Chechen role in the 1992-3 Georgian-Abkhazian war
By Oleg Lukin, special to Prague Watchdog
Fifteen years ago, on August 14 1992, war broke out between Georgia and Abkhazia. The attempt by Eduard Shevardnadze, Chairman of Georgia’s State Council, to halt the country’s break-up met with fierce resistance not only from Abkhazian separatists but also by guerrillas from the so-called Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus (CPC), as well as Cossacks.
According to information from Viktor Baranets (a Colonel of the Russian General Staff at the time of the conflict, and now a military expert), Moscow was offering military support to both sides in the conflict, thus creating a so-called “controlled conflict”.
However, the least studied chapter in the history of the Abkhazian war was the involvement of Chechen groups under the command of Shamil Basayev. This is due to the fact that the two subsequent confrontations between Russia and Chechnya have caused reluctance on both sides to review their military cooperation against Georgia. Besides, considering Basayev’s current status as Russia’s “Number 1 Terrorist”, the Kremlin does not want any reminders of Basayev’s capable military leadership in the Abkhazian conflict. Thus his activities (and those of the Chechens under his command) are presented only as they concern war crimes against the civilian population.
A question is raised: could this have been the real reason that the leadership of the unrecognised state of Abkhazia awarded Basayev the medal of Hero of the Republic? Or why his portrait was hanging in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Gudauta right up to the time of the Beslan tragedy? Let us try to understand this a little better.
Chechnya and Abkhazia do not share a common border, so movement between the two republics can only occur via Russian territory. In 1991 and 1992, Moscow and Grozny were twice on the brink of war (which did finally break out in 1994). Even so, armed Chechen units were able to easily reach Karachaevo-Cherkessia and travel over the passes to Abkhazia.
In the memoirs of the Russian generals Gennady Troshev and Anatoly Kulikov the only episode they mention where Russian police tried to detain Chechen guerrillas near Pyatigorsk. This resulted in the hijacking of a bus by the guerrillas, and its diversion to Abkhazia; its passengers served as a “human shield”. Kulikov mentions that special forces had organized an ambush in the mountains to free the hostages and disarm the rebels, but commands “from above” ordered them to let the gunmen “proceed”.
Actually, giving the Chechens and other “Confederalists” the green light enabled Moscow to kill two birds with one stone: pushing separatists over the border, and weakening Georgia with the aim of gaining military and political concessions from its leadership.
Basayev: baptism of fire or The role of personality in history
Basayev’s role in the Georgian-Abkhazian war is demonstrated by his extraordinary career rise. Starting the war as a platoon commander and later leading a company (considered one of the best in the Abkhazian army), he was promoted in October 1992 to the position of commander of the Gagra front.
In this capacity he carried out the first successful offensive operation against the Georgian army. At the beginning of October 1992, Abkhazian armed forces supported by CPC, Chechen forces and the Russian army launched a massive counterattack against Georgian positions in the Gagra region. Not only did the separatists regain control of the town, but advanced to the Russian border on the river Psou. As a result, the Georgian presence in western Abkhazia was eliminated, and the Abkhazians were able to easily obtain weapons over the border in the Adler region.
Basayev’s deeds in carrying out this operation obviously did not go unnoticed by the separatist leaders. In January 1993, he was named commander of the CPC expeditionary forces, and later the deputy Minister of Defence of Abkhazia.
However, one eyewitness at that time, the journalist Evgeny Krutikov (who was then the assistant to the commander of the South Ossetian national guard), holds Basayev responsible for the failure of the separatists to storm Sukhumi in mid-March 1993. On the other hand, the Abkhazian side claims that the reasons for the major defeat in this battle lie with the “double game” played by Russian forces, with their commandos entering the battle on the side of the Georgians.
In addition, Basayev is accused of refusing to send reinforcements to the Ossetian-Kabardin unit during a heavy battle. This occurred in July 1993, when separatists carried out a sea landing in eastern Abkhazia (Ochamchira region). More than half of the attack force was killed, and the Georgian side claimed victory. Quite possibly, this was the plan of the separatist leaders: while the Georgian forces were dealing with the landing, Abkhazian and Chechen forces broke through the Gumistin front, an unexpected blow from the west. The aim of the operation was to occupy strategic positions in the mountains above Sukhumi, including the village of Shroma. The sea landing from the east had been a diversionary tactic and may have been predestined to suffer heavy losses.
At the end of July 1993, the Georgian leadership signed a cease-fire agreement, allowing for the evacuation of forces from the autonomous region (Abkhazia) and the return of a “lawful government”. The armistice was broken in the middle of September: in Mingrelia, western Georgia, federal Georgian forces were attacked by forces loyal to the former Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and simultaneously Abkhazian forces and their allies launched the final storm of Sukhumi.
According to Krutikov’s version of events, Basayev had already withdrawn from military operations. This version is contradicted by both Georgian and Abkhazian sources, which reported that the commander of the expeditionary forces and Chechens subordinate to his command actively participated in the storming of Sukhumi. This would be indirectly confirmed by the words of one of the participants in the events on the Russian side (according to unofficial sources, a lieutenant colonel from the Russian GRU, Anton Surikov), who said, “I met up with Basayev more than once. And I am sure that at this time he did a lot to ensure the victory of Abkhazia in his position as deputy Minister of Defense.”
The disarmament process outlined in the armistice agreement in Sukhumi was doomed. Russia’s minister of defence, Pavel Grachev, refused to forcefully separate the warring parties. The Kremlin’s only assistance was the urgent evacuation of Shevardnadze from the besieged city.
The battle for Sukhumi lasted for 12 days, after which it fell and Georgian forces retreated along the whole front. The only area of Abkhazia to remain under Georgian control was Svanetiya, the upper part of the Kodori gorge. Georgian refugees saved from the vengeance of the victors settled here, together with the remnants of the Sukhumi defenders.
The Abkhazian war ended with Georgia’s defeat. Luring Shevardnadze into a military-political trap, the Kremlin helped him suppress the pro-Gamsakhurdia forces in Mingrelia, and turned Abkhazia into a Russian protectorate, having stationed its “peacekeepers” there.
The Chechen forces numbered up to 10,000 fighters, who a year later would take a very active part in the war against the former ally. In November 1994, in the streets of Grozny, they would burn Russian tanks and crewmen that were provided to the anti-Dudayev opposition. And in August 1996, Basayev would carry out a “Sukhumi remake”, driving out Russian forces from the Chechen capital, and forcing the Kremlin to sue for peace with the Chechen delegation led by Aslan Maskhadov.
The “boomerang of separatism”, thrown by the Kremlin towards the south, has rather quickly returned north, delivering a crushing blow to the Russian North Caucasus.
Oleg Lukin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a historian, specialist for military-historical themes.