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Battle-scarred from two protracted wars in since the Cold War’s end, the Chechen capital of Grozny seems trapped in a lost era. The Russians first came to the region in the 18th century, seeking a means of anchoring their southern border. The Caucasus provided the best option, which led to direct and unrelenting conflict with a number of local cultures, with the Chechens proving the most formidable. It took a century for the Russians to break Chechen power, and the two post-Cold War conflicts were merely the most recent eruptions of violence between the two peoples. Those two episodes alone killed more than 100,000 people.

Russian victory in the most recent war, however, was not achieved simply by force of arms. Moscow succeeded in splitting the various Chechen factions, allying with various factions in a decade-long game of divide-and-conquer. Among other things, that meant the Russians deliberately empowered one faction — with intelligence, training, weapons, and forced mergers with other factions — to use as a proxy.

As seen in many other parts of the Russian Federation, the Russians face a series of bad decisions. In Chechnya, the decision was between a decades-long war that would bleed what little demographic strength the Russians had left, or a reluctant alliance of convenience that would haunt them in the future. Far from breaking the Chechens, the Russians have actually strengthened them culturally, politically, and above all else, militarily.

The next time the Chechens rebel against Russian power, it will be a battle between a confident and demographically robust Chechnya, and a faltering Russia under siege from without and within. In that future war, it is entirely likely the Chechens will succeed.

Read more in The Accidental Superpower, Chapters 10 and 15.