The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought with the return of Central Asia to the “big game” that developed along the 19th century among the big powers but using the peoples. However, surprised by the unexpected situation and the weakness of Russia, the traditional main characters did not mobilize immediately. Filling the vacuum, some adventurers started to fight for Chechnya and Ingushetia.

At the time of the collapse of the USSR, when the country was barely coming out of the military campaign in Afghanistan, Moscow - weakened - had to face the autonomist demands of the Caucasian republics. The new identity affirmations were sometimes of a religious nature. When they were Muslim, like in Dagestan, Chechnya, North Osetia and Azerbaijan, Moscow tried to gain the support of the Orthodox minorities. On the contrary, when they were Orthodox, like in Georgia, Moscow looked for the support of the Muslim minorities. The geopolitical analyses of the region with religious opinions in mind or of the “issue of the nationalities” are artful devices: the Kremlin perfectly knows how to adapt its diplomacy to different situations.

Like for many other Red Army officers, the dissolution of the USSR should have meant the end of the military career of Division General Djokahr Dudaiev. However, on October 27th, 1991, Dudaiev was elected president of the Autonomous Republic of Chechnya-Ingushetia, where he was born, although he never lived there. On November 4th, he declared the unilateral secession and independence of Chechnya. Dudaiev was not acting on a popular demand but following a personal objective: to create for him a state within the USSR that was already collapsing.

Djokhar Doudaïev

Contrary to the retrospective view of hundreds of analysts of the Russian issue, the announcement did not modify at all the administration or the regional balance of forces and did not receive international acknowledgement. In order to avoid that the example became “contagious”, then Russian president Boris Yeltsin condemned the independence and declared the state of emergency in Groznyy, capital of the region. Dudaiev responded mobilizing the people and threatening Russia with «a terrorist campaign against the nuclear power plants» [1] , a blackmail that seemed believable as it was inspired in the Chechen resistance to colonization by the Russian czars in the 19th century and the uprising of Dagestan against the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. The tone continued to increase. In order to solve the crisis, Yeltsin gave all powers to a Chechen governor, Ahmet Akhsanov, who could count on Dudaiev’s Interior Minister, General Ibrahimov, so that the KGB (Soviet Intelligence Agency) troops would guarantee the control of the telecommunications center in Groznyy.

The show of force did not last long. The president of the Council of Nationalities of the Russian Parliament, Nicolas Medvedev, declared that «the use of military force is unacceptable in dealing with ethnic issues». Viktor Barannikov, Yeltsin’s Interior Minister, affirmed that he was not consulted and deplored the initiatives of his president.

Viktor Ivanenko, head of the KGB, spoke of a “dramatic error” by the Russian president. On November 11, the Duma (Russian Parliament) disapproved Yeltsin and invalidated the state of emergency with 177 votes in favor, four against and 15 abstentions [2]. Deprived of their authority, Ahmet Akhsanov and General Ibrahimov resigned. Immediately, there was a total confusion, particularly considering that the president of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov - of Chechen origin - affirmed that there could be no negotiations any collaborators of President Dudaiev, «a group of bandits, unconscious men without honor».

Chechnya-Ingushetia, who everyone - except for their president - regards as a Russian autonomous republic - became a regional actor in the Caucasus. His first decisions were deliberately aggressive against the former USSR. While the Georgian president, autocrat Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was already abandoned by Moscow [3] , was expelled from Tbilisi (capital of Georgia and, similarly, a former Soviet republic) by a revolutionary movement and found refuge in Armenia, Groznyy announced the creation of a force to come to his aid [4] and sheltered him. General Dudaiev declared that he recognized “only the constitutional government of Georgia and its president elected by the people” [5] . This decision was mitated by James baker, the US Secretary of State who, to make things worse for Russia, expressed Washington’s «concerns» regarding the «violent way in which a democratically elected president has been overthrown» [6] .

In April 1992, Chechnya was the only autonomous republic, along with Tatarstan, that refused to ratify the treaty of the Federation presented by President Yeltsin, in spite of the ample autonomy that it granted. Shortly afterwards, Groznyy took control of the former Soviet troops of the Commonwealth of Independent States stationed in its territory and put them under its own jurisdiction.

The «issue of the nationalities» became the center of the power struggles in Moscow. On June 30, 1992, then Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Andrei Koziriev, publicly expressed his fears regarding a coup d’état in the Federation due to this matter. According to him, «certain Russian conservative personalities and military leaders, like Vice President Andrei Rutskoi, want to strengthen their influence encouraging a larger Russian military participation in the conflicts that see Russian minorities oppose other states of the former USSR, like in Moldavia and Georgia» [7] .

Chechnya was also among the causes of discord. Georgia, under the presidency of the former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Chevarnadze, then asked Russia to launch an attack against the “terrorist center” headed by former president Gamsakhurdia from Groznyy. In response to the regional instability, Moscow deployed its troops along its border with the three trans-Caucasian republics - Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan - to avoid destabilization in its own territory. The issue gained even more importance considering that President Dudaiev started to look for foreign support. During the summer of 1992, he traveled to Saudi Arabia and to the Arab Emirates. Later, in the autumn, he travelled to Turkey, Cyprus and Bosnia-Herzegovina. For a while, they spoke of a tour around the United States, who was very interested in secretly supporting the destabilization of the Russian borders.

The lack of a significant military reaction by the Kremlin showed the crisis that the latter was undergoing. The government no longer governed. Ministers, advisors and directors, lacking several ideological nuances, became vulnerable to temptations. The privatization of the economy immediately took place and crime logically increased as, after declaring the independence of Chechnya, Dudaiev released almost all common prisoners who became part of the ranks of the organized crime in Moscow and who developed an important network of political contacts in Russia. It was around that time that future oligarch Boris Berezovski began to do business with Chechen gangs, with the background of the war of clans with the Solntsevo Brotherhood, which was comprised of Slavic gangsters [8] .

In Chechnya, local bandits cooperated with the Russian mafia in heroin trafficking and they turn the international airport of Groznyy into a center of world heroin trafficking. Likewise, the complete lack of any bank legislation in the country incited the Russian leaders, who were eager to get a hold of the funds of the Federation, to use false banking institutions to carry out their “arranged operations” and money laundry. In the meantime, oil - the region’s main resource, was also distributed among the Chechen and Russian leaders: there are many oil pipelines in the region [9] and it was a time when the members of the “nomenclature” sold the Russian natural resources for their personal benefit. It was enough to negotiate with the regime established in Groznyy to find a modus vivendi. Armenian journalist Vicken Cheterian then declared, during a press conference to the Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique that «every (Russian) general has an oil well». According to Paul Klebnikov, author of Parrain du Kremlin (Kremlin Sponsor) [10] , “the Russian high-ranking officials and members of the security services (during Yeltsin’s mandate) who regularly worked for the Chechen gangs in Moscow had mutually beneficial relations with the government of President Djokhar Dudaiev, who was allowed to keep millions of tons of Russian oil without paying a cent”.

Why did things suddenly deteriorate by the end of 1993 when Moscow decided to launch a military intervention? There are several hypotheses. First, there were internal problems in Chechnya. In April 1993, President Dudaiev tried to establish a true tyranny: he dissolved parliament and confiscated kept all powers for his government. The opposition mobilized to demand free elections. Although they also were in favor of independence, opposition members seemed closer to Moscow or, at least, “not so radically anti-Russian” [11]. During the same period, the war of gangs increased in Moscow leaving dozens of death in all sides.

For Paul Klebnikov, “the Chechen campaign was only a large scale war of gangs”. Thanks to their shady deals with Russian high-ranking officials, the Chechen leaders “could sell the Russian oil in international markets”. After having participated, on Moscow’s orders, in the defense of the Abkhazian separatists of Georgia, in 1993, the Chechen military leaders decided to take possession of this treasure. «It was then that Djokhar Dudaiev, considering that he was already strong and big enough, stopped sharing the booty with his Russian partners - explained General Lebed - and, thus, (the Russian government) decided to punish him militarily» [12] . Azerbaijan had just signed an important oil agreement, in September 1994, with an Anglo-American consortium and the oil resources were increasingly more important.

Alexander Lebed also mentioned elements linked to the Russian domestic policy. According to him, when the Red Army withdrew from the former countries of the Eastern bloc, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, several generals of the Western Forces Group (WFG), under the command of General Matvei Burlakov and the protection of Defense Minister, General Pavel Gratchev, “negotiated in the black market with part of the military equipment of their units”, particularly with Serbia and Croatia that were fighting each other at the time. In order to camouflage this “massive corruption of the General Staff”, the generals led Moscow to involve itself in a conflict in Chechnya so that they could turn the robbed equipment into losses in the battlefield. «Those alleged generals needed a big conflict somewhere so that they could say that significant number of armored vehicles had been destroyed in combat», explained General Lebed in an interview granted to Paul Klebnikov [13] . Journalist Dimitri Kolodov, of the Moskovskii Komsomolets, investigated this trail in 1994, and he died in October when a briefcase exploded in his office.

Alexandre Lebed

The repression launched by the Russian army began on December 11, 1994, with the reluctant support of US President Bill Clinton who said he wanted “a minimum of blood shed”. Paul Klebnikov wrote a list of those who supported launching the attack. In addition to Boris Yeltsin, he cited Pavel Gratchev, Defense Minister; Oleg Soskovets, Yeltsin’s First Assistant; Oleg Lobov, secretary of the Security Council; Alexander Korzakov, head of the presidential guard; Viktor Erin and Serguei Stepachin; all of them members of what he called “the pro-war side”. It was, however, a term that Lebed contested: «it was not the pro-war side. It was the pro-business side». He and General Gromov, the Defense Vice-Minister - both very popular - opposed the offensive. History would prove them right. In what was a denial of the boasting by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Gratchev who said that «a battalion of paratroopers could take Groznyy in two hours», the seizure of the Chechen capital took tow months of slaughter.

The troops sent were not elite forces but simple recruits stationed in the Russian border since the serious riots that shook the Caucasus in 1991 and 1992. The strategy planned was a complete failure: the use of columns of armored vehicles without any air or infantry support in an urban area allowed the Chechens to destroy many of them. It was enough to neutralize the first and last ones and then destroy the others that were completely immobilized. Moscow’s response was fierce and, by the end of January 1995, the Russian army seized Grozny. Combats then continued in the mountains, where Chechen mafia leaders had sought shelter. The complete disorganization of the Russian forces became clear. «Unit commanders refused to obey the attack orders, others refused to respect the ceasefire orders. Many accepted bribes for letting surrounded Chechen units escape while others even sold weapons to their adversaries» [14]. It all happened in front of the indifference of the international community: on January 6, President Bill Clinton wrote to Boris Yeltsin to simply ask him to be merciful with the civilians.

Since the unilateral declaration of independence of the country, the Chechen leaders had threatened Moscow with the execution of terrorist operations on Russian soil. In June 1995, Chamil Basaev, former businessman from Moscow who had become head of a terrorist group, went over 100 kilometers into Russian territory accompanied by dozens of combatants; he occupied the city hall and the hospital of the city of Budionnovsk where he took 1,500 hostages. Surrounded by Russian elite troops, he repelled several attacks and, after having executed a significant number of hostages in cold blood (many women, nurses and elderly people just because they were Russians) he was received authorization from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomirdin to depart taking with him several dozens of hostages to cover his withdrawal. The result of the attack, with around 120 death people, interrupted hostilities for six months.

Without defined ideological motives, the main characters on both sides were not able to find a political solution. On the contrary, they tried to solve their conflicts of personal interest through the use of force, pushing their respective troops into deadly and useless clashes and sacrificing the civil population.

The presidential election of June 1996, for which Boris Yeltsin was no longer a favorite, accelerated the end of the conflict. The oligarchs that surrounded the Russian president, headed by Boris Berezovski, blocked the way of Communist candidate Guennadi Ziuganov, although he was ahead in the opinion polls. Peace in Chechnya could mean an unexpected way for Yeltsin to regain his popularity. However, his campaign team chose communication. Leaning on private and public media - the latter under Kremlin’s control and the others controlled by his friends - Yeltsin was in the front pages, especially in television. Even better, on May 8, Boris Berezovski and the other members of Yeltsin’s presidential campaign team met with General Lebed, who was also a candidate. Nothing leaked from the conversation but analysts then saw an improvement in the way media portrayed the general.

In May 1996, a few days from the election day, Chechen President Djokhar Dudaiev was killed by a missile that was guided by his mobile telephone. The impact of his death is hard to assess but nobody doubts that it influenced the result of the first round. Yeltsin, the outgoing president, won 35.1% of the votes while his Communist rival received 32%. In the meantime, General Lebed received an unexpected 14.7%. Two days later, Lebed was appointed secretary of the Security Council and personal advisor to President Yeltsin for security affairs. Defense Minister Pavel Gratchev was fired, and so were Alexander Korjakov, Mijail Barsukov - director of the Federal Security Service (FSB, former KGB) and vice Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets. Seven generals appointed by Gratchev were dismissed. The «pro-war side» had been beheaded.

However, in them morning of the second round election day, on July 6, 1996, clashes resumed in Chechnya after a period of calm. The Russian army bombarded the rebel positions. On July 11th a bomb exploded in downtown Moscow leaving five people injured.

The following day, another bomb attack left one dead. The authors were not identified. However, there are two hypotheses: «a warning from the mafia circles faced with the intensification of the fight against the organized crime or the ‘Chechen terrorism’» [15] . General Lebed was ordered to fight terrorism. His positions were clear. He was no longer in favor of the Chechen independence as Chechnya was a confluence point of “oil pipelines, railroads and roads” and its independence could cause a “big war in the Caucasus” [16] .

The clashes were extremely violent with more than 400 civilian victims in a week. However, a process of negotiations began. Alexander Lebed sent a special envoy, Serguei Drobuch, who was bombarded by... the Russian army under the command of General Viatcheslav Tikomirov, a hawk who resumed combats on his own initiative. On the Chechen side, Ruslan Kasbulatov, former president of the Russian Supreme Soviet, was appointed «head of the group of advisors» of the pro-independence direction by President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. The Chechens demanded a status of “independence-association” with Russia according to which Moscow would recognize Chechnya as an “independent state, subject to international law”. In exchange, «Groznyy would delegate to Moscow the ‘implementation of collective defense and the direction of the armed forces’. Russia and Chechnya will have the same currency, borders, economic and customs space as well as a common defense system» [17] .

Chamil Bassaïev

On August 8, Chamil Basaev led a command to the center of Groznyy and, taking advantage of the surprise element, killed 500 soldiers. The 3,000 Russian soldiers that were in Groznyy saw themselves forced to remain stationed while Basaev’s men took control of the city. On August 12, General Lebed traveled to Kasaviurt, in Dagestan, to begin negotiations for peace. Finally, both sides agreed the withdrawal of the Russian troops with a moratorium on the status of the republic, which does really matter to anyone as it was not the real objective. The arrangement about the status of the republic would have to take place “before December 31st, 2001”, date for a referendum about the issue. The peace agreement was signed on September 3rd, 1996. In spite of the reluctance of President Boris Yeltsin, who for days refused to receive Alexander Lebed, the first Chechen conflict came to an end. Its duration is explained due to the personal interests of several Russian and Chechen leaders as the conflict opened the door for any kinds of trafficking.

Regarding the reaction of Boris Berezovski after the signing of the peace accords, General Lebed said: «Berezovski came to see me and tried to intimidate me. When he realized that it was impossible to frighten me, he simply said to me: Are they killing each other? So what? They have always done it and they will continue to do it’».

This is the first of three articles of an investigation. The second one, Business and Terrorism in Moscow, picks up the oligarchs’ attempt to use the Chechen conflict in their show of force with President Putin, between 1996 and 1999. The last article, The Chechen Dominoes, reveals the geo-strategic disputes of the second Chechen war that had oil pipelines, radical Islamism and the “big game” in the Caucasian region as background.

[1«En imposant l’état d’urgence aux Tchétchènes, M. Eltsine engage l’épreuve de force dans le Caucase», by Jan Krauze, Le Monde, November 8, 1991

[2«URSS: une décision de M. Boris Eltsine contestée», by Jan Krauze, Le Monde, November 12, 1991

[3Boris Yeltsin had recently announced that he would reject any adhesion of Gamsakhurdia’s Georgia to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) “due to the human rights violations committed in this country”

[4«Géorgie: calme trompeur à Tbilissi», by José Alain Fralon, Le Monde, January 13, 1992

[5«Où est M. Gamsakhourdia», Le Monde, January 23, 1992

[6«Washington critique les conditions de la destitution de M. Gamsakhourdia en Géorgie», Le Monde, February 20, 1992

[7«M. Kozyrev estime que «la menace d’un coup d’État existe»», Le Monde, July 2, 1992

[8See «Boris Berezovski, le receleur», by Paul Labarique, Voltaire, April 26, 2004

[9Chechnya is in the middle of an important network of oil pipelines that go from the Caspian Sea and the Western Siberia region to the oil terminal of Novorossisk in the Black Sea

[10Parrain du Kremlin - Boris Berezovski et le pillage de la Russie, by Paul Klebnikov, Robert Laffont, 2000

[11«Le conflit russo-tchétchène», by Sandra Bisin and Vincent Thollet, DESS bilingual journalist of Paris III, 2003

[12Parrain du Kremlin, op. cit

[13Parrain du Kremlin, op.cit

[14Parrain du Kremlin, op.cit

[15«Nouvel attentat au cœur de Moscou», by Sophie Lambroschini, Libération, July 13, 1996

[16«Boris Eltsine confie la lutte contre le terrorisme au général Lebed», by Sophie Shihab, Le Monde, July 13, 1996

[17«Les vélléités de paix du candidat Eltsine sont restées lettre morte», by Dorian Malovic, La Croix, August 8, 1996