Chechnya was incorporated into Russia in the mid-1800s, but had long struggled against Russian rule and resisted social and cultural assimilation. In 1944, Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan; they returned en masse in the years following Stalin’s death. When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Chechnya was one of several republics with a majority non-ethnic Russian population that remained within the Russia Federation. Chechen leaders sought to take advantage of the political upheaval to assert the long-sought independence from Russia. Led by General Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechens unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) on November 1, 1991. Many non-Chechens fled the area and a turbulent period of de facto independence followed. On December 1, 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Russian Army to “restore constitutional order” in the republic, and launched an invasion.
The war was fought between a Russian Army that was at the point of disintegration, and sent conscripts into Grozny, the capital, who were untrained, ill-equipped, underfed, and ill-paid under the command of poor leadership. On the other side, were highly motivated but poorly trained and equipped Chechen forces, who also committed human rights abuses against ethnic Russians and those who disagreed with them.
The war began on December 31, 1994, with a wholesale assault against the capital, Grozny. Supported by forces from the Ministry of the Interior, the Russian Army conducted heavy air bombardments, artillery shelling against the city, reducing it to rubble and causing large-scale civilian casualties and displacement.[i] However, when the Russians attempted a ground assault, they soon became mired in urban combat with Chechen forces and also suffered high casualties. Some accounts speculate that the majority of civilian deaths inside Grozny were Russians, as the vast numbers of ethnic Chechens fled to surrounding villages.
Chechen fighters retreated to outlying villages and towns, most of which were by Spring 1995 captured by Russian soldiers. Reports of human rights abuses—torture, summary executions, kidnapping, raping and looting–accompanied their occupation. Particularly notable was violence in the town of Samashki, where over a hundred civilians were killed in April. In June 1995, Chechen soldier, Shamil Bayasev, captured a hospital outside Chechnya in Budyonnovsk, taking hostages and demanding an end to the war and direct negotiations between Russian and Chechen leaders. Baseav killed several hostages before Russian leader decided to launch to raid and many more were killed in the assault, ultimately around 130 civilians died. Baseav retreated to Chechnya.
Despite Russia’s overwhelming military advantage, it could not easily the win the guerilla war and the fighting took a toll not only in terms of Russian soldiers killed, but also in the Russian morale, with several high level resignations over the conflict, poor Army morale, and low support from the population. On the Chechen side, despite high casualties, there remained strong popular support for independence. Russian tactics of targeting civilian centers, human rights abuses and excessive force bolstered the rebels’ cause.
Estimates of the number of civilians killed range widely from 20,000 to 100,000[ii], with the latter figure commonly referenced by Chechen sources. Most scholars and human rights organizations generally estimate the number of civilian casualties to be 40,000[iii]; this figure is attributed to the research and scholarship of Chechnya expert John Dunlop, who estimates that the total number of civilian casualties is at least 35,000.[iv] This range is also consistent with post-war publications by the Russian statistics office estimating 30,000 to 40,000[v] civilians killed. The Moscow-based human rights organization, Memorial, which actively documented human rights abuses throughout the war, estimates the number of civilian casualties to be a slightly higher at 50,000.[vi]
There is no commonly accepted methodology for counting civilian fatalities during the First Chechen War. Most attempts to record fatalities focused on combatant deaths. Neither party to the conflict recorded accurate numbers of civilian deaths, and any records failed to disaggregate victims based on ethnicity. Although the Russian statistics office published a list citing approximately 40,000 civilian casualties in the war’s aftermath, the humiliating defeat of Russia’s first military campaign in Chechnya and the resulting unwillingness of Russian officials to provide accurate accounts of civilian or military losses have complicated efforts to determine total civilian casualties on both sides. Chechen officials have also released estimates of total casualties for both this conflict (1994 – 1996) and a second conflict (1999 – 2000), estimating losses at 160,000, but the figures are not further disaggregated.[vii] Efforts to verify statistics were further complicated by the lack of independent monitors and journalists on the ground in Chechnya during the wars.
Nonetheless, sources estimate that a large percentage of civilian fatalities occurred during the invasion of Grozny between December 1994 and March 1995. From the beginning of the invasion to the middle of February, fatality estimates range from 25,000[viii] to 30,000[ix] civilian deaths. This range indicates that the majority of the civilian fatalities in the entire war occurred during a mere four-month window. Of the estimated 25,000[x] killed in the invasion of Grozny, it is estimated that 18,000[xi] were killed by mid January. According to General Dudayev, the first president of the Chechen Republic, 85 percent of civilians killed in the invasion (approximately 25,500)[xii] were ethnic Russians due to the fact that the Chechens were the first to evacuate the capital; this estimate is close to the figure put forward by Russian human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalyov, who estimated the number of ethnic Russian deaths at 24,000.[xiii]
The war reached a stalemate, with neither side fully capable of defeating the other. On August 22, 1996, Russian Gen. Lebed and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who replaced Dudayev following his assassination by Russian forces in April 1996, negotiated the Khasav-Yurt Accord, which stipulated that the Russian military should withdraw from the Chechen territory. However the terms of Chechen independence were not discussed. What followed was a period of de facto independence followed from 1996 – 1999, when war with Russian began again.
We coded this case as ending as the conflict reached a stalemate and domestic moderating forces (both Chechen and Russian) opted for a mediated agreement. We further note that there were multiple victim groups, both Russian and Chechen civilians.
Ethno-Caucuses. (Ethnic-demography of the Caucuses) http://www.ethno-kavkaz.narod.ru/rnchechenia.html
Dunlop, John B. 2000. “How many soldiers and civilians died during the Russo-Chechen war of 1994 – 1996?” Central Asian Survey 19:3-4, 328 – 338.
Fuller Liz. 2006. “Chechnya: Khasavyurt Accords Failed To Preclude A Second War”, Radio Free Europe August 30. Available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2006/08/mil-060830-rferl02.htm
Gall, Carlotta, and de Waal Thomas. 1998. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York: New York UP.
Human Rights Watch. 1996. “World Report 1996: Russian Federation.” New York: Human Rights Watch. Available at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/WR96/Helsinki-16.htm
Knezys, Stasys, and Romanas Sedlickas. 1999. The War in Chechnya. College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP.
Lieven, Anatol. 1998. Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. New Haven: Yale UP.
Physicians for Human Rights. 2001. Endless Brutality: War Crimes in Chechnya. Boston, Mass.
New York Times. 2005. “Chechen official puts death toll for 2 wars at up to 160,000” 16 August. Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/15/world/europe/15iht-chech.html?_r=0>.
Sakwa, Richard. 2005. Chechnya: From past to Future. London: Anthem.
Seely, Robert. 2001. Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace. Portland, OR: Frank Cass.
Tishkov, V. A. 2004. Chechnya: Life in a War-torn Society. Berkeley: University of California.
[i] Seely 2001, 219-240.
[ii] Zurcher 2007, 99.
[iii] Ibid., p. 100.
[iv] Dunlop 2000, 338.
[v] New York Times 2005.
[vi] Zurcher 2007, 100.
[vii] See New York Times and Radio Free Europe
[viii] Zurcher 2007, p. 100.
[ix] Seely 2001, 261.
[x] Zurcher 2007, 100.
[xi] Seely 2001, p. 261.