Second Chechen War Erupts

Renewed fighting in Chechnya produced horrific atrocities and death and destruction in the region, resulting in widespread criticism of Russia by the international community. Chechnya became a haven for Islamic militants and eventually lost the autonomy it had won in the First Chechen War.

Summary of Event

Chechnya, located in the north Caucasus mountains, with an area of 15,300 square kilometers (5,907 square miles), is one of Russia’s twenty-one ethnic republics. According to a 2002 census, Chechnya had an estimated population of 1,104,000, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. Conquered by imperial Russia in the late eighteenth century, Chechnya never accepted Russian domination. Rebellions against Moscow continued into the Soviet period. During World War II, the support of some Chechen units for the Germans invading the Soviet Union induced Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to deport the Chechen population to Central Asia and Siberia. In 1956, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S. permitted the Chechens to return to their homeland. Chechnya;second Russo-Chechen War
Second Russo-Chechen War (1999-2000)[Second RussoChechen War]
[kw]Second Chechen War Erupts (Aug. 7, 1999)
[kw]Chechen War Erupts, Second (Aug. 7, 1999)
[kw]War Erupts, Second Chechen (Aug. 7, 1999)
Chechnya;second Russo-Chechen War
Second Russo-Chechen War (1999-2000)[Second RussoChechen War]
[g]Europe;Aug. 7, 1999: Second Chechen War Erupts[10440]
[g]Russia;Aug. 7, 1999: Second Chechen War Erupts[10440]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 7, 1999: Second Chechen War Erupts[10440]
[c]Government and politics;Aug. 7, 1999: Second Chechen War Erupts[10440]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Aug. 7, 1999: Second Chechen War Erupts[10440]
Putin, Vladimir
Basayev, Shamil
Maskhadov, Aslan
Yeltsin, Boris
Khattab, Ibn al-

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia emerged as an independent state, which, in turn, prompted Chechnya’s president Aslan Maskhadov to declare Chechnya to be a sovereign independent state. Russia’s government, then led by Boris Yeltsin, refused to accept Chechen independence. Russia did nothing to stop the secession until December, 1994, when the Russian army invaded Chechnya, precipitating the First Chechen War. First Chechen War (1994-1996) That war lasted from 1994 to 1996 and resulted in a humiliating defeat for Russia. To end the domestically unpopular war, Yeltsin agreed to a peace treaty that provided for the withdrawal of Russian troops and deferred the legal status of Chechnya for five years.

The Second Chechen War began on August 7, 1999, when a band of Chechen fighters, led by Shamil Basayev and a Saudi identified as Ibn al-Khattab, invaded the Russian province of Dagestan. Basayev was a legendary Islamic militant, who was feared and hated in Russia because of his bravado and ruthlessness. In 1995, during the first Chechen war, Basayev had led a daring assault on Russia, seizing a hospital in the city of Budyonnovsk and taking some 1,500 Russians hostage. The raid left 129 dead and 415 wounded. Baseyev managed to escape. The establishment of an independent Islamic state of Dagestan was the reason some of Chechnya’s leaders gave for the invasion. Russia’s media described the invaders as bandits and Wahhābīs, a fundamentalist Muslim sect founded in the eighteenth century by Muḥammad ibnՙAbd al-Wahhāb.

Within days of the invasion of Dagestan, Yeltsin announced a major change in Russia’s government. Sergei Stepashin was replaced as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. Immediately, the new prime minister announced his intention to resist the invaders vigorously. Basayev, in turn, threatened to leave a trail of terror and death in Russia’s cities. Dagestani forces, joined by elements of the Russian military, quickly engaged Basayev’s troops and by the end of September had largely repelled the invaders. Casualties on both sides were high.

In September, the Russo-Chechen conflict took a dramatic turn as a consequence of a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere that killed some three hundred people. Moscow charged that these atrocities were the work of Chechen terrorists, though the government of Chechnya and Basayev denied the accusation. No proof for the accusation was offered and no one was ever brought to trial for the crimes, leading to the suspicion that Russian security forces planted the explosives to incite the public. Whatever the truth may be, the September explosions stimulated widespread public hostility to the Chechen cause. Within a month, Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Chechnya, and an all-out war began. Unlike the First Chechen War, which was unpopular, the second had the support of the Russian public.

Putin’s decision to initiate war against Chechnya was a fateful, and avoidable, one. The performance of the Russian forces in Dagestan, while ultimately successful, revealed the same military weaknesses that plagued Russia in the First Chechen War: incompetent leadership, poor equipment, and low troop morale. As a consequence, Russian casualties were high. Although Basayev and Khattab had initiated the attack, they did not represent most of the Chechen population. The president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was a moderate who condemned terrorism and sought to negotiate his country’s differences with Moscow. His power and authority were crippled by the fact that he could not control the extremist Islamist elements in his own government and country. As Russia commenced an extensive bombing campaign against Chechen cities and villages in the fall of 1999, Maskhadov was forced to move toward an accommodation with Chechnya’s extremists.

Putin’s justification for widening the war with Chechnya was based on his assessment of Islamist extremists such as Basayev. Russia, Putin believed, was engaged in a global struggle against international terrorism. If Chechnya broke out of the Russian Federation, that would encourage other regions populated with Muslims, such as the important republic of Tatarstan in the center of Russia, to try to do the same. At stake was not only the integrity of the country, but also its standing in the international community. A central goal of Putin’s foreign policy was restoration of the image of Russia as a great power, an image tainted by its failure during the 1990’s to stop expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to save Serbia from Western assault in Kosovo. In a word, broad national security and geostrategic concerns motivated the Russian government. A lesser factor was the belief that Russian control over Chechnya was essential to secure export routes for the oil of the Caspian Sea basin. Finally, there was the consideration that within the Russian military there was a deep desire for revenge for the humiliations of the first war in Chechnya.

The war that ensued was an unmitigated disaster for Chechnya. Grozny, the capital, was leveled. Much of the country became a lawless wasteland. Russian soldiers looted, raped, and murdered thousands of civilians. No exact figures of Chechen casualties are known, but reliable estimates put the figure at 100,000 over a period of a decade. Additionally several hundred thousand became refugees. Basayev and Maskhadov were both killed, and the country became an occupied region with a constitution and president imposed by Moscow.

Russia did not fare well either. Chechen rebels matched Russian brutality with their own, ambushing and killing soldiers and civilians. Unofficial estimates of Russian soldiers killed number more than 20,000. The pro-Russian president Akhmad Kadyrov, imposed on the country, was assassinated in the summer of 2004. Before Basayev was killed, he succeeded in carrying the war to Russia proper, as he had promised. On October 23, 2002, a Chechen gang seized a theater in Moscow, taking the entire audience hostage. In the rescue attempt, 129 Russians died. An even greater atrocity occurred in September, 2004, when Chechen and sympathetic guerrillas seized control of a primary school in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia. In the shoot-out that ended the siege, some 344 people, most of them children, were killed. Large-scale combat in the Second Chechen War ended in 2000, but the rebellion continued to be kept alive by ambushes and assassinations in remote areas of the country.


The Second Russo-Chechen War had a profound impact on both countries. For Chechnya, the brief respite from direct Russian rule after the Khasayurt peace accord was terminated. Moscow successfully forced Chechnya to remain in the Russian Federation. However, the human and material losses inflicted by the victor totally destroyed the legitimacy of Russian authority. Remnants of resistance continued to operate in the mountainous parts of the country. The Chechen economy was destroyed, and poverty became widespread. A deep hatred toward the other continued to exist on both sides.

Victory for Russia was costly. Although the Russians generally supported Putin’s policy, a small but significant opposition developed which relentlessly criticized the violations of human rights committed by Russian forces in Chechnya. Efforts by the regime to stifle this criticism moved the Putin administration in a distinctly authoritarian direction, notably in the exercise of control over the media. Many outside observers agree that the Chechen wars undermined Russian democracy. This damaged Russian prestige in the world. U.S. president Bill Clinton warned that Russia would pay a heavy price for Chechnya, and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly debated suspending Russia from the Council of Europe. Chechnya continued to be a thorn in the side of the improvement of Russia’s relations with the West. Chechnya;second Russo-Chechen War
Second Russo-Chechen War (1999-2000)[Second RussoChechen War]

Further Reading

  • Menon, Rajan, and Graham E. Fuller. “Russia’s Ruinous Chechen War.” Foreign Affairs 79 (March/April, 2000): 32-45. Written during the Second Russo-Chechen War, and argues that Putin’s military campaign is doomed to failure and additionally damages Russian democracy.
  • Seely, Robert. Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Puts Chechen wars in historical perspective. Includes photographs, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Smith, Sebastian. Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998. Combines journalism, travelogue, and history to provide a readable account of the Russo-Chechen conflict. Blame for both Chechen wars is placed largely on the Russians. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Trenin, Dmitri V., Aleksei V. Malashenko, and Anatol Lieven. Russia’s Restless Frontier: The Chechnya Factor in Post-Soviet Russia. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004. Three scholars focus on the implications of the Chechen conflict for Russia’s politics, economy, and foreign affairs. Conflict in the Caucasus region is viewed as a barrier to modernization and democracy in Russia.

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