ZOiS Spotlight 15/2022

Russia’s Wars: Ukraine and Chechnya Compared

by James Hughes 20/04/2022
A “Mines” sign is hanging on a wall of a heavily war-damaged building in Grozny, Chechnya. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

In December 1994, a long column of Russian armour entered Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, to crush a nationalist secessionist revolt led by a former Soviet Air Force general, Dzhokhar Dudaev. Russia anticipated that the sheer demonstrative power of its military would induce surrender. Within a few hours, the column was annihilated by Chechen fighters, with Russia losing around 200 armoured vehicles, and around 1,000 troops killed or taken prisoner.

There are obvious similarities between the Russian-Chechen conflict and the current war in Ukraine, but there are also crucial differences. Perhaps, the most important factor in such a comparison is the learning curve experienced by the Russians and the tactical adaptability of the Russian military in response to initial failure. What has occurred in Ukraine so far, tactically, is an iteration of Russia’s Chechen conflict but on an even more immense scale. The strategic outcome, however, is likely to be similar: a costly Russian victory at the expense of massive opposition losses, destroyed infrastructure, and depopulation.

Russia’s shifting tactics

The first clear comparison between Chechnya and Ukraine is the way in which a numerically weaker and more poorly armed force was able to inflict so much damage on Russian forces. In both cases, a seemingly overwhelming Russian military intervention was characterised by a combination of tactical ineptness and initial restraint to minimise civilian casualties. Large armoured columns were ambushed by resistance forces using hit-and-run guerrilla or asymmetric warfare tactics.

In each conflict, the Russian armour lost manoeuvrability on unsuitable terrain in villages, towns, and forests. Resistance forces armed with anti-armour infantry weapons wreaked havoc. The Chechens were fortunate that a major Soviet military stockpile of weapons was located in Grozny, while the Ukrainians have benefited from the supply of thousands of hand-held anti-armour weapons from NATO countries.

After initial setbacks, Russia changed tactics in Chechnya, and a similar shift has taken place in Ukraine. In early 1995, much of Grozny was reduced to rubble by an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands of civilians. Thereafter, Russia used air power and shelling to destroy any resistance and minimise direct contact with Chechen forces. Dudaev called for a mass armed mobilisation of Chechens to resist the invaders, just as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi called for an all-out mobilisation of all those of fighting age.

Effectively arming civilians in the midst of an asymmetric war means that the norms of war are lost, and in particular, civilian immunity under the laws of war becomes at best a very grey area. This is not a uniquely Russian problem, as it has been seen in recent major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involving the militaries of NATO countries. The loss of restraint, in combination with asymmetric war, tends to lead to massacres of civilians and, possibly, acts of genocide as well as the mistreatment and murder of prisoners of war.

Observers have focused on Bucha and other massacre sites in Ukraine, but similar scenes were seen before in Samashki and other places in Chechnya. The bombing and shelling of urban areas, and the use of cluster bombs, air fuel bombs, and phosphorus weapons in the current war in Ukraine, were also a feature of previous conflicts, including campaigns by NATO militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Militaries see these practices as effective against dug-in infantry positions and they do not fall strictly within the category of banned tactics and weapons.

Another consequence of such wars being conducted among civilians is that there are massive refugee flows away from the conflict areas. Militaries will seek to intensify the depopulation of areas to create so-called free-fire zones. Millions of Ukrainians have fled abroad as refugees; by the early 2000s, the vast bulk of the population of Chechnya had fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Ingushetia. Depopulation magnifies the problem of indiscriminate targeting of civilians, on the basis that militaries consider that any civilian left behind must be part of the war effort.

For Putin, victory at all costs

One of the ironies of the Chechen conflict is that Western countries were fulsome in their support for Russia in the First Chechen War from 1994 to 1996, largely because of the West’s political interest in preserving then Russian president Boris Yeltsin in power. The rise of Vladimir Putin came on the basis of his prowess in unconstrained warfare in the Second Chechen War from 1999 to 2007, transforming him from an unknown to Russia’s most popular politician and leader. Putin employed total war against the Chechens from the outset, using all of the measures outlined above.

Putin also brought a pragmatism to the conduct of war that Yeltsin was incapable of. He successfully worked to break up the Chechen resistance in a classic strategy of divide and rule. Success for Russia in Chechnya’s wars came at the cost of around 11,000 military and security personnel dead and tens of thousands wounded, at least 50,000 Chechen civilians dead and hundreds of thousands injured, [1] the region largely destroyed, and Chechnya’s society still suffering today from post-traumatic stress disorder and the environmental consequences of modern warfare.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has moved into a new phase. Russia is now seeking to use its conventional firepower in a more astute manner in the open steppes around the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk to encircle and annihilate a large part of the Ukrainian army that is immobilised. Experience suggests that Putin will be hoping to pragmatically exploit divisions on the Ukrainian side. What is certain is that he will use all necessary means to ensure victory in Ukraine, irrespective of the costs. Success in war made Putin, and the fate of his regime is tied to the outcome of the war in Ukraine.

James Hughes is Professor of Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of ‘Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad'.

[1] The human costs are much disputed. The NGO Soldier’s Mothers of Russia claimed around 11,000 Russian military deaths by 2006, which is about double the Russian Ministry of Defence figures. Independent sources estimated civilian deaths at around 35,000 in the first war and 10,000 in the second war. Chechen sources claim much higher estimates of 100,000-300,000. For a discussion see Hughes (2007). 150-1.