Monday, December 30, 2013

The History of Russian Involvement in Chechnya

 With the possibility that Chechen terrorists are behind the recent bombings in Russia, I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at Chechnya, its history and its link to terrorism over the past two decades.

Chechnya is located in the northern part of Russia's Caucasus region, midway between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as shown on this map (coloured in beige):

If you look at the map carefully, you will see why Chechnya is of great strategic importance to Russia.  It is along the pathway to Caspian Sea oil and is located along the key land bridge that connects Russia to the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, as shown here:

Chechnya has a two century history of being governed by Moscow and, after the fall of the USSR, Chechen separatists launched a campaign for independence.  This campaign led to two wars and an ongoing militant-led insurgency.

Who are the Chechens?  They are a largely Muslim ethnic group that has had a long history of conflict with their Russian masters.  After the Russians reconquered the Chechen territory that had been occupied by the German army during the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechen people of collaborating with the Nazis.  On February 23, 1944, the Chechens were forcibly scattered throughout the entire Soviet Union.  Over an eight-day period, between 350,000 and 400,000 Chechens were deported after men from each village were lured to take part in Red Army Day celebrations.  They were detained at gunpoint and Red Army soldiers undertook a program which rounded up Chechen women and children, giving them only minutes to gather basic belongings in preparation for deportation.  On February 29, 1944, 159 convoys were underway, mainly consisting of cattle trucks or freight cars ferrying people from their homes.  After twenty to thirty days, deportees arrived at their destinations, often in Kazakhstan and Far Eastern Siberia.  Those who resisted were either shot or arrested and then expelled to Central Asia.  For thirteen years, the Chechen people endured hardship, living in villages that they were not allowed to leave and working in factories where they were very poorly paid.  Chechen children were not allowed to use their mother-tongue and were educated in Russian.  Finally, in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to return to their homeland.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, separatists in the new Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya formed an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress and, in 1993, declared full independence under the leadership of Dzhokar Dudayev, pictured here:

This move to independence was strongly opposed by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.  After accusations of corruption by Russia, on November 26, 1994, domestic opposition forces aided by Russian Army units, attempted to overthrow Dudayev in what became a two year long battle known as the First Chechnya War.  This attempted coup was followed two weeks later by three divisions of Russian armour and pro-Russian Chechen infantry.

A massive aerial bombing campaign of Groznyy, the Chechen capital, followed, killing many civilians and resulting in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.   During 1995 and 1996, a long and bloody guerrilla war was fought; Chechen fighters were forced to use terrorist tactics in their attempts to rid Chechnya of its Russian invaders.  In late 1995, Russia called for elections to replace the Moscow-backed government that had replaced Dudayev after Groznyy was levelled.  In April 1996, Dudayev was likely killed by a Russian ground-launched rocket while he was talking on a satellite phone.  Russia withdrew from Chechnya when it became apparent that the cost of the war was too high and that the ongoing conflict was very unpopular among Russians.

The time for Chechen retaliation had begun.  In September 1999, a series of apartment block bombings in Russia led to the killing of over 300 people; 90 in one blast in Moscow and 130 in another four days later.  These bombings ushered in the reign of newly minted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who used the bombings as a reason to launch another major military campaign in Chechnya.  To this day, the actual parties behind the bombings remain unconfirmed and Chechen rebels have repeatedly denied involvement.  Some experts have even suggested that the Federal Security Service (FSB) the successor to the KGB (headed by Mr. Putin), was responsible either overtly or by not acting on their knowledge that may have prevented the bombings.

The Second Chechnya War began when Russia stated that it intended to subdue bands of bandits hiding in Chechnya's mountains.  When the Russians withdrew from Chechnya in 1996, a wave of kidnappings and other crime took place in the Caucasus region with many hostages being Russian Army conscripts.  In March 1999, Russia's Interior Minister was kidnapped from the airport in Groznyy and was later executed.  A Chechen militant group led by Shamil Basayev and Doku Umarov took action against the Russian forces in Chechnya, resulting in the deaths of over 1100 Russian troops between August 1999 and early 2000 and the deaths of an estimated 10,000 rebels.  Nearly a quarter of a million Chechen civilians were once again displaced internally.  Both sides accused each other of using chemical weapons.  As time passed, the militants decided to change their tactics, moving away from the idea of creating an independent Chechnya and heading towards the creation of an autonomous Islamic region that encompassed the entire Caucasus region.

Now, let's look at the terrorist groups that are active in Chechnya.  According to the U.S. State Department, the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade is the primary channel for Islamic funding of the Chechen guerrillas through links to al-Qaeda financiers on the Arabia Peninsula.  Chechyna's long history of guerrilla warfare has attracted Arab fighters that may also be linked to al-Qaeda.  Shamil Basayev who was killed in July 2006, was an Islamic militant and was responsible for the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (a southern Russian republic) where 186 children and 148 adults were killed in a two day hostage taking with an additional 810 people being.

Chechen rebels are also responsible for these attacks:

1.) A bomb blast in May 2002 in Kaspiisk during a military parade that killed 41 people including 17 children.

2.) The October 2002 seizure of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater that ended up killing over 120 theater patrons when the gas used by Russia's Special Forces to disable the hostage-takers overcame many of the hostages.

3.) A December 2002 dual suicide bombing that attacked a building housing Chechnya's government, killing 83 people.

4.) A bomb attack on the Nevsky Express high speed train travelling between Moscow and St. Petersburg caused a derailment that killed 27 people and injured 95.  The bomb is believed to have been triggered by a cell phone.

5.) In March 2010, two female suicide bombers detonated bombs in Moscow's metro subway killing 39 people.

As we can see, Chechnya has a long and painful history, particularly in its fractious relationship with its Russian masters.  The involvement of Russia and the U.S.S.R. in Chechnya’s internal affairs are once again bearing a very bitter fruit.


  1. > In March 1999, Russia's Interior Minister was kidnapped from the airport in Groznyy and was later executed

    You must be referring to the Russian Interior Ministry's special representative in Chechnya:

  2. Well as China is finding out with its issues in Xinjiang with its Uyghur population, where Islam goes so will violence and problems. (not all Islam mind you its more the Sunnis then Shites) Shites can live in peace with others Sunnis not so much.

  3. While leadership of Jihadi terrorism in Russia may be traced to well-trained, organized Chechens, emerging issue appears to be that the radicalization is deep in neighbouring Dagestan, and has some hold in other North Caucasus republics as well. Perhaps even more risky is that the radicalization now also involves ethnic Russians who first convert to moderate Islam, and then become radicalized enough to lead suicide bomb missions against their own ethnicity. Your map is good attempt, but just showing bunch of ethnic hearths may not get at the real issue - radical Islamists now seeping out of the old terrorist focal points.

  4. People become radicalized, not by religion, but by injustice.

  5. Injustice does not justify the killing of innocents.