Chechen Republic of Ichkeria II

Russian troops during the Second Chechen War.

Chechen fighters.

Second Chechen War

(War in the Northern Caucasus; October 1999- February 2000)

Conflict between the Russian Federation and the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

The 1997 peace treaty between Russia and Chechnya that had ended the First Chechen War was broken when militant leader Shamil Basayev led a Chechen invasion of Dagestan, a Caucasian republic still under Russian control. Though Russian forces repelled the attack, it and the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings provoked a new attempt to reassert Russian authority in Chechnya. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared war on Chechnya on October 1, 1999.

Russian forces were much better prepared this time. The North Caucasus Military District, which included Chechnya and the surrounding regions, was restructured to facilitate a combined command of Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) forces. The Russian government had clear objectives, and all units were fully manned.

At the start of the intervention, about 80,000 MoD and 30,000 MVD soldiers opposed 25,000 to 30,000 Chechen soldiers and 20,000 to 30,000 guerilla fighters. The Russians again used paramilitary police forces as fighting units, along with loyal Chechen police and militias, like the force led by Beslan Gantamirov, former mayor of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

The Russian campaign began with the bombing of Chechen bases, which continued throughout the war. Russian ground forces moved into Chechnya from the north, advancing as far as the Terek River, which divides the northern third of Chechnya from Grozny and the more mountainous south. Russian forces established a new, loyal Chechen government in the occupied region, built strong points to control major roads, and relied on artillery to destroy separatist positions from a distance. These tactics, along with the use of Chechen MVD troops loyal to Moscow, kept Russian casualties low.

The second stage began on October 16, 1999. Under cover of continued bombing, Russian forces bypassed urban areas, instead moving to control territory. Russian commanders used artillery to engage Chechen strong points, and Russian ground troops stayed out of contact with Chechen forces as much as possible.

A third phase involved taking Grozny. As Russian troops advanced, most of the civilian population evacuated, leaving 20,000 to 30,000 civilians and about 4,000 defenders. By December, about 50,000 Russian troops had fully encircled the city. Small units, along with MoD and MVD sniper teams, moved into the city to locate Chechen fighters and spot for artillery fire. Advances were slow and measured. Much of the ground fighting was left to MVD troops, which lacked the extensive artillery support of the MoD.

Artillery fire and air strikes, along with fuel- air explosives, remained the Russian weapons of choice. Tanks were used only as direct- fire artillery support, and every MoD company had an artillery battery assigned to it. The bombardment was imprecise but heavy, paving the way for a cautious, three-week assault that began on January 17, 2000. This attack drove the Chechen resistance from the city. Withdrawing Chechen forces ran into Russian minefields and sustained heavy casualties.

This time, the Russian government offered no ceasefires. Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov made multiple peace proposals, but all were rejected. The remnants of the Chechen resistance retreated to the mountains of southern Chechnya, but Russia had regained control of the region. Small bands of Chechens carried out raids against the growing Russian infrastructure though, and the war transitioned to a counterinsurgency that Putin declared over in 2009. Russian forces committed numerous human rights violations, and Chechen guerillas carried out major terrorist attacks within Chechnya and in the Russian Federation at large. Sporadic violence continues.

Exact casualties are disputed. Estimates of separatist dead range from 1,100 to 10,000, and estimates of Russian dead range from 2,100 to 15,000. Civilian casualties could be as high as 45,000. Totals including the insurgency are much higher.


Many who looked at the first Chechen conflict, and at Russian forces in Grozny in that time frame, saw that campaign as the final proof of the Russian military’s demise. Hungry, ill-trained troops dying by the hundreds in an effort to subdue a renegade province do not make for good press. Conversely, tales of Russian success in 1999-2000 are read by some as a signal of Russia’s resurgence, the first step toward its return to claim the mantle of the USSR. Both assessments are exaggerated, polarized views. While neither is completely true, however, both have elements of accuracy.

In both wars, Chechnya and Grozny showed that there are a number of things Russia’s military can do reasonably well. The Russian armed forces can, for instance, deploy and command forces as necessary to carry out a local war. At the tactical level, the Russian military showed it can learn from mistakes and adapt. The adjustments in tactics after the first bloody days of 1995 were a forceful example of flexibility under unfavorable circumstances. Individual Russian commanders and soldiers also showed themselves capable of quick thinking, improvisation, and bravery. Organizationally, the Russian defense establishment proved that it can adapt, as it did in creating readiness brigades. As phrased by Minister of Defense Sergeev, the fact that soldiers went to war with their units, rather than getting to know each other “in the tank or BMP,” was key to the success of op erations. Better training for specialized forces and for troops destined for mountain combat, as well as all-round better preparation, no doubt had a significant impact. Joint operations exercises involving various forces and services also made a difference. Perhaps even more important were the mutually supportive roles laid out for ground forces, MVD, and other troops as well as for their subcomponents, and the fact that all of them reported to a single commander. All these factors testify to the Russian military’s ability to make real changes. The increased effectiveness they fostered demonstrates that Russia is capable of real military reform.

But if the Russian military can learn and adapt in both the short and long term, it seems to have more trouble in the intermediate term. While forces on the ground responded to the situation around them, and careful study yielded significant changes over the interwar period, the Russians seemed to forget painfully learned lessons from one battle to the next. If Russian urban fighting ability improved during the first battle for Grozny, leaders were unable to transfer that knowledge to those who had to defend the city a few short months later. They were able to capture the well-defended city again half a decade later, but they seemed to have forgotten everything they had learned about enemy fortifications and tactics by the time they entered the town of Komsomolskoye.

Furthermore, if the Russians improved on some aspects, they ignored others. Due to a lack of training and equipment, most Russian forces cannot fight effectively at night. They continue to have trouble with secure voice communications. Aging and decrepit equipment is an ever-increasing problem. Time and again, they failed in basic military skills, such as carrying out reconnaissance to determine enemy strength. This problem was highlighted in Grozny in 1994, 1996, and 1999, as well as in Komsomolskoye in 2000.

If training and equipment remained a problem, planning in 1999- 2000 was much improved. There was a reasonable war plan for Grozny (albeit one based on expectations of a much lower level of resistance than proved to be the case). The Russian military learned from its own mistakes, history, and its enemy in switching to and planning for small-unit tactics. Combat in Grozny in 1999-2000 benefited tremendously from new approaches to force protection. While armor protection proved more effective than did the effort to avoid close combat through heavy artillery use, the fact that such issues had been considered is an important indicator of the sort of planning that had been absent five years before. Unlike in 1994- 1995, force ratios reflected the terrain and the conflict. The Russians recognized the disadvantages of being the attacker and increased their forces accordingly (although their failure to estimate enemy strength accurately meant that the ratios in Grozny still fell short of those prescribed by Soviet World War II doctrine). In stark contrast to 1994, the troops who entered Grozny in 1999 were a sizable force, reasonably well-supplied, that had the benefit of better training. A unified chain of command ensured that air and artillery support would be forthcoming and that different forces knew their missions. Most important, they had a plan for capturing Grozny, and they had commanding officers whose orders were clear on the need to avoid casualties.

Another success of 1999-2000 was a direct outgrowth of what the Russian leadership saw as a failure of 1994-1996. Control of the press this time around was stringent, and the Russians got their side of the story out. The high public approval ratings for the war as it continued bore out the benefits of this approach. While over time the media became increasingly dissatisfied with the situation, and criticism emerged at home and abroad, the fact is that the Russian defense establishment ran an effective media campaign, one largely in keeping with a modern military force seeking to safeguard the details of its operations. There is no question that Russia also had an interest in minimizing any reports of failure, of higher-than-expected casualties, or of human rights violations, but that, too, is not unusual for a modern military embarking on a campaign (although the extent of both casualties and human rights violations reported in the second Chechnya campaign still remained well above levels that most Western militaries might tolerate). Insofar as was possible in a society that at the time enjoyed a relatively free press, the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense did quite well in maintaining support for the 1999-2000 Chechnya campaign.

If in 1994-1996 the military campaign in Chechnya in general and Grozny in particular demonstrated the deterioration of the Red Army from its days of glory, the conflict in 1999-2000 equally clearly demonstrated that reports of Russia’s military demise had been, to paraphrase Samuel Clemens, premature. The Russian armed forces were able to deploy, reinforce, and supply a corps-sized force to fight a significant local conflict. They could plan and carry out plans effectively. Despite some problems, the Russian armed forces showed proficiency in combined arms operations. Finally, and most important, both in 1994 and all the more so in 1999, Russia was able to demonstrate that despite their scanty training and limited military education, its soldiers, marines, and airmen could still engage in combat effectively.