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Roots of Chechen Rebellion Embedded in Russian History

Visions of an urban apocalypse: Camouflaged troops fire at shadows in burned-out skeletons of buildings. Bodies of soldiers and civilians entwine on bomb-blasted sidewalks. Survivors recall the stench of burning flesh.

Eye in the Sky

These were some of the horrors that Russian television viewers witnessed nightly during their government's final assault on Groznyy, capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, in January and early February.

Though Groznyy has fallen, there is no guarantee that similar scenes will not be repeated in the weeks and months ahead, as a determined force of self-styled freedom fighters in one of Russia's mountainous southern republics promises renewed resistance against the might of Russian arms. Who are the Chechens? Why are they fighting? And why is their struggle of concern to the rest of the world?


Chechnya is a small nation, about the size of the state of Connecticut, populated largely by a distinctive Muslim ethnic group. Czarist Russia brought the area under its control in the 1860s and it eventually became a part of the Soviet Union. But Moscow has never considered Chechnya especially friendly territory. Large numbers of Chechens were brutally deported to central Asia in 1944 by Joseph Stalin because of their alleged collaboration with Germany.

With the breakup of the USSR at the end of 1991, independence movements flared across a wide swath of the former communist state, leading to armed conflict in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Chechnya, among other areas.

Moscow, which remains the dominant force in the Russian Federation - essentially the successor to the USSR - has fiercely resisted these independence bids. In the case of Chechnya, Russia has an economic interest in railways and oil pipelines that run through the country. More generally, it fears that allowing an ethnic minority to break away could lead to fragmentation of the federation, resulting in ever escalating ethnic conflict.

Western concerns about these struggles have focused mainly on their humanitarian aspects: reports of torture and slaughter of civilians, and massive flows of refugees from war-ravaged areas. More broadly, some fear that such conflicts could spill over the borders of other countries in the area and result in wider wars, and the possibility that military successes in places like Chechnya might embolden Russia to adopt a more aggressive posture in other regional conflicts in the future.

Moscow - which still controls a vast nuclear arsenal - has reacted with hostility toward "meddling" by the West in what it considers an internal affair.

The United States has issued strong statements of concern over reported atrocities and what it considers use of excessive force, and the Western powers have discussed possible limited economic sanctions.

Stronger steps, such as suspension of diplomatic relations or military intervention along the lines of NATO's involvement in Yugoslavia, have never seriously been proposed. Other concerns have taken precedence: nuclear disarmament, the encouragement of continuing democratization in Russia, and the integration of the former Soviet bloc into western economic structures such as the Group of Eight - an association of the largest industrial states in the world that recently expanded to include Russia.


The dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 rekindled aspirations of the Chechen people for independence. In December 1994, Russian tanks entered Groznyy to put down a rebellion. But expectations of an easy victory similar to the repression of Czech independence in 1968 quickly dissipated in the face of a determined armed resistance. After clashes reminiscent of World War II battles, resulting in widespread destruction in Groznyy, Russian forces withdrew in August 1996, inaugurating three years of de facto independence.

Incursions by Chechen rebels into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, which Chechens consider part of their ethnic homeland, triggered a new Russian offensive in August 1999. The following month, the Russian government blamed Chechens for a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities. These attacks left 300 people dead and re-energized anti-Chechen sentiments in Russia.

In the fall of 1999, Russian forces easily captured Chechnya's northern plains. In mid-December the invasion stalled as ground forces met fierce opposition from snipers on the fringes of Groznyy.

Intensive artillery and air strikes against Groznyy took their toll, and rebels began a disastrous retreat to the west and south on January 31. Six days later, Russian Acting President Vladimir Putin - who had gained popularity partly because of his hard-line Chechnya policy - declared the battle for Groznyy over. Fleeing rebels, trying to link up with guerrilla strongholds in the south, pledged to continue a hit-and-run war in their own country and elsewhere in Russia.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information
• Ethnic Chechens believe themselves to be an ancient tribal people of Middle Eastern origin who have lived in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia for many centuries.
• Before the 1994-96 war with Russia, 1.2 million people lived in Chechnya, including more than 400,000 ethnic Russians.
• Chechnya is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, covering about 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers).
• An impoverished mountain region, Chechnya has few natural resources of its own, but is the site of important railway links and oil pipelines between the Caspian and Black Seas.

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  • December 31, 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union
  • March 1992: Formation of the Russian Federation
  • December 1994: Civil war breaks out in Chechnya. Russia sends 40,000 troops in anticipation of easily quelling the uprising, but the offensive bogs down.
  • August 1996: Russians withdraw, inaugurating three years of de facto independence.
  • August 1999: Chechen rebels make incursions into neighboring Russian region of Dagestan, triggering new Russian offensive.
  • Fall 1999: Russians take Chechnya's northern plains with little resistance.
  • Mid-December 1999: Russian ground forces assaulting Groznyy encounter fierce resistance from snipers on the fringes of the city. The offensive stalls.
  • January 31: After furious air and artillery bombardments, rebels begin retreat from Groznyy.
  • February 6: Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin declares the battle for Groznyy over. Rebels pledge to carry on a hit-and-run campaign and threaten to take their struggle to other regions of Russia.