Russia Facts
Area:    17,075,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Moscow
Total Population:    146,881,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Before the first invasion of Chechnya, then Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned that an operation in Chechnya would take "10 minutes to plan, 10 hours to execute, and 10 years to finish." Events may prove him wrong on all three counts, for no end is in sight for the cycle of rebellion and repression that descended on Chechnya in the 1990s. The majority of Chechens are concentrated in one region, and their military units are quite well organized and led. Whereas popular pressure from the Russian people on the democratic government in Moscow (such that it is) helped bring the last war (1994-1996) to an end, the latest round of warfare met with much greater levels of popular support. While the official military campaign has ended and a period of "normalization" has begun, the region remains extremely violent with continued insurgency an every-day reality. Further, since 9/11, Russia's operations in Chechnya have received less attention from the international community, which has not put the same pressure on Moscow to settle the conflict peacefully as it did in 1996. Since there are no signs that either side is tiring of the fighting and the atrocities, Chechnya is likely to be a festering wound in the belly of the Caucasus for the foreseeable future.

The Putin government has invested a great deal of political capital in its "pacification" campaign, and still reaps benefits in polls due to its conduct of the war. The Russian people do not seem to want to accept peace if it means another national humiliation. In addition, the issues that compelled the first invasion are still there: the Russian people have legitimate concerns about the lawlessness of the Chechen leadership, which was turning its republic into a virtual criminal state; many other would-be break-away Russian regions were and are watching how Moscow handles such secessionist movements, so surrender in Chechnya might have a domino effect in places like Tatarstan, Dagestan, and elsewhere; and finally, Chechnya continues to lie on strategic territory, straddling the areas upon which Moscow would like to build pipelines to transport Caspian oil to market. How such pipelines could realistically be expected to function in territory that is fiercely hostile to Moscow is rather unclear.

The Chechen militants are equally unlikely to surrender. While Russian forces now control Grozny and large swathes of Chechnya, Chechen rebels still have de facto control over some mountainous regions to the south and have enough of a presence in the north to be a constant source of harassment to the Russian presence. The rebels are highly unlikely to lay down their arms in the absence of defeat and, with a geography that is conducive to guerrilla operations, the rebels will be very hard to defeat decisively. Further, events such as the hostage taking in a Moscow theater in 2002, a massive military incursion into Dagestan in 2003, and the Beslan hostage taking in North Ossetia in 2004, demonstrate that the Chechen rebels are content and able to pursue their war of independence far beyond the borders of Chechnya itself.

Russia is now conducted a program of "normalization" in Chechnya. A new constitution for the republic has been proclaimed along with a new leadership, and both are widely perceived to be loyal to Moscow. As the assassination in 2004 of then-republican president Kadyrov demonstrates, the situation in the republic is anything but normal. Unfortunately for all sides, the most likely future scenario seems to be a protracted guerrilla war, not unlike the ones waged by the Caucasian mountain peoples against the czarist army in the middle of the last century.

Analytic Summary

The Chechens are a majority Sunni Muslim people (BELIEF = 3) whose traditional homeland is located in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia just north of Georgia (TRADITN = 1). According to the 1989 Soviet census, 77 percent of Chechens resided in the Republic of Chechnya (formally the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), and the rest were scattered throughout the Caucasus, with sizable communities in neighboring republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, southern Russia and in Moscow (GROUPCON = 3). In addition, a Chechen diaspora also exists outside of Russia, including approximately 100,000 in Kazakhstan and 250,000 in Jordan, who were expelled from Chechnya in the 1940s.

Chechens have deep traditions of loyalty based on clan and family identity that are perhaps stronger than their overall group identity. However, all Chechens are united by their particularly strong brand of Islam, which has helped define their cultural differences with Russians (CULDIFX4 = 2). Even when Communist authorities were expropriating religious institutions in other parts of the USSR, the number of mosques in Chechnya actually increased (BELIEF = 3).

The Chechen group identity has also been forged to a large degree by their historical tradition of resistance to Russian rule (COHESX9 = 4). They have a very strong warrior tradition that dates back centuries, but is particularly defined by decades of remarkable resistance to the czar against overwhelming odds. Since 1994 that conflict has been playing itself out again, as Moscow sent troops to Chechnya to crush nationalist Chechen rebels that were pressing for independence (INTERCON = 1).

Three centuries of persecution by, and resistance to, Moscow have created a potent reservoir of historical animosity between the two peoples. For most Chechen fighters, the recent phase of the Russo-Chechen conflict is simply the latest in a series of (both active and passive) holy wars against Russia. Furthermore, the traditional (Islamic) Sufi brotherhoods, to which Chechens have rallied amidst crises, have served a useful military purpose by bolstering the tactical sustainability of clan-based, small-unit guerrilla operations. The Chechens currently face severe political and economic discrimination (POLDIS03 = 4 and ECDIS03 = 4).

In 1991 President Dudayev of Chechnya proclaimed independence, which was not recognized by Russia. Negotiations aimed at finding a peaceful middle ground went nowhere, for the Chechens demanded independence and Moscow was unwilling to let the new Russian Federation splinter. In addition, Chechnya is located in strategic territory – in 1994 the pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea ran right through its capital, Grozny. In December 1994, Russian troops invaded the rebellious republic.

Despite overwhelming numerical and technical superiority, the Russian military failed to break the resistance of a determined insurgent force. The war was sharply criticized by the domestic and international community, which successfully pressured Yeltsin into granting the region de facto independence in 1996 after the rebels forced Russian troops out of Grozny. Liberal, reformist and reactionary elements in Russia charged the regime of incompetence and incoherence.

Russian and Chechen leaders signed a peace accord on August 31, 1996. But neither this nor another accord in 1997 contributed seriously to the resolution of the conflict. The 1996 accord did not settle the future status of Chechnya, putting the issue aside for another five years, and the 1997 accord attempted to improve the Russian-Chechen relations despite the unresolved issues surrounding the break away region.

No progress was made on Chechnya's status in the next three years, as virtual anarchy descended over Chechnya. Kidnappings and terrorist acts in Chechnya and in the territories of neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, as well as contacts between Chechen separatists and international Islamic organizations, indicated that the Chechen opposition sought independence for itself and for all neighboring Transcaucasian Muslim territories. New Chechen President Maskhadov was unable to control a band of Chechen militants who apparently believed that, with some provocation, the mountain peoples of the Caucasus would take up arms against Moscow. They were quite mistaken, for no other group showed an eagerness to repeat the experience of the Chechens.

The second Russian intervention in Chechnya, in October 1999, came as no surprise. Many observers suspect that the Putin government was planning to renew hostilities, and the ill-advised Chechen incursions into Dagestan and alleged involvement in terrorist acts in Russian cities merely provided excuses to invade. Either way, Putin promised a different war, one that would be shorter, cleaner and successful. The Russian people, eager to avenge their national humiliation and the terrorism that Chechens seemed to be perpetuating, have thus far supported the policy of their government in Chechnya.

Putin has delivered on his promise of a "different" war – this second campaign has been even more brutal than the last. Human Rights Watch reports that signs of human decency have been harder to find in this round of fighting, with increases in indiscriminate killing, "disappearances," torture, beatings and the like being perpetrated by both sides, but especially by the "police" units of the Russian Interior Ministry. By the end of 1999, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 200,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia and another 100,000 elsewhere in the Caucasus. Many of those refugees were forced to return in 2002 and 2003 when Russian officials abruptly declared Chechnya to be "safe" and proceeded to close refugee camps.

Seven years of warfare have transformed Chechnya into one of the world's truly hellish regions. In addition to the obvious hazards of war, FEWER reports that at least 80% of the population is unemployed and utterly impoverished, and justice is meted out by both sides in a manner that is best described as haphazard. While active warfare has officially ended, the situation for Chechens remains bleak with forced disappearances, torture (REP503 = 3), arbitrary detention (REP203 = 3), and massacres of suspected rebel supporters (REB2203 = 3) perpetuated by Russian forces on a daily basis. Police harassment against Chechens in other parts of the Russian Federation have also increased, with arbitrary identity-checks, arrests, and refusals to grant obligatory residency permits in cities such as Moscow.


Amnesty International, various reports 2000-2004

Human Rights Watch: World Reports, Briefing Papers, and other reports 1995-2003.

Nexis-Lexis Library Information, 1990-2003.

US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2001-2003): Russia


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.