The Russians were expanding south all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of course. That’s what led to all the Russo-Turkish wars, and the European entanglements, like the Crimean. But the Chechens were apparently one of the last peoples to accept the Russians. The Chechens, and this does seem to be one consistently clear thing about the war, were the real warriors, the stone crazies, of the region. I’ve come across some amazing stories about them in trying to research this column. The neighbors, the Daghestanis for example, are terrified of them. And the Chechens apparently used to rule the Moscow crime world in the early Yeltsin era even though there were only about a thousand Chechens in Moscow. There’s a great story about the Chechens going to a meeting with the slow old Russian crime bosses. The Russians were eating and drinking, feeling safe, when the Chechens just grabbed the steak knives and started stabbing. Half the Russian bosses were dead before they had time to finish the first course.
They seem like one of those tribes that are either going to rule the world or go extinct but nothing in between. They messed with Stalin. I mean, that’s serious stuff. ... So they got themselves officially labeled a “Criminal nationality” and shipped off in cattle cars to somewhere in the steppes. It was like training camp for them. All the old and weak and peaceful types just died. The ones that were left — I read this in a Chechen guy’s account of growing up on in the steppes — the kids that survived used to pass the time by fighting. That’s all they did. All day, every day. One kid would go to another kid’s tent and call his name. The kid would come out swinging and they’d fight till it was time to go in and have their gruel or whatever. Broken bones, damaged organs — all part of the fun. You weren’t even supposed to mention them or you weren’t a real man.
After that, war or crime must’ve seemed easy. So when the Russians finally let the Chechens go home, they were ready for some action. ...
Everybody else got to leave, but not the Chechens: there were pipelines at stake, and states get REAL serious when oil pipelines are involved. Just ask the caribou up in Alaska. Anyway, the Chechens waited till Yeltsin was in power and the Red Army was turning to rust. Then they made their move, declared independence, waited for the pain.
The Russians…it was like the whole state was drunk on whatever Yeltsin was having. They came in like drunken cowboys. I mean literally: the method was to send lightly-armored APCs, BMPs, charging into central Grozny. We’re talking a Soviet-style city, which means endless blocks of 9-story apartments. And these are the Chechens — born killers. OK, so Russian generals, Tsarist or Soviet, are not exactly known for worrying over casualties or coddling their men…but even for them, it was pretty damn stupid. Once again, it was the good old RPG-7 that did the job: Chechens let the huge armored convoy come right into the crowded center of town, sitting up there on the highrise roofs with a perfect view. Then they blasted the first and last vehicles in classic ambush strategy and took their time killing all the ones jammed up in the instant armored traffic jam. By all accounts it was a massacre. Once you’ve seen what happens to an APC when an RPG round hits it, you don’t want to stay inside…but the Russian troops had been trained to stay in there, and they obeyed, as Russian troops do. So they were firing out of the ports, totally uselessly, blasting the windows of the groundfloor shops, while waiting to be targeted by the rooftop RPGs. It must’ve been the easiest mass kill of armored vehicles since our ex-drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, decided to get himself another star by ordering the obliteration of a retreating Iraqi armored column at the end of the Gulf War.
The Russian brass watched from a safe distance and took notes on the position of the RPG positions, then blasted the city. Really blasted it, by the accounts I read: 4000 detonations per hour at one point in the bombardment. Nobody ever denied the effectiveness of Russian artillery, not since the Wehrmacht learned it the hard way; and the tubes were glowing by the time they were finished dosing Grozny. ( I hear “Grozny” means something like “Terrible.” I kind of like that. Seems like a good name for the place.) They weren’t doing any of this pinpoint/smartbomb crap; they were going to kill every RPG gunner by the simple method of killing EVERYBODY in town, on the theory that the gunners would be included in the tally…and the rest were probably sympathizers, so too bad for them. The Air Force was in on it too, and Russian air has always seen close air support as its primary mission, so you can bet those Sukhois were screaming in close, lighting up everything that moved.
But one of the things the last century taught us is that it’s real hard to kill everybody in a city. Berlin in ’45 looked unlivable for anything bigger than a rat. ... And people were still living in Grozny. I saw some of the interviews they gave, back when the Western press was trying to be interested. It was very much like Berlin, the streetscenes: ghost walls, a few trashpiles still burning, and old ladies appearing from nowhere to moan to the news crews about their missing grandkids and how hard it was to get decent coffee. It was…I don’t know how to say this…it was kind of nostalgic, you know? It was a very 20th c. style of war. I guess you have to admit that the Russian Army is a very 20th c. Army. You can tell it’s not really designed for the new sort of war. So it was kind of nice to get all this footage of them having one last fling.
And the Chechens could take it. ... The Russians and the Chechens fought one of those slow, bloody street-by-street wars for the rest of the winter. The Russians finally “liberated” Grozny a block at a time — only by the time they’d finished, there weren’t any blocks. Just brickpiles. The Chechens did what any idiot could’ve predicted they’d do: they fled to the countryside and started ambushing convoys.