Chechen fighters running past dead Russian soldiers in Grozny in January 1995.Credit...Patrick Chauvel
MOSCOW — It began not so much as an invasion, but as a slouching stumble through mud and snow by frightened, ill-fed Russian conscripts, the hollowed-out remnants of a force that, before the collapse of the Soviet Union just three years earlier, had been the mighty Red Army.
But the Russian troops who advanced from three directions into the rebellious region of Chechnya on Dec. 11, 1994, carried history-changing forces that have since reshaped Russia and the world.
The Russian attack, initially in staggering disarray but then increasingly organized and brutal, signaled not just the start of the First Chechen War — a merciless conflict that killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians — but also the end of Russia’s liberal dream.
It was a turning point that tilted Russia toward the rule of President Vladimir V. Putin, now in power for two decades. At the time, Mr. Putin was an unknown municipal official in St. Petersburg, but five years later he became master of the Kremlin, propelled there by yet another Chechen war.
Anatoly Shabad, a former physicist and prominent pro-democracy politician in the early 1990s, visited Chechnya repeatedly in 1994, first to try to prevent war and then to halt the killing once it started.
Holed up in the basement of the presidential palace in Grozny, the Chechen capital, as Russian forces launched a disastrous, all-out assault on the city on New Year’s Eve 1994, Mr. Shabad emerged in the morning to find streets strewn with the corpses of Russian soldiers and their burned-out tanks.
Despite the Grozny debacle and many others, Mr. Shabad said, security and military officials who had pushed for the war — known as “siloviki,” or men of force — came out on top, regaining much of the influence they had lost to democratic forces after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991.
“The siloviki were the losers on the ground but they acquired power. The time of democratic transformation passed and society returned to its old state of mind,” Mr. Shabad, now retired from politics, recalled.
When President Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia’s first elected leader, announced 25 years ago that he would “employ all means at the state’s disposal” to crush Chechen demands for independence, he expected to subdue the Chechens with a swift show of overwhelming force.
The hope and expectation was that Russia would repeat the success that the United States military had in Haiti, which it had invaded in September 1994 to swiftly remove a military dictatorship.
Instead, the Chechen war dragged on for nearly two years and achieved none of Russia’s principal aims other than the death of the region’s despotic leader, Dzokhar Dudayev, who was killed in April 1996 by a laser-guided Russian missile.
The war reduced Grozny, a modern, multiethnic city, to a rubble-strewn wasteland reminiscent of Stalingrad in World War II, and shredded Russia’s post-Soviet image as a peaceful democracy. It also set up a second war in 1999 that helped convince Mr. Yeltsin — ill, often drunk and never fully recovered from the trauma of the first war — to hand over power to Mr. Putin on the eve of the new millennium.
The horrific brutality of the conflict turned what began as a secular nationalist movement in Chechnya into a cause increasingly colored by militant Islam, with many fighters viewing their battle against Russia as part of a global jihad.
Money and fighters poured in from the Middle East during the later stages of the war, turning Chechnya into a breeding ground for the violent ideology of Al Qaeda.
The 1994-96 war was freighted with foreboding from the start, with many of Mr. Yeltsin’s most stalwart supporters and senior military figures warning of disaster.
“It will be a blood bath, another Afghanistan,” predicted Gen. Boris Gromov, the deputy defense minister, who had led the last Soviet troops home from that country in February 1989. The deputy commander of Russia’s ground force resigned in protest.
Like the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first Chechen war ended in a stalemate. Russia pulled out after signing a peace accord that left Chechnya’s ultimate status undecided but essentially gave the region the self-rule that Moscow had gone to war to prevent.
And like the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Russian departure from Chechnya left a devastated land that quickly descended into lawless strife among rival factions.
While the Afghan war had pushed the Soviet Union toward collapse, the Russian Federation survived the Chechen debacle. But it was utterly humiliated and fundamentally reshaped.
That made the ascent of a strongman like Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. agent who vowed to restore order and avenge Russia’s defeat in Chechnya, not only possible but perhaps also inevitable.
The 1994 invasion “was a real crossing of the Rubicon for Russia,” said Thomas de Waal, a British expert on the Caucasus who co-wrote “Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus,” a classic book on the conflict, with Carlotta Gall, now a reporter with The New York Times.
The war, he said, “sucked the whole country into a violent nightmare” as soldiers, mostly ill-trained conscripts, were thrown into the caldron.
“The hawks lost the war but won power,” Mr. de Waal said.
The official Russian military death toll was nearly 6,000, but most independent estimates put the real figure at perhaps twice that or more. The number of civilian deaths has been estimated at between 30,000 and 100,000.
Mr. Yeltsin’s decision to send troops into Chechnya was initially billed as a straightforward exercise to “restore constitutional order” and reverse the declaration of an independent state.
But as with subsequent Russian military interventions, notably in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the war began with an elaborate subterfuge orchestrated by Russian intelligence.
Fifteen days before the main invasion, dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers poured into Chechnya, in what was presented as a push by Chechen opposition groups to topple Mr. Dudayev. The attack fit into a Russian narrative — repeated today in eastern Ukraine — that Moscow was simply a bystander in a local conflict.
But this story quickly unraveled, when Chechen fighters halted the advance, captured tank crews, revealed them to be Russian, and paraded them before Russian and foreign journalists.
Mr. Shabad, who visited Grozny in late November 1994 with other Russian lawmakers, said it was immediately obvious that official denials of Russian involvement were lies.
“They pretended that the Chechens were just fighting among themselves,” he said, “but the whole thing was organized by Russia, mainly the F.S.K.,” the domestic intelligence agency that succeeded the K.G.B., with the connivance of the military.
Andrei Rusakov, an army captain among the 20 or so Russians captured, told how he had signed a secret contract in which the F.S.K. — now called the F.S.B. — offered him several thousand dollars to take part in the phony Chechen opposition attack.
The revelation of the security service’s failure prompted public gloating by Russia’s military. Pavel S. Grachev, the defense minister, stated on television that the armed forces could have taken control of Chechnya with “one paratroop regiment in a couple of hours.”
His boast quickly came back to haunt him, when Mr. Yeltsin ordered the military to invade. The disastrous performance of the armed forces made Mr. Grachev perhaps the most reviled man in Russia, amid accusations that he had pushed for a military solution simply to disperse the whiff of corruption around him and his ministry.
After the failed New Year’s Eve attack on Grozny, Russian forces pounded it relentlessly from the air, an orgy of destruction that Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany denounced as “sheer madness.” The Russians finally captured the city, but as the war ground on amid horrendous brutality on both sides, Chechens recaptured it the following year, and laid siege to Russian forces in other major towns.
In August 1996, Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, Mr. Yeltsin’s national security adviser, reached an agreement with the Chechens to stop the fighting. Mr. Yeltsin, increasingly infirm, erratic and under siege politically, initially balked at the deal, which effectively acknowledged Russia’s defeat, but ultimately endorsed it.
“The main thing,” he said, “is that bloodshed has been stopped.”
Produced by Gaia Tripoli.