Vladimir Putin portrayed the Chechens as ideological terrorists. However, drawing parallels between the war in Ukraine and the war in Chechnya would be constructive in recognizing the human rights abuses and the suffering of the Chechen people at both the hands of the Russians and of their own government.

On December 21 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was invited to Washington DC to thank the Americans for the weapons and support they have provided to his cause of driving the Russians out of his homeland. “Against all odds and doom and gloom scenarios, Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking,” he passionately declared while garnering the applause of members of Congress. 

However, when Russians invaded Chechnya, the world did nothing. And when Chechens fought back, they were branded as terrorists. Atrocities have been committed on both sides of the Chechen conflict; however, it might be time to reframe our understanding of the Chechen conflict and hold the Kremlin accountable. At the same time, the current Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov is a tyrant and guilty of egregious human rights abuses against his own people.

In 2020, Ramzan Kadyrov was blacklisted by the U.S. State Department as Kadyrov is responsible for numerous gross violations of human rights dating back more than a decade, including torture and extrajudicial killings. Trapped between the Kremlin and Kadyrov, the people of Chechnya suffer. 

Blood and elusive self-determination

Chechnya is a small Muslim republic located in southwestern Russia with a population of just 1.5 million. Tzarist forces first invaded Chechnya two centuries ago seeking to rule the country by force. At various times during the past 200 years, Chechnya has been dominated by Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation with varying degrees of autonomy. During the worst of Russian rule, the country’s culture and religion were restricted. And Russia benefitted from Chechnya’s natural resources, especially oil

After the fall of the USSR, Chechnya began moving toward independence, which it formally declared in 1992. In the same year, its constitution was established. The first Chechen war broke out in 1994 when Yeltsin’s army invaded and captured the secessionist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and then the Chechen capital of Grozny. 

Russian military tactics had not changed since World War II, meaning that high numbers of civilian casualties were accepted, if not desired. Consequently, the civilian population suffered under aerial bombardments and artillery fire, as the entire city was levelled. Ironically, before the attack began, most of the ethnic Chechens fled Grozny, taking refuge with relatives in the countryside. As a result, many of those who remained in the city and many of those killed were ethnic Russians. 

Apart from Grozny, numerous villages and smaller cities were also reduced to rubble. It is estimated that 3,000 Chechen soldiers were killed, as were between 30,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians. At least 200,000 Chechencivilians were injured, while 500,000 were displaced. Many suffered atrocities at the hands of Russian soldiers, Chechen soldiers, or competing armed bands. Those who survived were horribly traumatized. 

This drove the Chechen freedom fighters to take to the hills and continue waging a guerrilla war against the Russians. In 1996, the Kremlin granted Chechnya nominal autonomy. By that time, nearly 40 percent of the population had been forced to leave their homes, becoming displaced persons. Kidnapping and organized crime became rampant. In 1997, Aslan Maskhadov was elected president, and received a congratulatory message from Boris Yeltsin; a peace treaty was signed with Yeltsin at the Kremlin. 

Chechnya was one of the poorest regions of Russia. And anti-Russian sentiment as well as religious extremism flourished. Lawlessness, robbery, and kidnapping were rampant in Chechnya. Wahhabism and fundamentalism grew and the Chechen independence movement became split between Islamic fundamentalism and secular Chechen nationalists. In order to hold the country together, Maskhadov conceded to the fundamentalists in February 1999 and introduced Islamic Sharia law. Sharia courts could sentence people to death or flogging for such crimes as adultery. 

President Maskhadov lost control of several prominent warlords. He condemned efforts by Samir Saleh Abdullah Al Suwailim (Aka Ibn al-Khattab) and others to spread war into neighbouring Dagestan. Ibn Al-Khattab, a Saudi-born mujahid emir, had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He also took active part in the Tajikistan Civil War and was accused by Armenia of supporting Azerbaijani fighters. Additionally, he once claimed to have participated in the war in Bosnia. In 1999, Moscow accused him of the Russian apartment bombings in in the city of Ryazan although some experts believe this was a false-flag operation by the Russians. Ibn Al-Khattab was assassinated in 2002 by a poisoned letter sent by Russia’s Federal Security Service. 

The Kremlin blamed the Chechens for the actions of Ibn Al-Khattab and others, including the apartment bombings. When Putin was prime minister of Russia, he declared Maskhadov’s government and parliament illegitimate. Putin then dispatched Russian troops to Chechnya. The Russians responded with a heavy military hand bombing and killing civilians and destroying what minimal infrastructure and economy existed. Putin’s harsh stance on the breakaway republic is believed to have been the action that cinched the presidential elections for him. 

In 1999, Maskhadov proposed a peace plan, but it was rejected by the Russians. As a result, 1999 marked the second Chechen War. Russian forces quickly captured Grozny, and the Kremlin placed a US$10 million bounty on the head of Maskhadov. The former president made several attempts to enter peace talks, but Putin refused.

Vladimir Putin assumed office as President of Russia in 1999. In 2000, Russia took control of Grozny. After 9/11, Putin managed to paint his war in Chechnya as a war on Islamic terrorism, and so he was able to paint his own forces in a better light. 

Chechen military leader Akhmad Kadyrov switched to the Russian side during the second Chechen war. Putin rewarded Kadyrov by helping him get elected as president in 2003 in an election which was believed to be heavily flawed and controlled by the Russians. In both 1991 and 1997, independence referenda were held, and the majority voted for independence. Later in 2003, Putin backed another referendum allowing 40,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Chechnya to vote. 

President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004 in Chechnya by Islamic separatists. The same year, the Russians assassinated Chechen separatist ex-president Yandarbiyev in Qatar. Former President Aslan Maskhadov was assassinated in 2005 while in exile. The Kremlin later arranged for the son of pro-Moscow President Ramzan Kadyrov to become president of Chechnya in 2007. 

Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov, son of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, is a colonel in the Russian military currently serving as the Head of the Chechen Republic. He is also a member of the Advisory Commission of the State Council of the Russian Federation. 

Chechnya is lawless in terms of violence and criminality, but the people also suffer under Kadyrov’s repressive rule. He used surveillance to monitor and control the lives of citizens and repeatedly ran anti-LGBT purges which resulted in mass detentions, torture, and even death. 

The Internal Crisis Group reported in 2015 that, “the significant reduction in insurgent activity owes much to widely applied collective responsibility whereby relatives of rebels have been harassed, threatened, held hostage or had their property destroyed.”

Ramzan Kadyrov oversaw a program of systematic abuse based on religious views. Those accused by his government were forced to appear on TV to apologize for crimes like witchcraft, insulting Islam, and criticizing Kadyrov. The torture and abuse of offenders is condoned by Chechen Minister of Information and Press Akhmed Dudaev who accused two LGBTI bloggers of insulting religion and aiding Islamist militants. 

In December 2022, Chechen dissident blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov was killed in Sweden. The previous year, two Chechens were arrested in Sweden for attempting to kill Abdurakhmanov. One of the men testified in court that he had been paid by the Chechen government for the assassination.

In December 2021, just two months before the Ukraine invasion, the Russian supreme Court dissolved the non-governmental agency (NGO) Memorial, which is the oldest and most respected human rightsorganization in Russia. Memorial was among the most prominent groups reporting on Russian human rights violations in Chechnya. 

Kadyrov has even managed to export repression by claiming to have accompanied his army into combat in Ukraine. Posting on social media, allegedly from the battle front, he called the Ukrainians Nazis and stated that Ukraine belongs to Russia. He also said that Russia should use nukes against Ukraine. His personal troop known as the Kadyrovtsy has been accused of war crimes for the killing of hundreds of civilians in the city of Bucha, Ukraine, back in April. 

Takeaway and resolution

The Chechen conflict has a number of important implications for conflict studies in general and as a template for other conflicts such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Chechnya is a small country which Putin feels he has the right to dominate. This is also true of Ukraine. There are ethnic differences between the Russian Slavs, the Chechens and the Ukrainians. There is a religious component to both conflicts, as Russia is predominately Christian Orthodox and the Chechens are largely Muslim. There is a cultural component and even a linguistic component as the Russian Slavs speak Russian and follow Russian culture whereas the Chechens have their own language and unique Muslim culture. An economic component is also present as the Chechens occupy land rich in resources the Kremlin would like to export and profit from. 

At the heart of Russia’s economic interest in Chechnya is oil revenue. In 1971, Chechnya’s oil production represented 7 percent of Russia’s total. Through foreign investment, it is possible to rebuild the oil infrastructure and return to previous levels of production. If that money were to remain in Chechnya, the country would enjoy one of the highest per capita GDPs in Eastern Europe. An improved standard of living and the absence of Russian troops could go a long way toward deradicalizing Chechnya and making it a safer place to live. Unfortunately, much of the country’s oil infrastructure was destroyed during the second Chechen war and has not been restored. 

Foreign investors are willing to help rebuild the oil industry, but there is the issue of what percentage of the revenues would go to Moscow. Analysts believe that Kadyrov wants greater autonomy as well as greater control over the distribution of oil profits. Given the torture he has subjected his own people to and the corruption in his government, it is not likely that the people of Chechnya would be better off under a Kadyrov-led, independent Chechnya. 

Today, the plight of the Chechen people is horrendous as they are trapped between the Kremlin and Kadyrov.

Human rights abuses continue with Chechens being subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, and murder. Moscow allowing Chechnya to maintain its religion and culture is used as a pretext by Putin to give the impression that Chechnya is nominally independent. In reality, President Kadyrov is a puppet of the Kremlin who, along with Putin, is happy to perpetuate the charade as long as he retains power and the oil keeps flowing.

Antonio Graceffo

Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is a China economist, the author of Beyond the Belt and Road: China's Global Expansion and The Wrestler's Dissertation. He is based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.