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What seemed a simple intervention to the Russian Army in 1994 quickly turned into a bloodbath with lessons for another war.

Forty years after emerging victorious from World War II, the massive, well-equipped Soviet army dominated much of Asia and Eastern Europe. Some military analysts deemed it virtually invincible. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the army of the Russian Federation proudly took up the mantle of the former Red Army. Agile and modern it certainly was not. But to outsiders the Russian army still seemed to embody relentless endurance and overwhelming force.

As the 20th century drew to a close, however, the illusion of Russian superiority dissolved in a firestorm of combat that swept through a city named Grozny, capital of the tiny Caucasian republic of Chechnya. In Russian, Grozny means “fearsome” or “menacing.” From December 1994 to August 1996 the city more than lived up to its name.

Wedged between the Black and Caspian seas, south of Russia and north of Turkey and Iran, the Caucasus region has a troubled history. In ancient times imperial Roman and Persian forces vied for its control. Later the Caucasus became a borderland in the ongoing struggle between Islam and Christianity. Persians, Byzantines, Ottoman Turks and Russians all fought over its villages and mountain passes, and in the 20th century the region was an important World War I battlefront. One consequence of this perpetual tug-of-war has been the convergence of diverse peoples for whom violence has become an ingrained cultural trait.

Bolshevik forces entered the region in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Among the peoples they encountered were the Chechens—a restless, warlike and mostly Sunni Muslim ethnic group inhabiting an area of some 6,680 square miles. The territories of North Ossetia, Dagestan and Ingushetia bordered Chechnya on three sides, with Georgia to the south. The Chechen terrain varies between the mostly open, lowland north and the mountainous south, bisected by the Terek River. Founded in 1818 as an imperial Russian army outpost, Grozny lies roughly at the center of the republic, south of the Terek and just north of the forested mountains, which top out above 14,000 feet.

The Soviets fought several campaigns to subdue Chechnya in the 1920s and 1930s but never entirely succeeded. German forces penetrated almost to Grozny in the summer of 1942. Many Chechens assisted the Germans, spurring Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to exact revenge in 1944 by forcibly resettling the entire Chechen population (then numbering more than 400,000) in Kazakhstan. More than a third were killed or died en route. The Chechens returned after Stalin’s death, but their bitter memories lingered.

In the fall of 1991 successful independence movements in the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia inspired other subject republics and autonomous regions of the Soviet Union to seek freedom. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria declared its independence in November under President Dzhokhar Dudayev, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist the following month. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, distracted by other matters, could do little to hold onto the Caucasus.

Despite its de facto independence the fledgling Chechen republic failed to establish a functional government or economy. Instead, warlords ruled locally from the proceeds of corruption, kidnapping, drug trafficking and arms sales. Little but a common hatred of Russia united these factions. Though respecting Islam as a symbol of national resistance, many Chechens were essentially secular. Yeltsin first sought to destabilize Dudayev’s administration and restore control through pro-Russian Chechen loyalists. His attempts failed, and in 1994 the Russian government decided to intervene through direct military assault. Some 40,000 Russian troops entered Chechnya that autumn, nominally in collaboration with local loyalists.

Though it appeared powerful, the Russian army of 1994 was a mere shadow of its Soviet glory days predecessor. As a whole the army received only a third of the funding required to operate at capacity in manpower, supplies and equipment. Pay for soldiers and officers lagged; there was a dearth of junior and noncommissioned officers; equipment was of mixed quality and always in short supply; training was inadequate; and morale among conscripts and volunteers alike was correspondingly dismal.

Complicating matters, Russian forces reported not to a single command structure but to multiple ministries; thus the forces invading Chechnya included Ministry of Defense (MoD), Interior Ministry (MVD), security special forces (Spetsnaz) and other troops. Typically, they had neither the training nor the disposition to work either together or in coordination with armor or air units. Their communications equipment was often incompatible or nonfunctional, making combined-arms operations largely impossible. Units often simply signaled in the clear to seek support. This provided opportunities for eavesdropping and deception the Chechens eagerly exploited.

Perhaps the Russian army’s greatest weakness at the time of the invasion was its complete unpreparedness for urban warfare. During World War II the Red Army had experienced intense and extensive urban combat in places like Stalingrad, Budapest and Berlin. In the postwar period, however, tacticians gradually forgot lessons learned from those experiences, and by the 1980s Soviet military training no longer included instruction in urban warfare. Instead, Soviet and, later, Russian Federation planners instructed officers to bypass well-defended towns and cities. Those deemed weakly held were to be overawed; tanks would enter in columns to intimidate civilians, followed by mechanized and foot infantry units to establish and maintain control.

Many Chechen fighters were Red Army veterans. Unlike the Russians, however, they rose above the limitations of Cold War–era Soviet training and prepared specifically for urban combat. Exploiting their detailed knowledge of places like Grozny, they spent months studying possible routes of enemy approach and drilling carefully to defend them. Loosely organized units of 50 to 60 men were assigned specific sectors of responsibility, within which they laid booby traps and established zones of fire. They also laid out routes of movement and communication, both above and below ground. As events would prove, their tactics were effective.

Nor did the Chechens lack equipment. Indeed, the Caucasus was awash in arms. In 1995, for example, American correspondent Thomas Goltz encountered “one young merchant, swinging hand grenades by the pins on his fingers like a pair of six-shooters, [who] offered me the bombs at around $3 each. Kalashnikovs were selling for around $200 apiece, extra clips optional. If I wanted to pick up an eight-wheel Soviet armored personnel carrier, that would run $5,000.” Though primarily using light weapons, including RPGs and grenades, the Chechens also boasted some T-62 and T-72 tanks, anti-tank guns, surface-to-air missiles and even BM-21 Grad rocket launchers—gear mostly abandoned by the Russian army when it left the region in the early 1990s. The Chechens also improvised, placing antitank weapons in modified automobiles and mounting antiaircraft weapons on truck beds. The Chechen air force, such as it was, was destroyed on the ground at the beginning of the invasion and played no role in the subsequent fighting.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev envisioned the occupation of Grozny in three stages. From Nov. 29 to Dec. 6, 1994, Russian forces would push into Chech- nya from the west, north and east, driving concentrically on the capital. Then from December 7 to 9 they would envelop the city and seal it off from the countryside. The actual assault would begin on December 10 and last but a few days. Grachev—relying on duplicitous Chechen “loyalists” and air reconnaissance, albeit with no means of seeing into the huge Soviet-built apartment blocks dominating the city—assumed Grozny was weakly defended. Tanks in column, he thought, should suffice to intimidate the Chechens. To establish control of the capital, troops would simply occupy key government buildings and communications centers and establish perimeters of defense. The Russians held doggedly to this vision despite warning signs their operation had serious flaws.

The timetable quickly fell by the wayside. Russian forces moved out 12 days late and met unexpectedly heavy resistance north of the Terek. Raids by Chechen fighters slowed down mobile columns and hindered communications and logistics. By mid-December four Russian battle groups—some 200 armored vehicles and 6,000 infantrymen—were converging on the capital. But the envelopment was glacial and unwieldy, and the Russians failed to seal off Grozny, thus allowing free movement of Chechen fighters and supplies in and out of the city.

Pressing forward in three main columns from west, north and east, the Russians made slow progress on Grozny’s outskirts. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Grachev launched an allout assault on the city center, preceded by air strikes. From the north the 81st Guards Motor Rifle Regiment spearheaded the drive on the central railway station and presidential palace. Led by tanks and APCs, the columns initially moved quickly, facing slight opposition. But at 1 p.m. their parade abruptly ended. Opening fire from basements and the upper stories of tall buildings—firing positions largely unreachable by the Russian tanks’ main guns—Chechen fighters disabled the columns’ front and rear vehicles and destroyed the remainder with RPGs and even Molotov cocktails. Then they turned on the infantry. Russian troops panicked, returning fire haphazardly or hunkering down in their APCs only to be blown to bits. Friendly fire claimed a large number of Russians. Events took a similar turn in other parts of the city as the Chechen defenders halted or destroyed Grachev’s converging columns.

Russian attacks continued over the following weeks, but generally with similar results. The Chechens had prepared zones of defense in concentric circles around the city center. Buildings became strongpoints, death traps for Russian infantry and armor inundated by interlocking fields of fire. Squads of Chechens backed by snipers “hugged” Russian troop concentrations, making it difficult for Grachev’s troops to retaliate with artillery or rockets. Chechen veterans of the Red Army, familiar with the vulnerabilities of Russian T-72 and T-80 tanks and BMP-1 and BTR-70 APCs, dispatched the enemy vehicles with relative ease. Russian infantrymen called in air strikes when weather allowed and managed to establish air-ground communications, but the identical-looking Soviet apartment blocks confounded the pilots, who took out their comrades as often as they killed Chechens. Meanwhile, the defenders exploited their mobility advantage on the ground to hit the Russians from multiple directions and then slip away along prepared escape routes.

Terror played a role in Chechen tactics. The defenders widely employed such classic methods as booby-trapping dead Russian soldiers and sniping to wound rather than kill, thus luring additional targets into the killing zones. Chechen fighters easily melded into the civilian population, and Russian attempts to separate combatants from civilians in so-called “filtration camps” were public-relations disasters and wholly ineffective. Chechens also stationed defensive strongpoints in civilian-occupied buildings to draw Russian fire and exploit civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Unlike most Russian officers, Chechen fighters courted Western media attention and cooperated eagerly with war correspondents to build sympathy for their cause.

Tested by relentless combat, the Russians eventually relearned key urban warfare lessons. Superiors relieved incompetent field officers and replaced MVD forma- tions with more efficient MoD troops. Better-trained reinforcements from naval infantry, airborne and Spetsnaz units boosted troop levels in Grozny to 30,000 by early 1995. The Russians reclaimed the night through the effective use of communications and night-vision equipment, while blinding the enemy with searchlights and white phosphorus. Russian snipers made an impact, and small units demonstrated more flexible tactics; instead of trying to control the whole city, they advanced room by room, building by building. A preferred weapon against Chechen strongpoints was the Shmel (“Bumblebee”) rocket-propelled incendiary projectile.

Not all Russian improvisations bore fruit, however. Attempts at fielding World War II–style urban assault squads weren’t particularly successful due to the lack of time for specialized training. Tanks still struggled with Chechen strongpoints and mobile tactics. Helicopters assaulted upper-story building emplacements with good results but were vulnerable to ground fire. As often happens in modern warfare, ground fighters made compelling propaganda from the filmed destruction of enemy fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.

Russian forces drove the Chechen command from the presidential palace by mid-January and made slow but steady progress toward the city center. But these successes bred overconfidence. By March, believing Grozny to be in their hands, the Russian command pulled out the MoD troops and sent them to fight in the southern mountains, replacing them with the inferior MVD troops.

At the same time the Chechens took the war to a new level. In mid-June, Chechen separatist Shamil Basayev, declaring, “We won’t sit here in Chechnya and be exterminated,” attacked the Russian town of Budennovsk and took 1,500 hostages in a hospital. An attempted rescue operation by Russian Spetsnaz troops failed miserably, leaving 150 civilians dead. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin gained release of the hostages in exchange for the safe withdrawal of Basayev’s force and the suspension of all Russian offensive operations in Chechnya. Chernomyrdin termed the deal “the first time in Russian history that saving lives has been put above the interests of the state,” hardly concealing the humiliation for Yeltsin’s government or the encouragement Budennovsk provided to Chechen terrorists.

In January 1996 another force of 200 Chechen separatists crossed the border into Dagestan, attacking a Russian helicopter base at Kizlyar, then seizing the town’s hospital and taking 2,000 hostages. Yeltsin ordered immediate negotiations, promising the separatists safe passage back to Chechnya —but he had no intention of keeping his word. Shortly after the Chechens left Kizlyar in a column of buses with 150 hostages, Russian forces intercepted the convoy and demanded the Chechens surrender. Instead, the separatists took their hostages to the nearby village of Pervomayskoye and set up defensive positions. Five days later Russian forces launched a no-holds-barred assault on the village with tanks, helicopters and rockets, paying little heed to the safety of hostages or civilians. The Russians “won”—killing many Chechens and forcing the rest to flee—but flattened the village in the process.

In Chechnya, meanwhile, peace negotiations failed, and the war resumed. With the help of Chechen loyalists the Russians sought to build a stable local government, with mixed success. Chechen fighters maintained control of the southern mountains, raided Grozny and ramped up terrorist attacks. Russian atrocities against Chechen civilians also kept tensions high. In March 1996 Basayev flagrantly rode into Grozny with hundreds of fighters on a captured train, throwing MVD troops into panic. He withdrew only after inflicting hundreds of casualties and capturing weapons and ammunition caches. Occasional Russian “victories,” such as the April 21 assassination of Dudayev (reportedly with the help of U.S. intelligence) had little impact on the overall fighting.

Morale among Russian forces rapidly declined in the midst of defeat, squalor, corruption, and epidemic drug and alcohol abuse. In his personal war memoir conscript Arkady Babchenko claimed to have endured more misery at the hands of comrades than he did from the Chechens. “I got beaten by everyone, from privates to the deputy regiment commander,” he wrote. “The only person I didn’t get beaten by was a general, maybe because we didn’t have any in our regiment.” By the summer of 1996 fourteen members of his company had gone AWOL: “Young conscripts flee in droves, heading straight from their beds into the steppe, barefoot and wearing only their long johns, unable to withstand the nightly torment any longer.” Even his lieutenant deserted. Russian mothers protested openly for the war to end, and Yeltsin’s support plummeted to zero.

Sensing the moment had come to strike, Basayev and other Chechen commanders led an assault on Grozny in August 1996. Small units infiltrated the city and then split up to block avenues of approach, seizing such key targets as the railroad station. The estimated 7,000 MVD troops in Grozny withdrew into bunkers or fled. MoD reinforcements reverted to 1994 form, repeating old mistakes in their attempt to recapture the city. By August 11 they had pushed to the city center but at the cost of 2,000 casualties. Russia could take no more. An August 22 cease-fire effectively ended the conflict, with the Russians promising to withdraw from the republic by year’s end and eventually recognize its independence.

The 1994–96 First Chechen War was first and foremost a humanitarian tragedy, claiming the lives of some 50,000 to 80,000 Chechens—perhaps more—and making refugees of hundreds of thousands. Russian officials admitted to 24,000 military casualties but may have suffered twice that number. Grozny lay in ruins. Chechnya, technically “free,” was utterly impoverished. It soon descended into banditry and became a haven for Islamic extremists. Humiliated at its loss to the tiny republic, many Russians yearned for revenge. Yeltsin’s fall and the rise of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime owed much to the festering sore in Chechnya. And while military leaders could not reinvent the rusty, lumbering Russian war machine overnight, they could and did learn from their mistakes. When war broke out again in 1999, the Chechens again inflicted fearsome casualties, but the Russians had returned to stay.


For further reading Ed Lengel recommends Russia’s Chechen Wars, 1994–2000: Lessons From Urban Combat, by Olga Oliker; The War in Chechnya, by Stasys Knezys and Romanas Sedlickas; and The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, by Robert W. Schaefer.

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.