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Russia's Invasion of Chechnya: A Preliminary Assessment

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.. | January 1995

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In December 1994, Russian forces invaded the rebellious province of Chechnya. They aimed to unseat General Dzhokar Dudayev, who had proclaimed Chechnya's independence from Russia. The invasion culminated a series of failed coups against Dudayev that had been orchestrated by the office of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. However, this invasion has quickly degenerated into a military-political quagmire. Generals, soldiers, and even Deputy Defense Ministers have attacked the invasion, and tactical, operational, and military incompetence has been rife. Civilian control over the military has broken down, and the armed forces' poor cohesion and limited reliability have become clear to everyone. Furthermore, the government's reporting has been exposed as official lying by the media with the result of mounting public disaffection.

Worse yet, the integrity of the Yeltsin government and of Russia is at risk due to the invasion. Russian prestige has been dealt a blow abroad. As a result, in Moscow, scapegoating has already begun between the government and the military while the reputation and stability of the government and the armed forces have been severely impaired. All this is already clear from an initial, preliminary assessment of the invasion.


When Russia's armed forces invaded Chechnya on December 11, 1994, they thought that it would only be a brief, decisive operation to bring the rebellious republic to heel. Unfortunately, they grossly miscalculated and have thereby put the stability of the Russian government itself at risk while inadvertently exposing the many shortcomings of the Russian armed forces. The invasion also revealed the absence of viable institutional or civilian control over the armed forces, as well as the government's readiness to use them to quell domestic unrest. These factors make for an exceedingly dangerous situation in Russia. And the invasion has also raised deeply troubling questions for Russia's international relations. All this is clear even from the first few weeks of the invasion. The invasion's repercussions will, therefore, be profound, and probably long-lasting in their ultimate effects. This essay accordingly represents an effort to assess these consequences on the basis of what is already known.

Chechnya, which had declared its independence from Russia in 1991, had become an increasingly painful and troublesome issue in Russian politics. Russia's determination to overthrow the government of General Dzhokar Dudayev is only the most recent manifestation of the acute disorder that pervades the entire Caucasus and Transcaucasia as well. While the ultimate outcome and repercussions of this invasion remain to be seen, already it has illuminated obvious and often ominous trends.

Russia's decision to invade Chechnya underscores the end of the Caucasus' isolation from world politics. No longer is the area merely Moscow's gateway to influence in the Near and Middle East. Rather the fate of the entire regional state system in the Caucasus and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)--the bedrock issue of all the many contentions in which Russia is involved--is deeply entwined with further progress in European security, especially around the Black Sea and Balkans.1 The crises in the Caucasus: ethnic wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and between Georgia and Abkhazia, the unrest throughout the North Caucasus most violently displayed by this invasion, and Russian efforts to regain a regional hegemony reflect and contribute to the pervasive regional chaos that now threatens to engulf all of Russia as well. Accordingly Caucasian events also materially affect Europe's security and this is reflected in Europe's expanded security agenda.2

A second conclusion relates to this one. By deciding to invade Chechnya, President Boris Yeltsin has made the stability of the Russian government and the integrity of the Russian state the center of gravity of the war. Whatever happens in Groznyi is of relatively small consequence compared to the fact that Yeltsin has exposed his regime's failure to create either a "rule of law state," (not to mention democracy), a reliable policy process, and a way to control Russia's armed forces. Accordingly, the chaos pervading the entire Caucasus could easily spread to Russia.

The fundamental problem across the CIS remains, therefore, the creation of effective states which have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Neither the states in the Caucasus, the rebellious provinces there, nor Russia have produced a Machtordnung (an order based on power) uniting force with legitimacy. Hence there is no order; instead we find a Hobbesian war of all against all where Russia or free-booting forces operating in Russia's name are constantly tempted to intervene.3 Though violence is regionally prevalent, it has failed to generate a principle of order anywhere from Russia south.

Accordingly a third conclusion suggests itself, namely that for the first time in its modern history, Russia has nothing to offer the Asian peoples with whom it is engaged. In the past Russia built an empire by combining force with ideas, ideologies, and institutions that attracted at least some Asian elites who were then coopted. Today Russia has nothing to offer these people other than force. No attractive legitimating ideology accompanies Russia's direct force, therefore that force cannot suffice to create any viable regional order across Eurasia. For this reason, perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this cycle of constant strife is that it has now spread to Russian territory proper and has manifested itself as a major threat to Yeltsin's government. Russia's overall Chechen policy has had a corrosive impact on Russian constitutional and internal security.

Chechnya has also become a major embarrassment for Moscow on the international stage because, on the one hand, Russia now appears to be indecisive and weak, and on the other hand it appears as an overbearing, brutal bully. Incompetence mixed with brutality is a pitiful combination. Where that corrosion will stop nobody knows. Indeed this inability to visualize an outcome or resolution to the use of military power, a conflict termination strategy in other words, is a major aspect of the profound strategic failure represented in Chechnya.


Our analysis of the Chechnya invasion is that it is indicative of the larger issue of Russia's seeming failure to create a viable state. If that is the case, the implications may go beyond the individual issues of Chechnya's attempted secession and the general complexities of the ethnic conflict problem in the CIS. The Chechnya invasion, and the way it is resolving, have cast doubt on the ability of Boris Yeltsin and his colleagues to create stable, lawful, and legitimate governing institutions in Russia. The extent to which the civilian leadership can control the army may also be in question. At the same time, the government has shown too great a willingness to use military force at home. Indeed, since 1989, Soviet and now Russian armed forces have been used in Georgia, Azerbaijan (twice), the Baltic, in Moscow (twice), throughout the Caucasus, and now again in Chechnya to compel submission to Moscow. All these interventions have failed, along with the covert operations that preceded them. Accordingly, these failures have undermined not only Russia's prestige and power abroad, but also threaten the foundations of the post-Communist Russian state itself.

Even before the Chechen coups and the invasion, two Russian analysts had already proclaimed that settling the minorities issue in Russian society and managing the Soviet legacy are tasks that must also include international institutions, not just the ethnic minorities on the spot and the Moscow government.39 Aleksandr' Konovalov and Dimitri Evstatiev's argument for including international institutions is based on the fact that those institutions alone can provide an objectivity and criteria for settlement that eludes Russia because of the common perception that Russia is "the main heir of the imperial past and the main source of totalitarian practice in inter-ethnic relations."40 This invasion has, if anything, enhanced the validity of this argument and heightened the urgency of international diplomatic and political intervention.

By invading Chechnya despite the aforementioned strategic vulnerabilities, the actions of Yeltsin and his colleagues suggest that they may not be able to manage that Soviet legacy and preserve peace in Eurasia. Similarly, by trampling on Russian democracy's fragile efforts to establish legal controls on government actions and on the armed forces, Yeltsin has seemingly repudiated his own statements of December 6, 1994 in Budapest that "it was too early to bury Russian democracy."

If that is, indeed, the case then Yeltsin may have, in the words of the poet Mayakovsky, "stepped on the throat of his own song" to become the gravedigger of the third Russian Revolution (1905 and 1917 being the first two) . If European intervention in Russia due to proliferating violence, and/or the death of Russian democracy come to pass, history will not soon forgive those who have ignited the fire of war on their own territory without having the means to put it out.


1. Daniel N. Nelson, "Creating Security in the Balkans," in Regina Cowen Karp, ed., Central and Eastern Europe: The Challenge of Transition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, For SIPRI, 1993, p. 172.

2. Ian O. Lesser, "The Strategic Environment in the Balkans and the Mediterranean," in F. Stephen Larrabee, ed., The Volatile Powder Keg: Balkan Security After the Cold War, Washington: American University Press, 1994, p. 168.

3. Gerard Holden, Russia After the Cold War: History and the Nation in Post-Soviet Security Policies, Frankfurt Am Main, Germany and Boulder, CO: Campus Verlag and Westview Press, 1994, pp. 33-37.

39. Alexander A. Konovalov and Dmitri Evstatiev, "The Problem of Ethnic Minority Rights Protection in the Newly Independent States," in Cuthbertson and Leibowitz, eds., Minorities: The New Europe's Old Issue, pp. 159-60.

40. Ibid.