Ghosts of the Past: Russian Strategic Failures in the First Chechen War
By Marc Belciug
The First Chechen War 1994-1996 was post-Soviet Russia’s first significant largescale conflict. After a tenuous peace which resembled only a pause in hostilities, it was followed by the Second Chechen War that lasted from 1999 to 2009. Differences notwithstanding, similarities with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war are striking - prompting Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis (CAN), to say that “as though the ghost of Pavel Grachev is in charge.”  By analyzing Russian strategy and strategical effectiveness in historical context, and also assessing what transpired during the conflict, it becomes clear why despite a clear political objective and means to accomplish it, the Russians failed. The one overwhelming reason is that they proved to be inflexible and ineffective in judging the enemy’s capabilities and the nature of combat.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia became an independent successor state to a large swath of territory. At the same time, it inherited the threat of further political disintegration. Within the new federal structure, many republics demanded autonomy and even some outright independence. One of such republics was Chechnya.
The Russian involvement in the Caucasus dates to Czarist times. In the late 18th century Russia began to conquer the region in a brutal, protracted invasion which killed half of its inhabitants. The strategy employed during tsarist Russia revolved around building of forts in the countryside, cutting off communication between clans, and systematic destruction of foodstuffs leading to many famines. Despite retaining control, violence was still periodic until 1944 when Stalin deported most of the Chechen people to Siberia and Central Asia where one-third of the population perished in exile. Those that survived did not return to their homeland until 1957. Therefore, the Chechen struggle against the Russian imperialism was not only a transitory feature but part of a long-term historical pattern. Once conflict returned to the region in 1994, it evoked long lasting memories both from the Chechens and the Russians.
Chechen nationalism lay dormant during the Communist years, but immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechnya declared independence and elected former Soviet Airforce Major General Dzhokhar Dudayev as its president. Russia initially suspected that Dudayev could be an ally, but it soon grew dismayed as he rejected any compromise, including maintaining almost complete autonomy at the cost of remaining within the Federal Structure of Russia.
In Moscow, Chechen independence was viewed as a destabilizing element to Russia’s national security, primarily because many feared a domino effect where other republics would follow the secessionist tendencies of Chechnya. If that occurred, Moscow feared that the Russian state would crumble. This is most evidently noted by Boris Yeltsin, who viewed Russian security in terms of its vast territory that had been painstakingly accumulated through centuries, mostly through conquest. . Accordingly, from Moscow’s perspective, the conflict was always an internal affair and an existential threat to its security. By contrast, the Chechen government viewed the war as a struggle for independence from century long Russian rule.
While most Russian senior leaders viewed Chechnya as part of Russia, and its people as Russian citizens, the beginning of hostilities proved that they had underestimated the depth of the Chechen ethnic identity. Soviet citizenship, previously forced, did not mean automatic acquiescence to Russian citizenship. Chechen nationalists considered themselves Chechens. The Russian forces, however, were comprised mostly of Russian conscript soldiers. Moreover, in the post-1991 period there were many instances of public animosity throughout Russia towards the Chechens, especially when President Yeltsin restored to the Russian Cossacks living in southern Russia the Tsarist era status of local paramilitary units. The subsequent differentiation between Russian and non-Russians did not decrease tensions. Other factors included Russian ignorance of local history and the social structure of the Chechens, which was clan based and exceedingly independent.
The Russian military involvement began with operations below the threshold of conflict. This was defined using a variety of coercive measures whose purpose was to force a political solution to the conflict. In the summer of 1994, Russia began supporting anti-Dudayev opposition groups with weapons culminating in the deployment of Russian mercenaries, who often happened to be active-duty soldiers. Afterwards, Russia began sending more overt support, such as air intelligence gathering and limited air attacks. The arrival of Russian mercenaries, and their failed storming of Grozny on November 26, 1994, signified the end of covert measures. At that point, Russian began planning for conventional invasion. Unbeknownst to the Russian military, instead of weakening Dudayev the involvement of Russian mercenaries consolidated his support.
Due to the secretive nature of the Russian decision-making process, there is little firsthand evidence on who precisely made the decisions for the invasion of Chechnya. However, by observing Russian actions it seems clear that there was a drastic shift from coercive measures to a strategy of annihilation and leadership targeting. The shift that signified this change was the destruction of all Chechen air assets on November 28th, 1994, only two days after the failed storming of Grozny.
Although the Russian air force had little trouble eliminating 266 enemy aircraft, Russian ground troops did not begin to move until December 11th. Local resistance on the way to the capital also slowed them down which forced a revision of their schedule. In the end Russian troops reached Grozny only on the 26th of December, thus allowing ample time for the defenders to prepare and losing any semblance of surprise.
Once they approached Grozny, the Russian military forces staged a three-pronged attack on the Chechen capital, that was meant to achieve strategic effects by attacking the perceived center of power with the hope that the Chechen leadership would be captured. But although the Russian military appeared to plan for encirclement and annihilation of hostile elements in the capital, the city stayed relatively porous as the open approaches enabled Chechen resistance fighters to move in and out of the city with supplies and reinforcements.
On the 31st of December Russian forces moved into the city and were met with stiff resistance from prepared positions. The Chechen fighters ambushed Russian armor formations inflicting heavy casualties with most armor personnel carriers destroyed as many were hit with five or more anti-tank grenades. Russian loses were so great that they surpassed the ratio of armor losses during the Battle of Berlin in World War Two.
On January 18th, the Chechen High Command made the decision to abandon the Presidential Palace given that it had become a ruin with little importance to their resistance movement. The next day Russian forces captured the building that was left undefended by the Chechens marking the end of the first stage of the Chechen war.
Strategically, the capture of Grozny did not add to the achievement of the political goal of keeping Chechnya within Russia. The Chechen leadership escaped leaving the Russians with a ruined city and a high number of dead and wounded. Moreover, the capture showcased strategic unpreparedness as according to Russian plans it should have taken them two weeks from the start of ground operations to the capture of Grozny. Instead, it took two months. However, the capture of the capital was a transition point from conventional invasion to stability operations in the vast Chechen countryside.
The stability operations that followed were marred by strategic failures. The most evident was the lack of training of troops which attempted to offset their lack of skills by relying on heavy artillery and indiscriminate bombings. As many neutral villages were now swarmed by insurgents, the Russian military responded with indiscriminate air and artillery strikes, that alienated many civilians.
During the stability operations the Russian modus operandi was to respond to attacks by surrounding local settlements and slowly closing in and destroying all resistance. This proved to be counterproductive because the insurgents would often escape well before the pocket would close leaving only civilians who bore the brunt of Russian violence. When civilians began joining in guerilla warfare, Russian conscripts were often involved in patterns of abuse such as massacres and mass rapes. This had strategic implications because Russian abuse tapped into centuries of Chechen memories of oppression under Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union thus increasing the strength of local resistance.
A turning point in the Chechen conflict was when the Chechen nationalists began taking waves of hostages with the end goal of forcing political concessions and ending hostilities in Chechnya. The first and most well-known case was in 1995 in the city of Budionovsk where almost a thousand hostages were taken by Chechen forces. Afterwards the Chechens voiced their demands of ending the conflict. After numerous failed and ineffective attempts to free the hostages, the Russian government declared a ceasefire in Chechnya.
Sensing that the Russian involvement would not end merely by guerilla actions and hostage taking, the Chechen forces organized a massive counterattack in 1996 aiming to take Grozny as a public demonstration of the untenable position of the Russian forces and to showcase their ability to fight Russians directly. The Chechens responded with simultaneous attacks across all Russian positions inside and outside Grozny in addition to the rural areas. The Russian military was not prepared for a large-scale concentrated attacks and began relying on its heavy munitions unaware that they would not be able to be resupplied. As the Russian military situation became hopeless, peace negotiations were finalized, and all Federal Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya.
Evaluating the strategic effectiveness of the Russian forces requires a multifaceted analysis of the Russian military organization. This research paper will use the points outlined in the article “The Effectiveness of Military Organizations” by Alan Millet, Williamson Murray, and Kenneth Watman to determine Russian strategic effectiveness.
A clear requirement for a successful military strategy is the alignment of military objectives with political goals. The initial military objective was to eliminate aircraft on airfields, helicopters and air defenses that might threaten ground forces. While the military was able to destroy all threats to Russian air power this had no bearing to the political goal of keeping Chechnya as part of Russia. Instead, it was a wasted air campaign given that there was little justification to the threat of Chechen air power.
Immediately after a blitz air campaign, ground forces entered Chechen territory through preplanned routes, seizing government and heading directly to Grozny. Their first objective appears to be the removal of Dudayev from the Chechen presidency and capturing and controlling the capital city of Grozny. However, the encirclement of Grozny and the capture of the Presidential Palace had little effects on national objectives. The choice of Grozny and the capture of the Presidential Palace suggests that the Russian Army's objectives in Chechnya showed little understanding of the Chechen center of gravity. The source of Chechen nationalism was not Dudayev nor was it to be found in Grozny. It was a national ideology of the people of Chechnya. Furthermore, the choice to conduct high intensity conventional campaigns proved to be counterproductive given that they were highly visible operations which did not take by surprise the Chechen forces. For example, conducting a massive air campaign immediately preceding ground operations clearly signaled to every hostile element that a ground offensive was imminent.
The military strategy of relying on conventional assets as a show of force did not come with an assessment of risk especially given the intelligence on the stores of weapons. It was well known to Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev that most Soviet era equipment was in the hands of the Chechen nationalist forces. Grachev himself was responsible for an agreement to allow Dudayev to keep 50% of the Soviet era arsenals. However, even that agreement fell through as the Dudayev regime was able to secure 80% of all military equipment. Russian estimates were that in two years before the invasion, the Chechens had 41,538 firearms, 740 antitank weapons, 200,000 hand grenades and more than 14 million rounds of ammunition in addition to many other systems such as artillery and Multiple Rocket Launch systems (MRLs).
The strategic failure in assessing risk was laid bare in the attack on Grozny in 1994. Russia's entry into Grozny in 1994 was conducted as a show of force with tanks followed by mounted infantry. The primary reason for this was that Russians believed that the city was not well defended. Most commanders thought that the sight of Russian armor and the occasional shots fired would dissuade any resistance.  Instead, they were facing an equal number of Chechen troops that had years to plan a defensive. Once the Russian armor units entered Grozny they were ambushed by small independent and well-equipped Chechen groups inflicting heavy casualties. One motorized brigade was virtually wiped out as only 18 of 120 armored troop carriers returned from Grozny. In his memoirs, Lieutenant General Genady Troshev noted that according to available historical experience an attack on a capital city such as Grozny should have required at least 50,000-60,000 troops or a ratio of 6:1. Instead, Russian command judged that it should attack with less than 7,000 troops.
One reason why the Russian military did not adequately assess risk was because they misjudged the nature of combat and the enemy they were facing. Thinking they were fighting rogue bandits the Russians ignored historical and ideological factors of Chechen resistance and inadvertently consolidated support for Dudayev. Consolidation of support was particularly noted in the failed Russian coup attempt on 26 November 1994 and the use of mercenaries. However, such political setbacks were not as significant as the military failure to plan for contingencies and asymmetric war. The Russian military and policy leaders alike had access to a preponderance of historical data that Chechen resistance would likely be long lasting and not conventional. Instead of preparing for such a possibility, the term guerrilla warfare was not even in the lexicon of Russian strategic planning. Russian failure in researching the enemy is noted in that only two weeks before the invasion, two Colonels from the Russian General Staff requested from the Ministry of Defense the most general information on past armed conflict in Chechnya. This episode clearly shows that the Russian military organization had little notion and desire to adequately plan for conflict.
Strategic unpreparedness of information collection on the enemy is highlighted by Yeltsin who in his memoirs remarked that his advisors expected five to twenty thousand rebels at most. Instead, they soon faced 40,000 full and part-time insurgents supported by a significant portion of the population most with previous military experience. The result was that the Russians found themselves in a conflict full of risks for which they had not prepared for. Once committed, Russian planning failed to account for anything close to the level of resistance encountered.
Another failure of Russian planning was that they were incapable of responding to the wave of hostage beginning with the Tragedy of Budionovsk. The Russian forces were where ill-equipped to conduct such hostage taking operations. The blatant failures to secure the lives of the hostages resulted in the military being viewed as ineffective by the public. Russian inflexibility and unpreparedness was further noted when Chechen forces counterattacked and surrounded Grozny in August 1996 thus leaving the military with no other option than surrender.
Russian military strategy was also unsuccessful because they did not adopt courses of action that were consistent with their force quality and structure. After choosing an aggressive military campaign they made no attempt to confirm the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the Russian Army. They also did not train or conduct military exercises leading up to the invasion. Nor did most commanders seriously pay attention to planning. Moreover, they did not inform the soldiers of the expected resistance. In fact, the recruited soldiers were told that the Dudayev’s regime was barely holding on and that the supporters were few, barely armed and that it will be only a simple military operation. By contrast Dudayev spent three years preparing for war and when it arrived, most Chechens had no doubts that a war had begun. Dudayev spent the years seizing Soviet era depots and now mobilized men between the ages of 15 to 55, armed the general population, constructed caches, strongpoints, and underground facilities.
As Dudayev was preparing for an expected invasion, the Russian forces experienced degradation in combat readiness amid funding shortfalls.. Defense spending fell over 75 percent in six years and combat readiness suffered as funds were diverted.  The size of armed forces also fell from 5.4 million men in 1985 to 1.7 million in 1995. There was also a great shortage of trained specialists, junior officers, and experienced midgrade officers. Considering such drastic changes to force structure the Russian military still claimed that their capabilities were those of the long-gone Soviet past. The result was that in absence of well-trained troops many preferred to rely on heavy artillery and indiscriminate air bombings on civilian populations alienating many neutral civilians who later took up arms against the Russian forces.
The only marker of strategic effectiveness that favored the Russian military was its ability to communicate to the political leadership in forming of military plans. For example, Grachev was able to communicate freely with Yeltsin and formulate plans for a “lightning war” that would suit the stated political goals. But despite having full support from the president, Grachev failed to assess the risk that military involvement posed. Regardless of the extent of Grachev’s failure to communicate risks, Yeltsin did not critique Grachev in his memoirs. Instead, he argues that everyone misjudged the character of conflict. According to Yeltsin, not only did most of the leaders misjudge the nature of war but most did not know how to end it. Yeltsin’s only source of help came in the form of another military figure, General Alexander Lebed, who was finally able to finalize peace arrangements by meeting the Chechen leaders directly.
When hostilities began, Russia employed a combination of strategic approaches. First, they employed divide-and-conquer strategies, then coercive politics by threats of invasions, and the use of mercenaries to retain a degree of deniability. Immediately preceding conventional operations, the primary Russian strategy was decapitation through black operations and coups attempts against Dudayev’s regime and the use of coercion best noted by threats followed by negotiation attempts. In a sense, it was a form of active diplomacy whereby they attempted to force negotiation through low level violence. Moreover, they would also implement a divide and conquer strategies by supporting opposition groups, hiring mercenaries, and using targeted killings on key leaders including Dudayev. Once this strategy failed, the decision was taken to invade with regular Russian troops. Coercive measures were abandoned in favor of the strategy of annihilation, as demonstrated by the destruction of all Chechen air assets in a single day, and in forming plans for a short blitzkrieg war.
However, annihilation was not the only strategy employed in the conventional phase of conflict, as leadership targeting and attacking perceived centers of power continued simultaneously. Therefore, throughout the First Chechen War, Russia employed a broad range of strategies, rather than committing to one.
While every conflict is linked to its historic background and cannot be superimposed on others, the First Chechen War is remarkably informative regarding Russian use of force and the importance of strategy. Many similar approaches and patterns are now being carried out by Russia in Ukraine, leading one to speculate that it will inevitably lose strategically. This raises the possibility that Ukraine could eventually retake a significant portion of its territory or at least cut off and force a surrender of Russian troops on the right side of the Dnieper in similar fashion to the Chechen counterattack in 1996 in Grozny. Lastly, the simple fact that Russia failed strategically and was unable to defeat an insurgent movement despite technological, material superiority and clear command of the air, should serve as a powerful reminder to both policy makers and military leaders of the grave dangers posed by underestimating the enemy.
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