Deep dive: A message from the Ghost of Chechnya
Is Russia doomed to repeat history? Val Stutz investigates this question through his analysis of Dzhokhar Musayevich, or Dudayev, and how his prophet statements illuminate the Ukrainian invasion.
“Of course, Russia had big plans and appetites before too. But they stumbled in Afghanistan.”
There he sat, speaking softly like a ghost from a bygone era. Dzhokhar Musayevich Dudayev, the first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, located in the North Caucasus, discussed Russia’s imperial ambitions during a 1995 interview at the height of the first war in Chechnya. He described Russia’s lust for power as a voracious appetite, comparing it to a story of an ant that ate too much before he got burned. Twenty-five years laters, his words seem all too salient as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine.
“You know, it’s like the ant in the anecdote, bandaged up. And the Mosquito asks, ‘what happened to you, dear Ant?’ The Ant answers, ‘Well, I wanted to taste a firefly, but ran into a cigarette end,” Dudayev said, chuckling to himself.
Russia under the Soviet government was the ant in this story, with Afghanistan being the cigarette butt that was mistaken for a firefly. The Soviet-Afghan war was often cited as a major factor that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the USSR was officially dissolved in December 1991, various Soviet republics saw a rise in nationalist movements and an increasing desire for independence, and the mountainous republic of Chechnya was no exception.
As a former Soviet military general and popular Chechen politician, Dzhokhar Dudayev fit the profile of a strong leader. However, it was the harsh conditions of Dudayev’s childhood that sowed the seeds of resentment towards Russia and shaped him into a key figure in Chechnya’s independence movement. He was born at the end of World War II in the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (or the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, which combined the territories of Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single republic under the Soviet system). Dudayev was born in 1944 just days before Stalin ordered the forced deportation of all Chechen and Ingush people, a period of genocide known by the Chechens as “Aardakh.” Dudayev and his family were forced to spend the first thirteen years of his life in internal exile in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, until in 1957 when they were able to return to Chechnya under Nikita Khruschev’s policy of repatriation.
Despite the hardships that he and his family endured, Dudayev managed to live a productive and successful life following repatriation. From a young age, he showed an interest in electronics and aviation, and worked as an electrician before receiving admission to the Tambov Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots in 1966. In 1968, his military career was already underway, and he joined the Communist Party. In the early 1970s, he went on to study at the Gagarin Air Force Academy, and it was around this time that Dudayev met his wife Alla, a poet and daughter of a high-ranking Russian military officer, and they started their family shortly after they married. Dudayev holds the unique distinction of being the first Chechen to reach the rank of general within the Soviet armed forces. He served in the Soviet-Afghan War and was praised as a “true comrade” by his Russian colleagues, who claimed that he participated in the vicious bombing campaigns against the Mujahadeen forces.
However, Dudayev personally denied his involvement in these bombing campaigns, and despite being awarded several honors for his service in Afghanistan, his resentment and discontent with Soviet ambitions and the Russian world only continued to grow. It is worth noting that after Afghanistan, Dudayev concluded his military service as the garrison commander in Tartu, Estonia until 1990, when Estonia gained its freedom from the Soviet Union. During his time in Tartu, he showed sympathy to the Estonian independence movement, and ignored orders from the Soviet high command to shut down the Estonian news media and parliament. Following Estonia’s independence and the eventual collapse of the USSR, Dudayev resigned from the Soviet armed forces and returned to Grozny, the Chechen capital. Upon his return to Grozny, he began his career in local politics.
In his famous 1995 interview, Dudayev went on to describe how Russia’s plans to expand the Soviet influence in Afghanistan had failed, and ultimately led Russia to shift its focus on integrating with the West.
“In the same way they ran into Afghanistan, their appetites started to decrease a little. After this policy in Afghanistan failed, they decided to change their policy, to win Europe over to their side, and thus they began to flirt with Europe. To increase their presence to the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, the Bosphorus, the Red Sea, and to finally “slap” Europe… Afghanistan, then other obstacles, and now Ichkeria.”
According to Dudayev, Russia’s failure in Afghanistan as well as the collapse of the Soviet system ultimately led the Russian government to push for a European future, with the hopes of maintaining their significance as a major global power. But as he stated in the interview, Ichkeria turned into yet another obstacle for Russia, along with all the other social and economic problems that plagued the Russian Federation after the collapse of the USSR.
“Ichkeria knocked down their appetites, but did not stop them. There will be a massacre in Crimea, Ukraine and Russia will clash, an irreconcilable clash.”
Multiple parallels have been drawn between the wars in Chechnya and the ongoing war in Ukraine, and this particular quote from Dudayev’s interview stands out as a prophetic message to the world. The First Chechen War lasted from December 1994 until August 1996, and it was known for its sheer brutality and cruelty from both the Russian and Chechen sides. War broke out after Russia’s attempts to quell a Chechen nationalist uprising in the North Caucasus had failed, and the Russian military sought to restore control in Chechnya through force. However, the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus are known for their resistance and desire for freedom. Chechens in particular have been subjugated to Russian aggression for centuries, and the collapse of the Soviet Union presented them an opportunity to declare their independence and break away from Russia. Despite being vastly outnumbered and poorly equipped compared to the Russian military, Chechen forces inflicted heavy losses against the Russian military, and as a Muslim nation, they waged a violent jihad against the occupying forces.
Some of the key parallels between Ukraine and Chechnya include the Chechens’ determination to gain victory over Russia and their desire to protect their homeland from an occupying force, as well as having strong leaders who managed to rally a fierce resistance against the Russian military. However, unlike Volodymr Zelenskyy, Dudayev gained his role as the Chechen president through controversial means. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dudayev and his supporters managed to overthrow the communist government of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in a violent referendum, which effectively established him as the president of the newly-formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. In spite of the steps taken to achieve power, Dudayev proved to be a strong and capable leader throughout the First Chechen War.
One of the more disturbing similarities between the Chechen Wars and the current war in Ukraine is the destruction of two major cities. The Chechen capital Grozny was reduced to rubble by Russian bombardment in an effort to pummel Chechen forces into submission. The recent destruction of Mariupol has often been described by major international news outlets as being reminiscent of Grozny at the end of the first war in Chechnya. As with Mariupol, the destruction of Grozny saw several atrocities, namely the killing of innocent civilians. However, much like the Ukrainians, the Chechens did not surrender and continued to wage a guerrilla war after fleeing into the mountains. Under Dudayev’s command, the Chechen forces managed to push the Russians out of Grozny, and eventually recaptured the war-torn remains of the capital.
In his interview, Dudayev mentioned a new type of fascism that had come to exist in the modern world, Rashism (or Ruscism). The idea behind Rashism is that Russia has been transformed into a fascist state, and that Russia seeks to expand its land empire through military force.
“As long as Rashism exists, it will never give up its ambitions. So now they’re playing the Slavic card. Again, they want to subjugate Ukraine and Belarus, as before, to get stronger and so on.”
The idea of Rashism has become widely synonymous with Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Dudayev is credited for coining this term. The fact that he was able to predict this “clash” between Ukraine and Russia 27 years before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, as well as 19 years prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea following the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv in 2014 demonstrates Dudayev’s understanding and keen insight on Russia’s imperial ambitions and desire to maintain its sphere of influence. In a casual discussion with our citizen journalist Eugene from Dnipro, he mentioned that this video of Dzhokhar Dudayev’s famous 1995 interview became really popular in Ukraine in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the hybrid war in Donbas.
Since 2014, Ukraine has received support from groups from other post-Soviet territories that have been subjected to Russia’s aggression, most notably the Chechens as well as the Georgians, since the Georgians also dealt with a Russian invasion in 2008. Russia’s desire to maintain its sphere of influence through military aggression has created geopolitical instability across Eastern Europe and the Eurasian continent, but it has also been successful at promoting unity and solidarity among its former allies who have been victims of Russian military aggression.
Furthermore, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have also made the Russian Federation a pariah state within the international community. Many countries around the world have expressed support to Ukraine, and have come to recognize Russia for its aggression not only within Ukraine, but in other former-Soviet republics as well. Dudayev also predicted Russia’s status as a pariah state, and how the international community would condemn the Russian government for its behavior towards its own people and the citizens of neighboring countries.
“No one wants to be in a military alliance with Russia. Not only militarily, but economically and politically, even in trade relations, no one. Because they know how they (the Russians) behave.”
As the leader of Chechnya and the head of the Chechen independence movement, Dzhokhar Dudayev was a major target for the Russian government during the First Chechen War. Dudayev was aware of the danger he was in, and encountered multiple assassination attempts throughout his tenure as president. However, much like in Ukraine, the Russian military performed poorly throughout the first war in Chechnya. One of the major differences between the Russian military in the 1990s and the modern Russian military is the fact that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military was in shambles, and was in no state to wage war, even within the small, mountainous republic of Chechnya, which was still part of Russia’s territory. As with Ukraine, the Russian military thought that it would quell the Chechen nationalist uprising and restore Moscow’s control in Grozny within a matter of days, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Since the Russians did not have the quick and decisive victory in Chechnya that they had expected, they resorted to the total destruction of the capital Grozny until they achieved their military goals, which is exactly what the world has seen in Ukrainian cities like Mariupol.
Dzhokhar Dudayev was eventually killed on April 21st, 1996 in a targeted airstrike, when a Russian reconnaissance aircraft managed to track his satellite phone. The First Chechen War ended a few months later when a peace agreement was signed between Russian and Chechen officials. However, peace would not last in Chechnya, as the Russian government went on to launch a second war in Chechnya following the rise of Vladimir Putin a few years later.
The Second Chechen War was more brutal and destructive than the first war, and it demonstrated the cruelty and ruthless nature of the new Russian government under Vladimir Putin. The Second Chechen War lasted from August 1999 until April 2000, and the interwar period was fraught with political instability and corruption in Chechnya. The First Chechen War may have ended with the signing of a peace agreement, but the status of Chechnya’s independence was never officially addressed, and the small republic in the North Caucasus lacked the international support to function as an independent nation. Following the first war, Chechnya remained an unstable region and became a hotbed for international crime and Islamic terrorism. As Russia’s new president, the situation in Chechnya gave Putin the opportunity to quickly gain national support and restore Moscow’s rule in the North Caucasus.
Vladimir Putin was chosen by the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin as his successor, and shortly before Putin took over the presidency, there was a catastrophic terrorist attack in Russia that shook the public. In September 1999, a series of terrorist attacks were carried out in Moscow, as well as two other Russian cities, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk. These attacks involved the bombings of several residential buildings and left over 300 Russian civilians dead and over 1000 wounded. Russian authorities immediately blamed the Chechens for this act of terrorism, and with Putin’s rise to power, he called for a new war with Chechnya, which received widespread support from people across the Russian Federation.
Several years after these deadly apartment bombings, many critics of Putin believe that he exploited this tragedy to gain power and the support of the Russian people. Reports have even emerged that point to Putin and his FSB allies as being the ones behind the apartment bombings, and that the Chechens were blamed as a scapegoat to not only help build Putin’s support, but to justify a new war in Chechnya. Whether or not this is the case, this is a prime example of a false-flag operation like the ones the Russian government has been accused of in Ukraine. Smaller cases of these false-flag operations have been seen in Transnistria as the Ukraine invasion continues, yet with considerably less success.
As for the Second Chechen War, the Russian military led a deadlier, bloodier campaign across the North Caucasus, mainly in Chechnya and the neighboring republic of Dagestan. With Vladimir Putin as the new Russian president, the Second Chechen War showed the cruel and brutal nature of his new regime, an ominous sign of what would be in store for Ukraine over twenty years later. The second war in Chechnya ended in favor of the Russians, with a loyalist government being restored. The restoration of Russian rule and the establishment of a loyalist government in Chechnya saw the Kadyrovs’ rise to power. Akhmad Kadyrov, who was initially a Chechen revolutionary and politician during the First Chechen War, switched sides and gave his allegiance to the Russian government following the outbreak of the Second Chechen War. Akhmad Kadyrov served as the Chechen President until his death in 2004, when he was assassinated at a Grozny football stadium during a May 9th Victory Day celebration.
Following the death of Akhmad Kadyrov, his younger son Ramzan Kadyrov took over the presidency, and has remained the leader of Chechnya ever since, pledging loyalty to the Russian Federation and Putin’s regime. Ramzan Kadyrov is known for his brutal and oppressive regime, and has come under criticism from several international human rights organizations for crimes against humanity, including restricting the rights of women, kidnapping, torture, anti-gay purges, and assassinations.
Since the start of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Kadyrov has sent his elite Chechen forces to Ukraine to assist Russian regular forces, as well as assassinate key Ukrainian officials. But despite the reputation of these “Kadyrovtsi,” the Chechen special forces, as being ruthless assassins and skilled combatants, their deployment to Ukraine has done very little in regards to supporting Russian gains. As our citizen journal Eugene described: “The Kadyrovtsi talk tough, but that’s all they do. They make staged videos on Tik Tok to intimidate Ukrainians and look tough, but they have no evidence to show their success on the battlefield. That’s why the Ukrainians call them the ‘Tik Tok’ Army.”
Chechnya may be in a much different place than how the nationalist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev had envisioned it before his death in 1996. However, the spirit of the Chechen leader lives on, and the Kadyrovtsi are not the only Chechen fighters in Ukraine. Since 2014, former Chechen fighters who fought against Russia in both Chechen Wars came together under the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, which bears the name of the Chechen leader and his portrait on their banner, and have fought alongside the Ukrainian military.
Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine took place on February 24th, members of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion posted a video, expressing their solidarity and support for the Ukrainian people. In the video, the Chechen commander told Ukrainian viewers not to fear the Kadyrovtsi, and that the “real Chechens” stand with them.
“I want to tell Ukrainians that real Chechens today are defending Ukraine, including the members of the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion, and in other groups. We have fought and we will continue to fight for Ukraine, until the very end,” he stated in the video.
He also went on to describe the betrayal felt by many Chechens of the Kadyrov regime, and how the Kadyrovs sold out Chechnya to the Russian government.
“The Kadyrovtsi are traitors to the Chechen people, just as the DNR and LNR (pro-Russian separatist in Donbas) and other marionettes of Russia. So dear Ukrainians, do not consider them real Chechens. They are not Chechens, they are the shame of the Chechen people, traitors, who exist among any people.”
In closing, the young leader reminded his viewers: “Do not fear them (the Kadyrovtsi), the real Chechens are with you.”
As a Soviet military leader who experienced repression as an ethnic minority within Russia, Dzhokhar Dudayev had ambitious plans for a free Chechnya following the collapse of the USSR. It may seem like the ghost of Chechnya’s leader made a premonition several years before the events of 2014 and the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine. However, his background and experiences as a Soviet general reveal that he had a much deeper understanding of Russia's militaristic ambitions, and sought to maintain its sphere of influence, particularly among its Slavic neighbors.
As for the current war in Ukraine, Chechen fighters on the side of Ukraine such as the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion continue to wage a war of freedom not only for the Ukrainians, but for Chechen independence as well. In the words of Dzhokhar Dudayev,
“Every Chechen is a general. I am only one of a million and the first one.”