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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Did This War Start?

The Chechen war is in its endgame, but the way it all began is still very murky.


There are now several theories offered as to why President Boris Yeltsin sent the troops into Chechnya last December. Not all of them are mutually exclusive. Let me recap a few.


Version 1. The Russian authorities genuinely believed that all other options on dealing with the breakaway republic had failed. The "economic embargo" on the republic had not worked and Chechnya had a flourishing black-market economy. Arming the local opposition had not worked and on Nov. 26, 1994, the opposition was comprehensively crushed by Dzhokhar Dudayev. So, this argument goes, the Russians decided that there was nothing left to be done but to send in the troops.


The main problem with this theory is that nothing about Chechnya in November 1994 was so urgently new that it demanded an urgent solution. In fact, Dudayev had lost a lot of popular support and his regime was gradually cracking.


In fact the military action seemed to happen in a great rush, as if to forestall other options. Yeltsin's adviser on ethnic relations, Emil Pain, said he was involved in drafting an alternative solution on the very eve of the crisis, which envisaged comprehensively sealing the Chechen border. Peace talks between the two sides were scheduled for two days after the invasion began.


This leads us to Version 2, which proposes that the invasion was part of an internal Moscow political struggle.


This theory was well mapped out on Yevgeny Kiselyov's current-affairs program, "Itogi." Basically, it maintained, a group of hardliners were planning to make Yeltsin their own man. Their two leaders were Yeltsin's top bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets. Their aim was to oust Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and establish a meaner, tougher regime.


The Chechen invasion, according to this theory, was to be "the quick victorious war," that would boost Yeltsin's rating and hand the advantage to the hawks.


Version 3 stresses the economic imperative of the war. This one argues that a Chechen invasion was at the top of a list of demands from the energy lobby.


The main pipeline to the port of Novorossiisk runs through Grozny and had been inoperative under the Dudayev regime. Russia is desperate to control oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Regaining control of Chechnya would give Moscow the key to this treasure chest, this theory goes, and 1995 is the year of decision for the export of Azerbaijani oil.


Few would dispute the general validity of the theory, but it has to be said that the main dove of the early days of the December crisis was Chernomyrdin, the main patron of the energy industry.


Version 4 is the dark horse. This one has it that the Chechen campaign was part of a vast settling of scores in the huge scramble for resources of post-Soviet Russia.


Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, this theory goes, has had good relations with the Chechen diaspora, who have assisted him in various areas of running the capital. Because of this, he was not particularly bothered to see an independent Chechnya on Russia's southern border.


However, Luzhkov's enemies in the Kremlin, in particular the ubiquitous Korzhakov, who has been running a vendetta against the Moscow government and its friends at MOST-Bank, were not so happy. In December, the Korzhakov team struck a preliminary blow at MOST-Bank's offices on Novy Arbat and then launched the major assault by attacking Chechnya itself.


Version 4, of course, is almost impossible to prove, and its traces are well buried.


What none of these versions sufficiently explain is the role of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. If Version 2 is true, then he would seem at first glance to be a beneficiary of a "quick victorious war." However, several facts militate against this. For one thing, he, more than anyone, would have been aware of how unprepared the army was for an invasion. Also, he is known to be a rival, rather than an ally, of Korzhakov. Moreover, Grachev and Dudayev had a meeting on Dec. 7, at the end of which they proclaimed there would be "no military option."


I suspect Grachev accepted the invasion as a fait accompli, but that he was playing his own game at first. What that game was is a secret that only he and perhaps Dzhokhar Dudayev know.