Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Chechen militia fighters in the village of Achi-Martan. December 13, 1994.

‘Stop waging a new colonial war!’ Not so long ago, federalism facilitated a lively domestic debate about how Russia uses its military

Source: Idel.Realii
Chechen militia fighters in the village of Achi-Martan. December 13, 1994.
Chechen militia fighters in the village of Achi-Martan. December 13, 1994.
Anatoly Morkovkin / TASS

On October 18, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution declaring “the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” to be “temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation.” In addition to highlighting Moscow's history of using military force to impose its will, the symbolic move served as an acknowledgement of the role Chechen separatist fighters have played in opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s no surprise that Ukrainians and Chechen independence advocates have found common cause; their histories have many parallels. Almost three decades ago, however, when Russia deployed troops in Chechnya and launched the First Chechen War, the Chechen independence movement received rhetorical support from what now seems a far less likely source: Tatarstan. Journalists from Idel.Realii, a division of the U.S. state media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, recently dove into archives from that period, finding documents that offer a glimpse of a bygone era in which Russian politicians openly expressed disagreement with the Kremlin, Tatarstan was protective of its autonomy, and Russia’s transformation into “a voluntary union of equal nations” was seen as inevitable.

In November 1994, three years after the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria declared independence, the Russian authorities launched a covert campaign to take control of Grozny. The operation, which involved arming the Chechen opposition, was a failure; nonetheless, commenting in the aftermath, Russia’s defense minister at the time, Pavel Grachev, claimed he could capture the city in just two hours with a single airborne regiment. Weeks later, on December 9, Boris Yeltsov signed the decree launching the First Chechen War.

That same day, the Presidium of Tatarstan’s Supreme Soviet published an appeal to the federal government in the newspaper Izvestia Tatarstana. Viewed from 2022, its contents are something to behold:

The ill-considered actions of the leadership of the Russian Federation, primarily its security forces, on the current political realities in Chechnya have brought the entire North Caucasus region to the verge of wide-scale civil war. The natural process of recognizing equal rights for various peoples, which has become a trend of historical development worldwide, is inevitable for the Russian Federation, as well. Only realizing this and managing this process in a civilized way will allow Russia to maintain sovereignty. A voluntary union of equal nations — this is the basis for the Russian Federation’s revival and democratic future.

Earlier that year, in February, Tatarstan had agreed to remain part of Russia in exchange for a “special status” under which it would share power with Moscow and enjoy more autonomy than Russia’s other constituent regions. (Later, beginning with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000, Tatarstan’s autonomy would slowly erode, until 2017, when it lost its “special status” entirely.) Tatarstan’s president, Mintimer Shaimiev, was thus taken aback when the federal authorities didn’t even warn him about their plans to invade Chechnya — and he had no qualms about publicly condemning Moscow’s actions:

Moscow tried to eliminate [first President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Dzhokhar] Dudaev’s regime with the help of an opposition that was artificially created and armed by [Russia] itself, so that they could subsequently negotiate with a different government. In addition, Russia essentially contributed to the creation of armed formations loyal to Dudaev, welcoming his rise to power at one time and leaving weapons and military vehicles from withdrawn army units in the republic.

A week into the war, on December 16, 1994, Izvestiya Tatarstana published an article titled “The Kazan Echo of the Caucasian Mountains,” analyzing the situation in Chechnya through the lens of the “parade of sovereignties” — the declarations of independence by the USSR’s constituent republics after the Soviet collapse — and the recent agreement between Tatarstan and Russia:

The events in Chechnya confirmed many political scientists’ predictions: the “parade of sovereignties” is bound to end on a tragic note. Tatarstan, it seems, predicted all of this, which is why it considered it prudent to sign a bilateral agreement with Russia. Of course, the majority of organizations [advocating for Tatarstan’s independence] were not thrilled by this middle-ground solution to the problem: they will keep [the prospect of] the republic’s independence “in the back of their minds” in any circumstances. All of this has been made clear by [the Tatar response to] the Kremlin’s “showdown” with Chechnya.

The article went on to explain that a pro-Chechnya protest rally was held in central Kazan on December 14. A resolution released by its participants condemned “Russia’s imperial aspirations in the Caucasus” and demanded that Moscow withdraw its troops and stop “waging a new colonial war.”

today's chechnya

‘Anything but a hawk’ Elena Milashina has been writing about Chechnya for years — and thinks that Ramzan Kadyrov is trying to protect it from the worst

today's chechnya

‘Anything but a hawk’ Elena Milashina has been writing about Chechnya for years — and thinks that Ramzan Kadyrov is trying to protect it from the worst

One of the first officials to speak out against the war was Oleg Morozov, a State Duma deputy from Tatarstan. In December 1994, he and his colleagues wrote that “Russia’s [territorial] integrity must be defended not with military force but with convincing arguments that guarantee economic and political […] development to each subject of the Federation as part of a single federative state.”

Decades later, Morozov is still in politics. In fact, he’s still a member of Russia’s parliament. These days, however, he’s a reliable supporter of the federal government, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During a TV interview in May, for example, Morozov suggested Russia abduct a NATO defense minister and bring the prisoner to Moscow for questioning.

On December 23, 1994, Izvestia Tatarstana released an interview with Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev in which he offered to become a mediator between Chechnya and Russia, insisting that “the bloodshed must be stopped.” The president noted that the international community had lauded “Tatarstan’s model” as a constructive approach to resolving interstate conflict situations.

Discord and estrangement, even in a single family, negatively affect the lives of everybody involved. And [in this case, we’re dealing with] republics, whole nations. In the interest of avoiding the negative consequences of this crisis, which could poison the lives of many generations of people from both republics and beyond, I call on the leaders of the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic to exercise political wisdom and bring the confrontation to an end, to find a mutually acceptable formula to solve this acute conflict situation."

On April 21, 1996, Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed by a missile strike during a phone conversation with State Duma deputy Konstantin Borov. It was the Russian authorities’ fourth attempt to kill him.

Weekly newsletter

Sign up for The Beet

Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.

In July 1996, after his dismal approval ratings rebounded slightly following a public acknowledgement that deploying troops to Chechnya had been a mistake, Boris Yeltsin won another presidential term. The next month, Chechen forces successfully conducted a “jihad” operation and took control of the cities of Grozny, Argun, and Gudermes.

On August 31, Russia and Chechnya signed a peace treaty. Russia agreed to withdraw federal troops from Chechnya, while talks about the breakaway region’s status were postponed until December 31, 2001. By official counts, Russia had lost 5,732 soldiers, though the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee reported 14,000 dead and missing. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria said it had lost about 3,000 soldiers, while Russia claimed to have killed “17,391 separatists.” Human rights observers at the Memorial Foundation reported 2,700 Chechen soldiers killed. The total number of civilian casualties is unknown; estimates have ranged from 30,000 to 120,000 people.

Three years later, the Second Chechen War began when Chechen rebels crossed into Dagestan, prompting Vladimir Putin, then serving as Russia’s prime minister, to send troops into Chechnya and order airstrikes against its capital.

  • Share to or