Miscalculations Paved Path to Chechen War

By David Hoffman, Washington Post, Monday 20 March 20 2000; A01

MOSCOW—A year ago this spring, Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's first elected president, urgently demanded a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to bolster his own dwindling power and warn of the threat of another costly war with Russia.

Over the next months, Maskhadov, the silver-haired former Soviet artillery officer who had led the Chechen rebellion in the mid-1990s, made repeated entreaties for an audience at the Kremlin. But he never got a meeting.

Today, Maskhadov is in hiding, branded a terrorist by Russia. The Chechen capital of Grozny lies in ruins from Russian shells. The second war in Chechnya in six years has left thousands dead on both sides, completely redrawn the political landscape in Russia and touched off new criticism from the West.

The story of how Russia and Chechnya slid back into war has been the subject of debate and intense speculation here and abroad. The outbreak of hostilities coincided with the unexpected rise of acting President Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's handpicked successor, and led to speculation that the Kremlin engineered the war to propel Putin to power, or at least influence the March 26 presidential elections.

However, a reconstruction of key turning points on the road to war in Chechnya shows Russian officials and Chechen fighters were driven by a series of miscalculations. Russian analysts, military specialists and others interviewed for this article suggested both Russia and the Chechen fighters bungled badly as they responded to escalating tensions. The Chechen leaders and warlords, now battered and in hiding, have yet to give their side of the story.

According to Russian accounts, Putin accelerated a plan for a major crackdown against Chechnya that had been drawn up months earlier. Moreover, when Putin became prime minister last Aug. 9, he inherited what he has called a legacy of Russian neglect of Chechnya. Russian officials had staked their hopes on Maskhadov bringing order to the separatist region, but in the months before the war, he lost control. The growing chaos was thrown into high relief for Moscow when a Russian general was kidnapped last March after Maskhadov had said he would guarantee his safety.

On the Chechen side, rebel leaders launched an attack against neighboring Dagestan last August in the mistaken belief that they would encounter weak Russian resistance and spark an Islamic uprising. The uprising didn’t materialize, and the incursions were repelled.

As both sides edged toward a wider conflict, the bombing of several apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities in September, killing nearly 300 people, drove Russian leaders over the edge. Moscow has blamed the Chechens for the bombings, but there is no proof to substantiate the allegations and no one has claimed responsibility. The precise intentions and identity of the bombers are unknown, but the result was unequivocal—the bombings created a mood of war hysteria in Russia.

Was the war inevitable? Many Russian analysts say that in dealing with a power vacuum in Chechnya since it won de facto independence after the 1994-96 conflict, Russian leaders were hobbled by their own weaknesses, including the residual trauma—the “Chechnya syndrome”—of the first war. As Chechnya sank into anarchy, Russia was passive until it was too late, according to many people interviewed for this article.

“It was a whole chain of missed opportunities,” said Emil Pain, a former Kremlin adviser on Chechnya and now director of the Center for Ethnopolitical and Regional Research here. He recalled that Russia and Chechnya had signed a treaty two years earlier. “What was done to take advantage of this peace? Nothing! Everything was done to the opposite.”

Turning Points

A turning point toward the second war came March 5, 1999, at the Grozny airport.

Gen. Gennady Shpigun, the Russian Interior Ministry representative in Chechnya, boarded a Tu-134 passenger plane for Moscow. Masked gunmen grabbed Shpigun and bundled him off the plane and into a waiting car.

The kidnapping outraged officials in Moscow, but it was not unusual. In the aftermath of the first Chechen war, hostage-taking became a flourishing business as Chechnya's economy hit bottom. Foreign aid workers, clergymen, journalists, law enforcement officials, soldiers and bystanders were sucked into the trade in people.

The kidnappings showed that “Russia was not capable of exercising any control or influence over Chechnya,” said retired Maj. Vyacheslav Izmailov, a 26-year veteran of the military who served in Chechnya and since has made a specialty of trying to negotiate freedom for hostages there.

The constant hostage-taking “demonstrated the impotence of Russia's power,” he added. “It was Russian inactivity, and impotence, that was a cause of the war.”

Izmailov said he spoke with Maskhadov, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev and others in Chechnya. “They thought that Russia was lying down, and they could do anything,” he said.

In Moscow, Boris Berezovsky, a business tycoon who was closely connected with the Kremlin staff around Yeltsin, succeeded in winning the release of some Russian hostages through direct contacts with the Chechens. Berezovsky has said he has been in frequent telephone contact with Basayev, the Chechen warlord who was a rival to Maskhadov and later led the incursion into Dagestan. Others have charged that Berezovsky sent money to the Chechens as well.

When the Shpigun kidnapping occurred, Sergei Stepashin, then the interior minister, had already been through a painful personal experience with Chechnya. He was involved in planning the disastrous first war that ended with a Russian withdrawal, and had been fired by Yeltsin after Basayev led a rebel raid on a hospital in 1995 in which more than 100 civilians were killed.

Shpigun's kidnapping, despite Maskhadov's assurances, was “over the top,” Stepashin recalled. At the time, Stepashin warned of tough measures against Chechnya if Shpigun were not released in three days. The ultimatum was ignored, but Moscow remained cautious about leading the country into another Chechen war.

In an interview, Stepashin said he started planning to cordon off the region after the Shpigun kidnapping, a plan that envisioned Russian troops taking northern Chechnya all the way to the Terek River. The plan, as it was often discussed, would allow Russia to launch strikes from the north deeper into Chechnya to destroy the rebels' “bases,” according to Stepashin.

One of those in on the discussions last summer was Putin. But Putin recalled later that the cordon alone was “pointless and technically impossible,” apparently because of Chechnya's rugged terrain.

Putin's role leading up to the war is opaque, but as head of the Federal Security Service, Russia's domestic successor to the KGB, he attended key meetings on Chechnya, officials said. The Dagestan raid came just at the moment of a power shift in Moscow, and the link between the events has never been clear.

Just two days after Basayev's fighters crossed the border Aug. 7 into a district of Dagestan, Stepashin was fired and and replaced by Putin. Stepashin said he did not think the timing was connected to Chechnya but rather to his perceived weakness as a potential successor to Yeltsin. The parliamentary elections were looming and Yeltsin's critics were growing stronger.

Putin, in responding to the Dagestan incursion, turned for support to Russian military generals who were eager to avenge their defeat in the 1994-96 war. Putin invoked the domino theory to assert the Dagestan attack threatened Russia disintegration. “I was struck dumb” by the consequences, Putin said in a recent interview with Russian journalists published as an election campaign book. “It would have spread to Dagestan, the whole Caucasus would have been taken away, it's clear . . . Russia as a state . . . [would] cease to exist.”

Chechnya Unravels

Maskhadov had signed a treaty with Yeltsin in 1997, but two years later had little to show for it. He was under intense pressure from his rivals. Basayev, a major figure in the successful rebel campaign in the earlier war, had quit Maskhadov's government and was increasingly implacable. He was joined by a warlord named Khattab, the Jordanian leader of the radical Wahhabi Islamic sect who had come to Chechnya in 1994 for the first war.

According to several officials, Russia's leadership tried to help Maskhadov, and for several years quietly supplied him with weapons and money. Interior Ministry troops were training some of Maskhadov's men in special operations as well, and Russian officials sent cash for salaries and other purposes to Chechnya, although they feared the money was being stolen.

However, the Kremlin strategy to help Maskhadov was doomed. He was unable to rein in the kidnappers or warlords. Several assassination attempts were made against him and he was saved twice, Stepashin said, by an armored limousine Russia had provided him.

Maskhadov continued to pin his hopes on the meeting with Yeltsin that never materialized. He and Stepashin last met on June 11 in Ingushetia, the Russian region bordering Chechnya to the west. Stepashin recalled that he implored Maskhadov in the meeting to “separate yourself from the bandits.” If he did not, Stepashin said he told Maskhadov, “then you are finished.”

After a band of Chechens besieged an Interior Ministry outpost in Dagestan in late May, Russia took a step that it had not considered since the end of the first war—helicopter gunships fired 10 missiles on a rebel base along the border. Stepashin said 44 ministry troops were killed in border clashes in early 1999.

In this mountainous region, Basayev and Khattab had built fortified bases, according to Anton Surikov, a former Russian military intelligence officer who is now staff director of a Russian parliamentary committee. Surikov has known Basayev since the rebel leader led a group of Chechen volunteers in Abkhazia's war for independence from Georgia in 1992-93.

Surikov said Russian officials had indications that Basayev was planning something on the Dagestani border. “It was not being hidden,” he said. “There was a certain panic here. There was a feeling of complete helplessness.”

A senior Kremlin official close to Yeltsin said in an interview in August, “The dates [of the Basayev assault] were definitely known several days before.” But, he added, “the . . . area is hilly and difficult to guard. There are hundreds of different paths, plenty of canyons, mountain paths. There is no border, actually. . . . That is why it is not possible just to line up soldiers to guard the border.”

Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow and a military analyst, said the Russian leadership was conflicted about what to do in Chechnya. “Part of Russia was supporting Maskhadov and another part was against that,” he recalled. “There were two theories. One said we had to support Maskhadov, and the other said this is the surest way to see Chechnya become independent—let all the scorpions in the can kill each other.”

Basayev's reasons for staging the dramatic cross-border incursion, and his reading of how Russia would respond, are not clear. He declared at the time that he hoped to trigger an uprising in Dagestan, rallying support for the creation of an Islamic state. But it was a futile effort. The raid triggered alarms in Dagestan, which is a mosaic of ethnic groups, and many villages began arming themselves to fight the Chechens. Eventually, Russian troops beat them back.

According to Stepashin, the planning for a crackdown on Chechnya was already underway. He said the Russian authorities had intelligence in June of a possible attack, and “we were planning to implement these measures” for a cordon around Chechnya “irrespective of Basayev's assault.”

Stepashin said he chaired a meeting of the Kremlin Security Council in July and “we all came to the conclusion that there was a huge hole on our border which won’t be closed if we don’t [advance] to the Terek. It was a purely military decision.”

Stepashin said that after his dismissal, Putin merely picked up the plans he had put in place and continued with them.

“We were planning to reach the Terek River in August or September,” Stepashin recently told the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “So this was going to happen, even if there had been no explosions in Moscow. I was working actively on tightening borders with Chechnya, preparing for an active offensive. So Vladimir Putin has not invented anything new here.”



June: Shamil Basayev and his gunmen raid a hospital in the Russian city of Budennovsk. More than 100 civilians killed.


August: Russia and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov negotiate cease-fire ending more than two years of fighting in Chechnya.


May: Maskhadov signs treaty with Yeltsin, granting Chechnya de facto independence.


A power vacuum develops in Chechnya, with Maskhadov struggling for control against a number of field commanders and local chieftains.

Although Russia had tried to bolster the Maskhadov government by sending it arms and funds and even training its troops, it loses control.

Basayev quits Maskhadov's government and teams up with Jordanian warlord Khattab.

Kidnappings for ransom become the order of the day; between 1997 and 1999 more than 1,000 people are kidnapped, including foreign aid workers and clergymen. Country sinks into anarchy.


March: Gen. Gennady Shpigun, Russian Interior Ministry representative in Chechnya, is kidnapped.

April: Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin says the Chechen border will be sealed. Russian troops start plan to move into Chechnya to take control of the area north of the Terek River.

May: Chechen rebels besiege a Russian outpost in Dagestan. Russian helicopter gunships fire missiles at a Chechen base along the Dagestan-Chechnya border.

June: Stepashin meets with Maskhadov in Ingushetia. Maskhadov insists on a meeting with President Boris Yeltsin, but the meeting never materializes.

August: Basayev and his rebels make a cross-border raid into Dagestan, capturing several villages. Russia responds with air raids on guerrilla bases in Chechnya.

September: Chechen rebels again attack villages in Dagestan; after Russian air raids, Chechens withdraw.

Bombs tear through apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities, killing nearly 300 people; Russia blames Chechen rebels.

Sept. 30: Russian troops launch ground offensive into northern Chechnya.