At its widest point, Russia spans nearly 5,000 miles from the Vistula Spit in the west to the Kuril Islands in the east. In 1994, its military numbered 1.4 million. It had a massive air force and heavily armed infantry, along with the latest technologies like guided missiles.
Chechnya is a small, impoverished region about the size of Connecticut. It has been inhabited for over 40,000 years and been a part of many empires, from Persian to Russian to Soviet.
In 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia. Reports of mistreatment of the Russian minority inflamed tensions with Russia, and Russia began to bomb the tiny breakaway republic on December 1st, 1994. (This same casus belli was used by Putin against Ukraine.)
For 12 years over two separate wars, this tiny country held off the Russian colossus. How did they do it? As former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink details in his excellent podcast, superior leadership and infantry tactics outweighed Russia’s seeming advantages.
Russian soldiers encountered unexpectedly heavy resistance as the fighting moved to Grozny, the capital. The Russian soldiers had major air power behind them, while the Chechen air force had been quickly destroyed at the beginning of the war.
But the Chechens neutralized Russia’s key advantage with a simple tactic: move closer. The air force couldn’t bomb the Chechens without bombing their own comrades as well. They bombed away anyhow, and many Russian soldiers died of friendly fire.
Their air superiority neutralized, the Russian military’s shortcomings in more basic areas became evident. They didn’t have ladders to get into buildings, an essential urban combat tool. Their leaders micromanaged and worked at cross purposes.
Chechens terrorized the Russians whenever they could. They put the heads of Russian soldiers on pikes for the survivors to see. Booby traps were everywhere (an echo of America’s experience in Vietnam and Iraq). Many Russian soldiers began to suffer mentally, and either became unable to fight or indiscriminate in their aggression, attacking civilians and driving the population to the insurgents.
Maybe it all started when the Russian soldiers stopped shaving. This was the first breakdown in discipline. It was small, but noticeable. Later, soldiers stopped following rules about boiling drinking water, leading to massive outbreaks of illness.
Eventually, Russian food supplies fell short. These tired soldiers, many of them teenagers, faced illness and hunger. The attacks from the Chechen rebels, many seasoned veterans of the USSR’s war against Afghanistan, were relentless.
Facing a grim situation in Chechnya and declining support for the war at home, Russia declared a ceasefire in 1996 and soon signed a peace treaty. Chechnya would ultimately fall after a second, and much longer, war. But this band of ill equipped rebels held off Russia for years, an incredible feat.
What did the Russian military learn from this, and what are the lessons for us? Here are a few key points:
- Don’t count on airpower. Determined infantry wins wars.
- Maintain discipline, even in small things.
- Urban warfare is manpower intensive with high attrition. Be sure to have fresh troops available and an extensive mental health staff to deal with the psychological stresses of urban combat.
- Get the civilian population on your side. Don’t hurt them. Respect their leaders and give your orders through them.
This is a fascinating history lesson that can inform US policy and even our daily lives. Where are we letting our own discipline slip?
Dig into these posts for more on history and the military:
- From Anticommunist to Navy SEAL: “I Owe Everything to America”
- Jocko on Leadership: “Ownership Is the Most Valuable Compensation”
- When the Suez Canal Was Blocked for Eight Years
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