New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 436 pages
Lieven is a British author, journalist, and policy analyst who is presently a senior researcher at the New America Foundation, and he is a former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a journalist Lieven covered Central Europe for The Financial Times, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and Russia for The London Times. Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power reflects the time that Lieven spent in Russia, the Baltics, Transnistria, and Chechnya during the First Chechen War in 1994-96, as well as during the decades he lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
The book contains much more than a summary of the history of the First Chechen War, as Lieven uses the conflict as a backdrop for his analysis of post-Soviet Russia. The first section, titled “The War,” examines the buildup and actual conflict, while the following chapters – grouped together under the heading “The Russian Defeat”- examine why the vaunted Russian army could not succeed in defeating a vastly outnumbered Chechen resistance. Similarly, the final section, which is appropriately named “The Chechen Victory,” discuss the underlying reasons for the ability of the Chechens to achieve success against a military force with numerical and technological superiority.
Former Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev
While the military successes of the Chechen resistance cannot be discounted as a primary reason for the defeat of the Russians, Lieven discussed additional reasons for the Chechen victory and fairly rapid capitulation of the Russians in the First Chechen War. The 1996 assassination of ultra-nationalist Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev, argued Lieven, removed from the negotiating table a man whose fiery rhetoric hampered peace discussions. Lieven also maintained that the Chechen resistance failed to cause similar rebellions among Russia’s numerous ethnic minorities, a long-held fear of Russian leaders. The new government of Aslan Maskhadov, argued Lieven, was more “rational” than that of Dudayev, meaning that Russian leaders were less worried about the future of transCaucasian gas and oil pipelines. Finally, the decision to shelve the actual question of true Chechen independence until 2001 – agreed to by representatives from both sides – allowed both sides to save face without actually addressing the issue of Chechen sovereignty.
Lieven argued that outcome of the war can also be seen as much as an indictment of the failures of the Russian military as much it was a Chechen victory, and the Chechens were not able to duplicate their military successes in the resumption of hostilities in 1999. The author noted that the Russian forces suffered from poor training and a shortage of equipment, and the military received only small fractions of the amount of replacement parts and equipment it needed to maintain its effective strength levels. In addition, the low military pay and an administrative inability to monitor conscription efforts meant that the Russian armed forces fielded combat-ready troops far below the 1.7 million listed on paper; Lieven argued that the effective manpower levels probably dipped below 1.2 million soldiers by 1996.
Many of the Russian military weaknesses can be traced to financial roots, and Lieven provided documentation for the precipitous decline of defense expenditures by the Yeltsin government. 1997 military spending was budgeted at $18.5 billion, but the 1996-97 fianncial crisis resulted in actual otlays of only $15.3 billion. In the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and 1996, spending on weapons procurement fell to a mere one-fiftteenth of levels in 1991. By July 1997 the military has only received one-fourth of its projected budget, resulting in delays of wages to troops and an inability of the military to pay basic costs such as electricity, water, and gas.
Lieven noted that there are also a number of systemic problems in the Russian armed forces that contributed to their poor showing in the First Chechen War. Chief among these problems was the lack of an effective non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, which Lieven traced back to the First World War. This essential hierarchical component in Western armies – so sorely lacking in both the Soviet and Russian armies – leads to a lack of combat unity, troop discipline, and ultimately unit-level morale. Moreover, argued Lieven, the lack of an NCO class leads to deplorable practices such as dedovshchina, the ritualized abuse of new soldiers by older troops. New rrivals – especially, but not exclusively, soldiers from ethnic minorities – are often subject to beatings, theft, and even sexual humiliation by “grandads,” fellow soldiers with longer tenure in the armed forces.
Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994
The financial weakness of the Russian government, however, is only partly responsible for the decline in the amount of money available for use by the Russian military. Lieven argued that corruption in both the state and defense bureaucracies further reduced the already low funding levels of the Russian military. The author noted examples of administrators diverting huge sums of money - earmarked for the pay of soldiers – into investment deals and other illegal ventures. Furthermore, officers and soldiers whose pay was in arrears often decided to sell whatever materials they could: arms, amunition, vehicles, spare parts, food, and even medicine.
Ultimately, though, Lieven believes that the strength of Chechen society created a generation of resistance fighters whose will to defeat those seen as invaders – in this case, Russian troops – meant that the half-hearted Russian military actions in Chechnya were in danger of failure from the very beginning of the war. The author, placing the First Chechen War in a historical context, also noted that the Chechens and Russians have a lengthy record of conflict in the Caucasus. Chief among the historical antecedents was the decision by Stalin in 1944 to deport the entire Chechen people, exiling them to the Kazakh steppes. Although Khrushchev lifted the ban in 1956, Lieven argued that the memory of the forced migration and deaths of tens of thousands of Chechens during transport and the acclimation period serves as a rallying factor for the modern Chechen resistance.
The text is footnoted throughout, and Lieven blended a wide variety of primary and secondary sources in his narrative. A working journalist, the author used his interviews with government officials, military operatives, resistance fighters, and ordinary citizens throughout the text. Yet Lieven – who obtained an undergraduate degree in history and a doctorate in political science – brings to the reader a unique blend of journalistic on-the-ground analysis and a detached academic perspective rarely seen in the same text. The result is a work that can be used by scholars and specialists, while still remaining accessible to the learned general public. Lieven’s text is an insightful contribution to the historigraphical literature of post-Soviet Russia, and is must reading for those interested in understanding the Russian attempts to transition to a Western-style democratic capitalism.