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International Security 29.3 (2004) 5-62

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The Perils of Counterinsurgency

Russia's War in Chechnya

For more than five years, Russian troops have been embroiled in a counterinsurgency war in Chechnya, the second war they have fought in that small Caucasus republic since the mid-1990s. The first war, from December 1994 to August 1996, ended when Russian and Chechen officials signed a peace agreement at Khasavyurt in the neighboring Republic of Dagestan. The Khasavyurt accord, which led to the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechen territory and three years of quasi independence for the republic, stipulated that the two parties would resolve the final status of Chechnya by the end of 2001. Before any negotiations about this matter could be held, however, a series of events beginning with deadly incursions by Islamic extremists from Chechnya into Dagestan in August 1999 culminated in a large-scale resumption of fighting between Russian federal forces and Chechen guerrillas—fighting that has continued ever since.

This article assesses Russia's counterinsurgency operations during the latest war in Chechnya. The article begins by looking briefly at the geographic and military context of the war, the events that precipitated the renewed fighting, and the early results of the conflict. It then examines the tactics used by Chechen guerrillas and the responses by Russian soldiers and security forces. The article considers why Russian troops and police, who outnumber the rebels by more than fifty to one, have been unable to eliminate armed resistance in an area as small as Chechnya. It also highlights the growing emphasis the Chechens have placed on terrorist attacks both inside and outside the North Caucasus. The final section provides a net evaluation of Russian efforts. [End Page 5]

The Setting for the Ongoing War

Chechnya is a landlocked region in southern Russia bordered by Dagestan to the east and north, Stavropol Krai and North Ossetia to the northwest, Ingushetia to the west, and the Republic of Georgia to the south. The capital and largest city of Chechnya, Grozny, is in the center. The total land area of Chechnya is 19,300 square kilometers, roughly the size of New Jersey (and one twenty-fifth the size of Iraq). The population before the start of the latest war was approximately 1.05 million, but it has shrunk to around 700,000 (one thirty-fifth the size of Iraq) because 40,000-45,000 civilians have been killed, tens of thousands are living as refugees (50,000 internally, the rest externally), and many others have moved permanently elsewhere.

The terrain in Chechnya is highly diverse, ranging from plains in the north to wooded hills near Grozny and treacherous mountains in the south along the borders with Georgia and Ingushetia. Russian troops have had their greatest difficulty establishing control over the southernmost portion of Chechnya, where the terrain has been a key advantage for guerrillas, enabling them to ambush Russian forces, conceal ammunition and weapons, and move almost unhindered between Chechnya and safe havens across the border in Georgia, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.

Huge swaths of Chechnya were destroyed during the 1994-96 war, and promises of large-scale reconstruction aid from Moscow never materialized. Although the federal government provided a limited amount of assistance (mostly energy supplies and grain), economic recovery and the rebuilding of destroyed facilities never made any headway. Further destruction occurred in 1999-2000, rendering many towns, including Grozny, almost uninhabitable. Chechnya's infrastructure has been obliterated, and basic services (e.g., running water, electricity, heat, and natural gas) are nonexistent or nearly so in many areas, including Grozny.1 Even if the war were to end and reconstruction were to begin on a serious footing, most of Chechnya would remain blighted for years to come.

Public order in Chechnya broke down almost completely during the 1994-96 war and has not been reestablished in any meaningful way. The three years of quasi independence in Chechnya from September 1996 to September 1999 [End Page 6] were marred by warlordism, rampant criminality, hostage-takings, chaotic violence, grisly attacks on foreign aid...


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