The Second Chechen War and its Implications for Democratic Peace Theory



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With wartime political cohesion dissolving, and the armed and radicalized “freedom fighters” now a powerful political force, political fragmentation and conflict within the elite limit the ability of the Maskhadov leadership to reach compromises with Moscow. Moreover, the perceived failure of the Russian side to deliver on past promises has weakened the position of Maskhadov himself, and encouraged the turn toward Islam as a basis of social order and cohesion and an instrument of state building. With prospects for economic recovery increasingly remote, a significant part of the population has left the republic in search of employment elsewhere; for many who remain in Chechnya, criminal activities and hostage-taking have become a way of life.44
3. Substantive Analysis

The Security Explanations of the Second Chechen War

Mansfeld and Snyder claim that the Second Chechen War supports their theory; however, their analysis is cursory,45 leaving space in the literature for more detailed explanation of the conflict. They specifically claim that “gambling for resurrection, nationalist bidding wars, and the resort to nationalist prestige strategies in order to govern amid the political stalemate of a weakly institutionalized semi-democracy” occurred during the First and Second Chechen Wars and claim that “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin mounted a second offensive against the still turbulent Chechen rebels in 1999 to try to gain sufficient popularity to succeed Yeltsin as president.”46 In contrast, Bruce Robert Ware, an expert on the North Caucasus, argues that the Russian decision to intervene in Chechnya in 1999 was primarily motivated by geopolitical concern regarding Chechnya’s status as “a base for internationally supported irredentist attacks aimed at the violent separation of the North Caucasian republics from the Russian Federation and the imposition of Wahhabite Islamist fundamentalism upon their unwilling inhabitants.”47

Ware claims that the immediate causes of Russian intervention in Chechnya were “two irredentist invasions of the Russian Republic of Dagestan from bases in Chechnya that were supported by international Islamist organisations and prosecuted by Islamist radicals from Dagestan and Chechnya, along with a spectrum of fighters from throughout the Islamic world,” one invasion started on 2 August, 1999 the other on 5 September, 1999.48 He points out that previous invasions by radical Chechen forces into the Russian territory were accompanied by near-genocidal atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists who desired to create an Islamic Caliphate.49 Additionally, Ware claims that Chechnya was practically a failed state at the time when Russia intervened, and that no state with the capacity to act would accept a failed state on its border.50 Further, he argues that Putin had attempted to negotiate the crisis with Maskhadov, but Maskhadov refused to arrest Shamil Basaev, who had organized the invasions of Dagestan referred to above. In short, Ware argues that “it is difficult to see that Putin had any choice other than a military return to Chechnya,”51 also claiming that “War could have been prevented only by an act of political transcendence involving an alliance of Russian and Chechen moderates against the Islamists and hardliners.”52

Clearly, Ware oversimplifies the decision-making process that led to the Second Chechen War and discounts options that important figures in the Russian government seriously considered. Vyacheslav Mikhailov, who was the Russia Minister for Regional and Nationalities Policy, proposed an alternative to full-scale war, which Lajos F. Szaszdi, an expert on the Second Chechen War, summarizes: “Mikhailov argued in favor of reducing the sizeable levels of Russian military forces concentrated in the region and instead to give emphasis to implementing more successfully federal development and reform program in the North Caucasus.”53 Additionally, Emil Pain, a professor at the National Research University, makes a powerful case for an alternative to full-scale intervention. He claims that “in moving deep into the interior of Chechnya the Russian army is moving Russia further away from solving the Chechen problem.”54 He proposes the alternative of a “sanitary boundary,” that would have “better protect[ed] Russian regions from terrorist forays than would a total seizure of Chechnya.”55 Instead of full-scale invasion, the Russian government could have implemented a less militarized plan called “One Chechnya, Two Systems,” which was considered during the First Chechen War.56 The plan would have involved invading Chechnya from its northern border with Russia down to the Terek River, and establishing a “welfare zone” that would be policed by Russia. Residents would have been given the choice to live in the lawless zone south of the Terek River, or move to the Russian zone. Ware argues that, “it is difficult to understand why Putin did not have a moral obligation to [invade Chechnya] in order to protect Russian citizens.”57 In fact, if the rationale for full invasion was to protect Russian citizens, the Russian security forces did an abysmal job: they refused to admit Russian citizens from the Chechen territory into Russia for protection.58 Nonetheless, Ware makes a compelling argument that the Russian government needed to do something about the security situation in Chechnya.

In the year before the start of the Second Chechen War, Chechnya had devolved into a state of near chaos. Chechnya, which had gained de facto independence in the First Chechen War, was struggling to maintain security within its borders, and had become a hotbed for organized crime and separatist Islamist organizations. Because of the vacuum of political power, Islam was becoming more politicized in Chechnya, and radicals from around the Middle East gravitated towards the region, giving rise to Islamist warlords such as Shamil Basaev.59 In November 1998 then-Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov stated that, “‘funds had been allocated from the federal budget to improve social conditions in Chechnya’ […] but there was little to show for it.”60 Evangelista writes that, “In early 1999, a number of Russian observers became alarmed at the deteriorating situation in Chechnya and the Yeltsin administration’s apparent complacency.”61 The next section will analyze the Russian response to these developments, as well as the domestic politics and decision-making that led to the Second Chechen War. Particular attention is paid to what motivations may have led to the Russian decision to pursue a full-scale invasion instead of a more limited cordon sanitaire.
The Decision-Making Process that Led to the Second Chechen War

In March 1999, General Gennady Nikolaevich Shpigun, the Russian Interior Ministry’s special representative in Chechnya, was kidnapped while deplaning in Chechnya. The Russian Government, embarrassed by the kidnapping, began devising plans to fortify the border with Chechnya.62 Marcel Van Herpen and Lajos Szaszdi disagree about the sequence of decisions that led to the Second Chechen War. Van Herpen writes that in late March 1999, “a meeting of the ‘power ministers’ was held in which Sergey Stepashin, at that time still minister of the interior, Igor Sergeyev, minister of defense, Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, and Vladimir Putin, director of the FSB, participated.”63 At that meeting, he claims that the group adopted a plan to occupy the territory of Chechnya north of the Terek River and establish a cordon sanitaire.64 Then, in May 1999, “this moderate plan would be changed and another, more radical plan adopted. This was a plan to reconquer the whole Chechen republic and bring it back into the Russian Federation […] It is unclear how far these changes were affected by developments on the ground in Chechnya.”65 In contrast, Szaszdi writes:

If the March decision to intervene was motivated by the kidnapping of Shpigun, and the July decision to expand the limited operation against Chechnya was the result of the Kosovo Crisis, a full-scale invasion of the Chechen Republic would have been promoted by the events in Dagestan, by Kosovo, and possibly also by the forthcoming Russian elections66

I will return to the influence of the Kosovo Crisis in a later section. For the time being, it is enough to point out that scholars do not agree on the exact decision-making sequence, which makes it difficult to ascertain what events influenced the decision to engage in full-scale invasion. What is clear, though, is that the Russians considered a more moderate approach to the conflict, the cordon sanitaire, but dropped it in favor of full-scale invasion. The next sections will demonstrate that it is much more difficult than Mansfeld and Snyder claimed to ascertain that Putin started the full-scale war solely for the purpose of winning the elections.


Political Challenges Facing the Yeltsin Administration

President Yeltsin was extremely unpopular in March 1999 because of the failed and generally unpopular First Chechen War, the Ruble crash in 1998, and allegations of corruption related to the Mabetex affair.67 Yeltsin was in the last stretch of his second term, and would have to leave office. Nonetheless, in May 1999, the State Duma voted to start a process of impeachment, but the impeachment failed to pass with the requisite two-thirds vote. However, Yeltsin’s first war in Chechnya was still unpopular, and the State Duma fell just a few votes short of impeaching him for having started it on false pretexts. Lending credence to Mansfeld and Snyder’s claims, it appeared that Yelstin and the Family needed to ensure that a friendly President would come to power after Yeltsin, in order for them to be safe from corruption charges.68

Adding to their urgency, Fatherland-All Russia, a new party headed by Yevgeny Primakov and Yury Luzhkov, the two most popular leaders in Russia who both also had a strong political base, seemed to pose a viable alternative to any successor Yeltsin chose.69 Szaszdi considers the possibility that the decision to fully invade Chechnya was related to the upcoming State Duma and Presidential elections: “The decision to invade would have shown Yeltsin—or a chosen successor—as a strong leader. It might have been thought that a second invasion of Chechnya would assure the President—or his political heir—the support of the Russian people in opinion polls and in elections.”70 It must be emphasized that Szaszdi claims it is only a possibility that domestic politics related to the upcoming election contributed to Putin’s decision to take a strong stand on Chechnya. However, if it is the case that the elections contributed to the decision for full-scale intervention, it appears that Mansfeld and Snyder’s claim that Yeltsin, Putin, and the Family were ‘gambling for resurrection’ using the Second Chechen War makes sense.

It appears Yeltsin and the Family removed Prime Minister Stepashin from his position and replaced him with Putin because of “unwarlike comments with regards to the Dagestan crisis made in the three days before his dismissal.”71 Stepashin said “nobody wants to make the same mistakes twice,” siding with Mihkailov, the Minister for Regional and Nationalities policy.72 Yeltsin sacked Stepashin, who “was unequivocally opposed to a full-scale invasion of the Chechen Republic” and appointed Putin Prime Minister, in order to make Putin the face of the war, claiming Putin was the strong man Russia needed.73 Yeltsin, speaking about his May 1999 appointment of Putin, said that “Stepashin was soft […] Putin, on the contrary, had the will and the resolve. I knew he did. But intuition told me that is would be premature to bring Putin into the political ring at that moment. He had to appear later….It was a very difficult situation. It was too early to put Putin in. Someone else had to fill the gap. I needed someone to serve as a decoy.”74 These comments seem to suggest that in May 1999, Yeltsin had already decided to make Putin the face of the war.

A full-scale war would effectively outbid the rising Fatherland-All Russia party in a “nationalist bidding war,” one of the causal mechanisms that Mansfeld and Snyder claimed led to the war.75 However, none of the other parties really participated in the “nationalist bidding war,”76 which calls into question whether the decision to engage in full-scale war was caused by the political dynamics of weakly-institutionalized, newly-democratizing state.

That being said, full scale invasion appears to have successfully “resurrected” the political prospects of Yeltsin and the Family, lending credence to Mansfeld and Snyder’s explanation of the conflict.77 When Yeltsin had Putin replace Stepashin as Prime Minister, and Putin engaged in the full invasion of Chechnya, Putin’s popularity rose substantially. According to this line of reasoning, then, the decision to engage in full-scale invasion of Chechnya could have been afflicted by a self-interest bias: as previously stated, full-scale invasion would not have been the most effective way to deal with Chechen terrorism, but the Family may have gambled that it would effectively rally public opinion behind their chosen successor. In following with the explanation that the war was started for the purpose of ensuring a smooth transfer of power, Yeltsin stepped down as President after their successful results in the 1999 State Duma elections, and made Putin acting president, giving Putin a more powerful platform off of which to wage the war and build more popularity. Putin did win the upcoming 2000 presidential elections before the popularity of the war waned (when the Russian public realized the effort was doomed to repeat the same failures as the First Chechen War), as Mansfeld and Snyder claim.78 Also lending credence to this explanation, Putin, after winning the 2000 presidential election, granted Yeltsin immunity for his corruption charges.79 However, even though everything worked fortuitously for Yeltsin and the Family, it is impossible to claim for certain that the decision for full-scale invasion was undertaken purely for electoral reasons, as will be seen in the following sections.

This section claims that it cannot be proved for certain that the war was caused solely by domestic political causes (a “nationalist bidding war” or a gamble for political resurrection, as Mansfeld and Snyder claim80). However, it still appears that the war was used for domestic political purposes—namely, ensuring Yeltsin had a safe way out of politics and securing a transfer of power to Putin. The next section gives further evidence for the latter contention.

Elections - Deeply Influenced by the Media and the War

Mansfeld and Snyder claim that attempts to control the media are a common political tool that political and economic elites in weakly institutionalized anocratic states use to maintain power.81 Both Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reports on the State Duma elections of 1999 and on the presidential elections of 2000 express concern over the independence of the media. Speaking of the State Duma, the OSCE reports that:

Television was the main stage on which the media war played itself out. The worst offenders were the state-controlled television channels. However, it should be noted that only 51% of ORT shares are still owned by the state. According to ORT, the channel has not received any funding from the state since 1991. All investments have been made by private shareholders, of which the most prominent is Boris Berezovsky.82
Boris Berezovsky was a member of the Family, and helped the administration take control of the media. He also deeply influenced the independent media. NTV was a television station that engaged in the most negative reporting of the First Chechen War:83

NTV, the main independent TV channel, managed to maintain a level of journalistic ethics during its news programs but was considered sympathetic to Fatherland-All Russia in its analytical programs. NTV, however, was placed under substantial financial pressure by the authorities. During the election campaign, it was reported that, after investigations by the Tax Department and having to pay large tax arrears, the media conglomerate Media Most had to sell a certain percentage of its shares to Gazprom in order to alleviate its financial problems.84


The government was putting pressure on the media to remain uncritical of Putin.85 In any case, Putin’s newly established Unity party came in second, only about a percentage point short of the Communist Party, and handily defeated Fatherland-All Russia by about 10 percentage points.86 The OSCE summarizes the role of the media as follows: “The rapid acquisition of independent media as well as major stakes in state controlled media by a few powerful individuals with considerable political influence not only had a significant impact on the media environment but ultimately exerted important influence over the electorate itself.”87 The OSCE notes similar dynamics in the Presidential election which made Putin president: “Analysts have suggested that the venomous campaign wars, especially those waged by Kremlin-controlled media outlets, had accomplished their task: to filter out the most serious competition that might emerge from Fatherland-All Russia in contention for the presidency.”88

This section demonstrates that Yeltsin, Putin and the Family clamped down on the media during the elections, in order to ensure Putin remained popular throughout the election period. This provides further evidence for the contention that Yeltsin, Putin, and the Family may have been trying to use the war for electoral purposes, but does not provide evidence for the contention that the war was actually caused by the dynamics of weakly-institutionalized newly-democratizing states.



The Role of Ideology - Neo-Eurasianism89

Szaszdi argues that the nationalist ideology of Russia played an important role in the decision-making process that led to the Second Chechen War. Szaszdi writes “In its most simple form, Neo-Eurasianism is an expression of Russian national identity in the post-Soviet era. Neo-Eurasianism encompasses the notions of Russian self-identity and a sense of awareness of the uniqueness of Russian culture and civilization together with views of Russian nationalism and, characteristically, an association to the concept or idea of Eurasia as a distinct mental and geopolitical postulate.”90 This section will address Neo-Eurasianism and its implications for the Second Chechen War.

In the context of Mansfeld and Snyder’s theory, the role of nationalist ideologies in building domestic popular support for a war is key. I apply Theda Skocpol’s conceptualization of ideology in “Cultural Idioms and Political Ideologies” to explain how Yeltsin, Putin, and the Family used a specific nationalist ideology to build support for the war. Skocpol distinguishes cultural idioms from ideology:

“I prefer to reserve the term “ideology” for ideational systems deployed as self-conscious political arguments by identifiable political actors. Ideologies in this sense are developed and deployed by particular groups or alliances engaged in temporally specific political conflicts or attempts to justify the use of state power. Cultural idioms have a longer-term, more anonymous and less partisan existence than ideologies.”91


Hence, in the Russian context, the “cultural idioms” related to Russian exceptionalism (which Szaszdi asserts is based on its unique position geographically and culturally between the West and Asia92), would have been deployed as a nationalist ideology in order to justify the use of state power in the Second Chechen War.

The Russian government adapted the cultural idioms related to Russian nationalism to a public that was weary of the situation in Chechnya. At the end of the First Chechen War, the majority of the Russian population supported withdrawal from Chechnya.93 If Yeltsin and the Family were to use the war to win support for a successor using a second intervention in Chechnya, they would need a new justification.94 Instead of playing to the fear of Russia’s dissolution, “an invention” used by Yeltsin and the Family to justify the First Chechen War,95 the Second Chechen War was framed as an anti-terrorist operation. Emil Pain notes that the attacks by Islamic militants in Dagestan, as well as the September apartment bombings that shocked Russia, built support behind such a goal.96 In Securitizing Russia, Bacon et al. argue that the new ideological framework of securitization allowed Russia to achieve some typically Neo-Eurasianist goals on the home front, especially by helping Putin centralize the Russian state.97 However, it appears that Putin engaged in a sort of bait-and-switch:

A consistent and nearly imperceptible shift in the military's campaign goals has played a major role in winning public support for the second Chechen war. In the beginning (August-September 1999) the goal was to repel Chechen aggression, a goal that Russian society entirely accepted. In October Russian authorities sought a "sanitary boundary" as the primary military objective. This boundary would protect Russian regions from incursions by Chechen terrorists, and the people fully supported this goal. By November the authorities had quietly discarded the boundary idea and replaced it with the goal of "total destruction of the terrorists." […] Nonetheless, the public has so far accepted the new goal nearly without objection. Finally, speaking to soldiers on 1 January 2000 in Chechnya, Putin announced that the primary goal was now to "preserve the integrity of Russia" -exactly the goal in the previous war. The Russian public has not noticed this substitution in the goals.98
It appears that Putin, in the short term, built public support for a specific use of state power against Chechnya by appealing to the consciously deployed, ideological justification of suppressing Chechen terrorism. Again, this suggests that the war was used for domestic political purposes, rather than caused by them. Once support for the war on the part of the population was clear, he substituted the goal of eradicating terrorists to preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, a hallmark of Neo-Eurasian strategic culture.

Indeed, Neo-Eurasianism has important elements of a strategic culture, and these elements help explain why certain geopolitical developments would have motivated Russia to intervene in Chechnya. Szaszdi, noting the specific foreign policy implications of the ideology, says: “Neo-Eurasianism in general would regard the frontiers of the former Soviet Union as Russia’s “geo-strategic” borders, even though these are acknowledged as not being the Russian Federation’s “legal” borderlines.”99 Szaszdi points out that Neo-Eurasian ideology justifies military action for the following purposes:

to preserve the ‘great power status’ of the Russian Federation; to safeguard Russian populations living in the countries of the former Soviet Union or ‘near abroad;’ to forestall regional volatile crises and unstable security situations from widening to neighboring areas and inside Russia itself; to defend the ‘geopolitical interests’ of the Russian state, including the safety of its borders in Russia’s southern flank and thwarting attempts of Islamic fundamentalism to extend its militant influence; to fulfill the wishes at military intervention of a ‘nationalist public opinion.’100

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