Hot August in Grozny
By Oleg Lukin, for Prague Watchdog
On July 3, 1996, the second round of a run-off presidential election took place in Russia, with Boris Yeltsin being elected for a second term. Afterward, the country’s leadership decided to reconsider the peace agreement reached with the Chechen separatists at recent talks in Moscow and Nazran. This decision may have been fueled not only by the generals’ dissatisfaction at not being given the opportunity to “finish off the bandits”, but also by Aleksander Lebed, who had been appointed Secretary of Russia's Security Council. It is rumored that Lebed was willing to bring an end to the unpopular war on terms unfavorable to Russia. However, he had no peace plan formulated.
General Lebed’s electoral campaign slogan was “I stopped one war, and will stop another”. His experiences in the conflict in the Transdnestr region of Moldavia in 1992 led to “compulsion to peace.” Perhaps Russian generals convinced him to break the truce in Chechnya and, having delivered a series of crushing blows to the rebels, to then accept their capitulation. This has been indirectly proven by the fact that Lebed met with the Russian commander in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, at the beginning of July 1996. During this meeting there was “an open discussion” and a “mutual understanding” was reached.
On July 1, the Chechens announced that the Russian command was not complying with the conditions of the ceasefire: federal forces had not abandoned one single checkpoint. According to the timetable worked out as part of the Nazran agreements, they should have left by July 7 at the latest. On July 3, the day of the Russian presidential elections, the Russian delegation announced that the checkpoints were being cleared, and the planned withdrawal of forces from the republic was continuing. Three days later, the Chechen delegation warned that if the check points were not cleared by the end of the following day, they would walk out of the negotiations. The Russian response was now a complete reversal: troop withdrawal was not going forward.
The Russian delegation proposed to their Chechen counterparts that they should open negotiations with the Russian-installed Chechen regime headed by Doku Zavgayev. The Russians thus demonstrated that they did not intend to fulfill the agreements they had signed, as soon as the political requirement to do so had disappeared. Abandoning the peace process, the Russian leadership decided to continue military operations.
Between July 9 and 16, Russian armed forces carried out a series of major operations in the foothills and settlements of mountainous southern Chechnya, where the separatists had their bases. From July 20 onwards, the federal forces launched a large-scale operation in the south of the republic. On July 10 General Lebed accused the Chechen side of escalating the conflict. In reply to a journalist’s question regarding the “arbitrariness” of the Russian commander in breaking the ceasefire, Lebed replied that "Tikhomirov is a fully obedient general".
On August 6, at 5:50 AM local time, Chechen forces attacked Grozny. On that very day, Russians planned a major operation in the settlement of Alkhan-Yurt, southwest of Grozny, on the federal Rostov-Baku highway. To carry out this operation, it had been decided to move more than 1,500 Interior Ministry troops and pro-Moscow “Zavgayev” Chechen militiamen. Ironically, these forces were already being moved out of the city as their opponents were entering it.
At the same time, Chechen units also attacked other major towns in the republic, namely Argun and Gudermes. While federal forces managed to hold the commander’s building in Argun, Gudermes was taken without a fight.
The Chechen units attacking Grozny consisted of 1,500 to 2,000 men. Within a week, their numbers had grown to between 6,000 and 7,000, as a result of the transfer of units from elsewhere in the republic, and also some of the (pro-Moscow) Zavgayev forces changing sides. Russian federal forces consisted of some 15,000 to 20,000 men. The Russians also enjoyed superiority in armored transport and artillery, and absolute control of airspace.
The Chechen chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov, employed tactics which proved highly damaging to the Russian forces. Chechen units entered Grozny and, similar to streams of water, flowed between the various checkpoints, command buildings and other positions of Russian forces. The Chechens did not aim to capture or destroy these targets. It simply blockaded the checkpoints and command posts, isolating them from each other, and demoralizing them with a ceaseless barrage of fire. A separate attack was carried out on the administrative complex in the city center, which included the government building, the Interior Ministry, FSB, and others: along with servicemen, a number of Russian journalists were also holed up inside.
The Russian forces stationed at Khankala and Severny Airport reacted rather sluggishly to the situation. The army generals calculated that their opponents would leave the city of their own accord, and thus did not hurry to the aid of those under siege in the Interior Ministry. The first attempts to alleviate the situation were not undertaken until the afternoon of August 7 (!), when an armored column was sent to the aid of the besieged Russian positions. But time had been lost. Some of the Chechen units organized ambushes. They did not suffer from a lack of weaponry – at Grozny railway station which was taken by the Chechens the day before, a wagonload of anti-tank weapons had fallen into their hands. As a result, Russian tanks became sitting targets for the armed Chechen mobile units. Only on August 11, the sixth day of fighting, did one of the armored columns succeed in getting through to the city center. Those injured, as well as the aforementioned journalists, were evacuated, along with the bodies of dead servicemen.
End of First Chechen War
On August 10, Lebed was named the Russian President’s plenipotentiary to Chechnya. Having become convinced of the impossibility of achieving military victory with the means at his disposal, he decided to enter into negotiations with the separatists. This time, Lebed’s political calculation and Russia’s interests coincided. On the night of August 11 he opened negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov and compelled General Pulikovsky to join them. The Minister of Defense, General Rodionov, had been appointed with Lebed’s personal recommendation, which enabled the latter to control the military. The Interior Minister, Kulikov, with the reputation of being a hawk, was neutralized by Lebed who accused him of abandoning Grozny.
Lebed convinced Boris Yeltsin of the correctness of his course, in part due to the extremely difficult situation of the federal forces. Since August 14, the Chechen army had almost completely controlled Grozny. The Russian command declined to take back the city and concentrated on retaining their bases at Khankala and Severny airport. In the city, there remained some centers of resistance with around 2,000 servicemen and militiamen still blocked in their positions. But with shortages of ammunition, medicine, food and water, they were doomed to destruction, either by enemy fire or by friendly air or artillery strikes. Argun and Gudermes were in the separatists’ hands, and the Chechen army was also increasing its activities around Urus-Martan and Vedeno. Under these circumstances Lebed succeeded in obtaining a ceasefire in Grozny beginning August 14, and on August 17 General Pulikovsky signed an order terminating all military activity in the republic.
The hawks’ last attempt to torpedo the peace process occurred on August 19. On that day the Russian President’s press secretary gave Lebed the assignment to restore law and order in Grozny as of August 5 (in other words, before the storming of the city). General Pulikovsky issued an ultimatum to the rebels to leave Grozny within 48 hours. In the event of non-compliance, attacks would be launched from all directions and with all available means.
Air and artillery strikes commenced in the early hours of August 20, before the end of the deadline. The attacks condemned the remaining federal forces in the city, as well as the civilian population, estimated by the human rights organization Memorial at between 50,000 to 70,000. Lebed, however, managed to avert a bloodbath. Returning to Chechnya, he negotiated a ceasefire and began a dialogue with the Chechens.
On August 30, with his direct participation, the Khasavyurt Agreements were signed. These provided for the withdrawal of Russian forces from the republic, and for a political agreement between Russia and Chechnya on the “final” status of the republic to be determined in 2001. By the end of 1996, Russian forces had withdrawn from the whole Chechen territory.
Oleg Lukin (firstname.lastname@example.org) - historian, specialist for military-historical themes
Note: This material was published in complete form in the bulletin Mostok, 2/2006 (http://www.vestnikmostok.ru).