it, you buy it’. Between 2000 and 2010 the Russian government has spent 27 billion dollars on reconstruction in Chechnya (Shaefer 2011, p. 281), with a further $80 billion pledged to the North Caucasus region as a whole by 2025 (Judah 2013). When Ramzan became President of Chechnya in 2007 significant funds were given over to the republic and Grozny was rebuilt quickly. Kadyrov has undertaken a campaign of ‘Islamization’, building the largest mosque in Europe, enforcing the wearing of headscarves and limiting alcohol sales (Ucko 2016, p. 51). Whether this was a genuine drive to make Chechnya more pious, or simply a ploy to steal ground from the radicals, Kadyrov has consolidated control. After years of devastating war, peace is a high priority for many in Chechnya.

However, there is a distinct danger that by allowing Kadyrov to become the Tsar of Chechnya, the Russian authorities have created an even bigger problem for themselves. Kadyrov now has between 10-30,000 seasoned and equipped fighting men who are personally loyal to him (Šmíd and Mareš 2015, p. 671). Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who wrote about Chechnya and was mysteriously murdered, wrote of Kadyrov that the Kremlin was fostering a ‘baby dragon which it then has to keep feeding to stop him setting everything on fire’ (Yaffa 2016). The danger posed by Kadyrov should not be underestimated and if he cannot be controlled then Russia’s successful counterinsurgency campaign will be placed in jeopardy.


Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Russia has had a great deal of success in putting an end to the insurgency in Chechnya and ultimately maintaining tight control of the republic. In spite of the enormous military difficulties and losses faced by the Russian forces during both conflicts, the end result has been a Russian victory. Barring the complete breakup of Russia, few analysts consider Chechen secession to be a possibility in the near future. By adopting tactics and strategies which are unconscionable for liberal, Western democracies, Putin’s Russia has demonstrated that the authoritarian model of insurgency can be highly effective. Throughout the war, the key consideration was not winning over the Chechen population but maintaining the support of the Russian domestic audience. Once this had been secured, the military was able to push the rebels out of urban areas through the use of overwhelming force. The war then became one of containment and isolation. By stripping the rebels of their urban support and keeping the mountain villages under very tight control, the Russians made it progressively more difficult for the rebels to operate, survive and resupply.

Although Western militaries can learn little from the brutal battlefield tactics adopted by the Russians (Hodgson 2003, p. 85), the ‘indigenization’ of the conflict is another story. The pacification and relative stabilization of the republic only came when the Kadyrovtsy became the primary counterinsurgent force. This meant that the Russians could only secure Chechnya by relying on local support, primarily from former rebels who had joined the Kadyrovtsy. This strange turn of events frames the Russian ‘success’ in a different light. Given that Chechnya is defended by Chechens, run by a Chechen and steadily growing more Islamic, the question of who won the war becomes complicated. Although in 2016 Chechnya is undeniably technically part of Russia, in certain respects it seems to be independent in all but name.

Indeed, given the republic’s past history, the current uneasy compromise seems untenable in the long term. The fall in gas prices will squeeze the generous government subsidies that Moscow hands over to Grozny, while Kadyrov is increasingly viewed with distrust by Russia’s security establishment or ‘siloviki’. The Russians have succeeded in putting down every Chechen rebellion since the region was annexed in the 18th Century. Yet they have never succeeded in stopping the insurrections in the first place and today’s shaky settlement looks fragile at best. As the Chechen prover goes, ‘Ши мостагl цхьана тхов кlел ца тарло’ – ‘Two enemies cannot live under the same roof.’


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