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Chechnya, Yeltsin, and Clinton: The Massacre at Samashki in April 1995 and the US Response to Russia’s War in Chechnya

Street

Grozny after bombardment, early 1995.  Photo courtesy of 24warez.ru

Published: Apr 15, 2020
Briefing Book #702

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Matthew Evangelista.

Translations and editorial assistance by Sarah Dunn.

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Washington D.C., April 15, 2020 - As the coronavirus puts at risk Russia’s celebration of Victory Day on May 9, 2020, with its huge military parade on Moscow’s Red Square, we are reminded of another event that threatened to undermine the festive atmosphere 25 years ago: the massacre by Russian troops of scores of Chechen civilians and the burning of their village of Samashki on April 8, 1995.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.   The 50th anniversary came just a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union and offered an opportunity for foreign leaders to celebrate the defeat of Nazism in Moscow as guests of the first freely elected president of post-communist Russia, Boris Yeltsin. 

Clinton and Yeltsin

President Clinton and President Yeltsin toasting at the state dinner, Hall of Facets, The Kremlin, Moscow, May 1995.
(Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP)

 

Yet Yeltsin’s brutal war to suppress the Chechen movement for autonomy from the Russian Federation cast a pall over Victory Day and made some observers wonder if President Bill Clinton might decline the invitation in protest of Russia’s egregious violations of human rights and the laws of war.  As newly declassified documents make clear, the Clinton administration faced a difficult choice between, on the one hand, showing respect for Russia’s historic sacrifices in the struggle against fascism and support for the country’s democratically elected president, and on the other, defending fundamental human rights by criticizing the atrocities committed by a Russian government moving increasingly toward authoritarianism.

Today the National Security Archive publishes for the first time declassified records from the State Department, CIA, and DIA along with Russian materials from the Memorial Society and the State Archive of the Russian Federation that document the internal opposition to the war and the reaction of the U.S. administration.  The posting includes an introduction by Cornell University professor Matthew Evangelista, author of The Chechen Wars:  Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002) and Archive senior analyst Svetlana Savranskaya.

 

The Massacre at Samashki and the US Response to Russia’s War in Chechnya

by Svetlana Savranskaya and Matthew Evangelista

As the coronavirus puts at risk Russia’s celebration of Victory Day on May 9, 2020, with its huge military parade on Moscow’s Red Square, we are reminded of another event that threatened to undermine the festive atmosphere 25 years ago: the massacre by Russian troops of scores of Chechen civilians and the burning of their village of Samashki on April 8, 1995.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.   The 50th anniversary came just a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union and offered an opportunity for foreign leaders to celebrate the defeat of Nazism in Moscow as guests of the first freely elected president of post-communist Russia, Boris Yeltsin. 

Yet Yeltsin’s brutal war to suppress the Chechen movement for autonomy from the Russian Federation cast a pall over Victory Day and made some observers wonder if President Bill Clinton might decline the invitation in protest of Russia’s egregious violations of human rights and the laws of war.  As newly declassified documents make clear, the Clinton administration faced a difficult choice between, on the one hand, showing respect for Russia’s historic sacrifices in the struggle against fascism and support for the country’s democratically elected president, and on the other, defending fundamental human rights by criticizing the atrocities committed by a Russian government moving increasingly toward authoritarianism.

The difficult decisions made by the Clinton administration reflected at least in part the U.S. lack of clarity about its own priorities.  Democracy was the catch phrase, and Yeltsin was seen as the best hope for Russian democracy, but in fact, when it clashed with perceived security and economic interests, support for democratic process and principles such as human rights moved to the backstage.  Before the war in Chechnya started, the United States and Russia had been successfully cooperating on issues crucially important for the U.S. and international security such as the Nunn-Lugar program (links to postings: Briefing Book #571 and Briefing Book #691) that helped Russia safely dismantle its nuclear weapons under the START I Treaty and withdraw nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.  Russia was a reliable, albeit reluctant, partner in Bosnia, on the Test Ban Treaty and in global non-proliferation.  Russia implemented unpopular economic reforms in the form of “shock therapy” promoted by U.S. economists and policy makers. Yeltsin accepted the U.S. agenda for Russian reform and seemed to embrace democratic values.  The Clinton administration saw him not only as Russian democracy personified, but also as a junior partner who could deliver solutions to U.S. priorities.  President Clinton was genuinely committed to reform in Russia and to his relationship with Yeltsin, the brave leader on the tank who stood up to the hard-liner coup in 1991 (link to posting: Briefing Book #640)

The events that culminated in Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya in December 1994 began four years earlier when the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush Republic issued its “declaration of state sovereignty” in November 1990—part of a widespread movement throughout the USSR in reaction to the hypercentralized system of rule from Moscow. Although mainly peaceful, some popular movements for independence or sovereignty provoked violent reactions – in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, in Tbilisi in 1989, and in Latvia and Lithuania in 1991.[1]

Dzhokhar Dudaev, the leader of the Chechen independence movement and Chechnya’s first president, had served in Estonia as a general in the Soviet air force and commander of the strategic air base at Tartu.  Dudaev was widely admired in Estonia for his refusal to allow his troops to be used to suppress protests in favor of Estonian independence.  The protest movements there in turn inspired Dudaev to support similar independence efforts in Chechnya, which he led until his death in 1996, targeted by a Russian missile that homed in on his satellite telephone as he was negotiating a possible ceasefire (the US Defense Intelligence Agency had reported Dudaev’s vulnerability to such a strike more than a year earlier[2]).

Under the administration of President George H.W. Bush the United States had opposed the independence movements of the Soviet republics, except for those in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, whose incorporaton into the USSR the U.S. had never formally recognized.  The U.S. valued stability and economic reform in the Soviet Union as a whole over freedom and independence for its constituent republics.   Once the USSR fell apart anyhow, thanks in part to the machinations of the Russian republic’s leader, Boris Yeltsin, the U.S. continued to favor stabilility and economic reform. It opposed any further disintegration of post-Soviet Russia, a federation made up of some 89 “subjects,” including the small republics of the North Caucasus, such as Chechnya.  President Clinton and his advisers endorsed Yeltsin’s official position, that the Chechen movement for autonomy threatened the territorial integrity of Russia, and that the effort to suppress it with violence was an internal matter.

Not all of the international response resembled the U.S. position.  The EU members had a stronger and a more public reaction to the use of force in Chechnya both at the government level and among NGOs.  Thanks to a joint memoir written by eight of Yeltsin’s advisers we have some specific details about the early response to the invasion of Chechnya.  On December 27, 1994, for example, a group of Finnish parliamentarians expressed their concern to governments and presidents of Russia and the United States, to the United Nations, and to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).[3]  The next day, an assistant to President Yeltsin met with officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who conveyed their view to the Russian president that the situation in Chechnya now attained “the legal status of an armed conflict of a non-international character.”  That status, according to the Red Cross “above all signifies that the government authorities involved in the conflict must adhere to specific humanitarian obligations.”[4]  From this point, as Yeltsin’s advisers have documented, Russia’s president was made aware of his international legal obligations with language taken directly from the 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions.  Expressions of international concern intensified in the next few days, as German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel made an “emotional call” to his Russian counterpart Andrei Kozyrev on behalf of prime minister Helmut Kohl and the European Union.[5]  In contrast to the Finns, Germans and others, the U.S. government responded quite late to the Russian invasion.  President Clinton did not contact Yeltsin to discuss the situation until February 13, 1995, two months into the conflict (Document 10).  

Democratic forces in Yeltsin’s own parliament were opposed to a military solution in Chechnya and sent several delegations to Grozny to try to prevent military escalation in November and December 1994.  The head of one parliamentary delegation, chairman of the Defense Committee of the Duma Sergey Yushenkov, was negotiating directly with Dzhokhar Dudaev about the release of Russian detainees (Document 1).  The Chechen side requested direct negotiations with Yeltsin, but he never agreed to it because of the concern that it would give recognition to the Dudaev government as party to the conflict (and not just as a leader of bandits as Yeltsin tried to portray him).  The same insistence on direct negotiations and warning of a major humanitarian disaster that would hurt many Russian citizens along with the Chechens was voiced by Sergey Kovalev, a hero of the Russian human rights movement, (who is still actively involved in human rights work in Russia today and just celebrated his 90th birthday on March 2, 2020), who led the resistance to the war as the first Russian Commissioner for Human Rights (Document 3).  Kovalev, who was a Duma deputy but also a member of the leading human rights organization Memorial Society, spent three weeks in Grozny in late December 1994 to mid-January 1995 with Oleg Orlov, Lev Ponomarev and other members of Memorial. Risking their lives, these observers were sending daily telephone reports and appeals to the President, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin (Document 8) and other political leaders trying to bring attention to atrocities and human rights violations in Chechnya.  Vladimir Lukin, the prominent Duma member, former ambassador to the United States, and founder of the Yabloko political party, opposed the use of military force in Chechnya and posed tough questions to Yeltsin as the head of the Russian permanent delegation to the Council of Europe, which Russia aspired to join (Document 9).

Most liberal supporters of Yeltsin and leading democratic intellectuals opposed the war in Chechnya.  They faced a conflict between the need to expose human rights violations and their allegiance to Yeltsin, fearing that he would lose the forthcoming election.  Privately, Yeltsin’s liberal advisers tried to dissuade him from using military force (Document 4), but found their voices silenced by the hardliners led by Yeltsin’s head of security service and tennis partner Alexander Korzhakov, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and vice-prime minister Nikolay Yegorov—the main proponents of the military solution.[6]

Reports from nongovernmental organizations, such as Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch), as well as intergovernmental bodies, such as the Council of Europe, provided great detail on the damage to civilians inflicted by Russian attacks.  The most important and reliable information about the consequences of the Russian invasion came from the brave Russian human rights activists who were on the scene and upon whose testimony the international organizations depended (Documents 3, 8, 18). Representatives of the OSCE who conducted a fact-finding mission to Chechnya “were appalled by the magnitude of destruction and compared the condition of Grozny with that of Stalingrad during World War II.”[7]  The State Department received a summary of the OSCE findings a day before the Victory Day celebration in Moscow (Document 26).  Others compared the situation in Chechnya to that of Bosnia when its capital city was under siege by Serbian militia forces and the Serbian army—actions that eventually provoked NATO intervention.  In the winter of 1995 “at the height of the shelling of Sarajevo there were thirty-five hundred detonations a day, while in Grozny the winter bombing reached a rate of four thousand detonations an hour.”[8]

Recently declassified documents trace the development of the US position on Chechnya through a series of State Department directives for handling inquiries from the press.  On April 12, four days after the Samashki massacre, to a hypothetical question about “reports that the Russians are massacring civilians and engaging in a scorched-earth policy in Chechnya,” the Department advised responding that “we continue to be deeply disturbed” and that “the fighting must stop and that it is having a corrosive effect on Russian democracy and on U.S.-Russian relations” (Document 15). To the accusation by Russian human-rights activists that Russia was carrying out a policy of genocide, the press guidance provided the text of the 1948 Genocide Convention, with its emphasis on “specific intent” to commit the crime, and averred “we have not seen evidence to support a conclusion that Russian actions in Chechnya constitute genocide” (Document 15). 

Just over a week later, a new press guidance addressed directly the question of the Samashki massacre (Document 21).  It repeats the “deeply disturbed” language and goes on to endorse the credibility of the reports coming from multiple Russian human-rights organizations and international institutions, such as the ICRC and the OSCE.  In contrast to those organizations, however, the U.S. position attributes the massacre to “inadequate military discipline” and calls on the “Russian troops” to adhere to the Geneva Conventions—even citing specifically Common Article 3 and Protocol II to the 1949 treaties, even though Russian soldiers were in no position to know what those were.[9]  It makes no mention of the responsibility of Russian political or military leaders

By contrast the position of the European Union, as reported to the State Department by the U.S. embassy in Paris, was much harder hitting: it “utterly condemns atrocities against civilians in violation of basic human rights” and it “appeals to the Russian authorities to put an end to the violence against the people”(Document 22). By placing blame on the authorities rather than ordinary soldiers, the OSCE echoed eye-witness reports such as one by Memorial’s Sergei Kovalev from the early days of the war, when he accused Russian leaders of committing a crime “not only against the people of Chechnya, but also against Russian soldiers” by placing them in an untenable position of opposing a mass-based armed independence movement (Document 3).  Kovalev presciently predicted further civilian casualties.  On May 8, the embassy in Vienna sent a report summarizing an investigation by the OSCE that included a site visit to Samashki that corroborated reports that “that federal troops occupied the village without meeting resistance but burned and destroyed the houses after looting them, with great loss of life.”  It also revealed the existence of “filtration camps,” where suspected rebels were tortured and killed, and the vast destruction of the indiscriminate Russian bombing strategy (Document 26).

The timing of the Samashki massacre was especially inconvenient for Western leaders as it came a month before the Victory Day celebration in Moscow.  Some observers suspected that the approach of the anniversary might itself have contributed to the Russian decision to terrorize Samashki in order to speed the end of the war before the Western visitors arrived—a view shared by the CIA (Document 14).[10]  As the Clinton administration planned for the president’s trip to Moscow, the State Department drafted a series of talking points for the press and the public. This document clarifies President Clinton’s priorities. His advisers knew that Russia’s war against Chechnya posed a problem for bilateral relations.  They referred to the conflict as a tragedy, rather than, say, a crime: “Russia's conduct in Chechnya has been tragically wrong.”  But they put it in the same category as other disagreements between the two countries, such as U.S. opposition to Russia’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program: “Because of the stakes involved, we cannot and will not hold our relationship hostage to one issue—our differences over the sale of reactors to Iran, for instance, are serious.”  Chechnya would not stand in the way of the primary US objectives: 1) the continuing dismantlement of Russian nuclear weapons; 2) Russian acquiescence in the enlargement of the NATO alliance, including US development of theater ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe; and 3) political and economic reforms in Russia.  The talking points specifically celebrate “a landmark $6.4 billion agreement with the IMF, which requires Russia to continue its fight against inflation, implement an austere budget and free more prices from state control” (Document 25).

Most of the U.S. response to the war in Chechnya was premised on the assumption that everything must be done to support President Yeltsin as the only hope for Russian democracy and economic reform.  Electoral gains by communists and supporters of the fascist politician Vladimir Zhirinovskii were particularly worrying to U.S. officials who sought to avoid weakening Yeltsin any further with their criticism.   U.S. policymakers, from President Clinton on down, referred to the war in Chechnya as an “internal matter” and compared it to the U.S. civil war, implying that all-out war, with massive civilian casualties, was fully justified to preserve the country.  Warren Christopher, the U.S. secretary of state, explained that “Russia is operating in a democratic context,” and therefore the United States should “not rush to judgment.”[11] The view was so widespread within the U.S. government that a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency, ostensibly intended to summarize Russia’s military situation (it quotes one source to the effect that “a potential guerrilla war in Chechnya would necessitate the deployment of one hundred thousand troops”) could not resist editorializing in favor of Yeltsin as “the guarantor of democratic development in Russia…For the time being there is no acceptable alternative to him” (Document 5).  In summing up the U.S. response to the war in Chechnya, a group of Yeltsin’s liberal advisers wrote that it seemed to follow a formula: “You there, straighten things out quickly please, while we close our eyes a little.”[12] 

The newly available documents confirm that despite the horrendous crimes associated with Russia’s conflict in Chechnya, and epitomized by the Samashki massacre of 25 years ago, the Clinton administration deliberately played down its criticisms.  Its priorities in relations with post-Soviet Russia were denuclearization, NATO expansion, and the opening of the Russian economy to foreign investment, not human rights.  The Clinton administration was unwilling to link economic aid to Russian compliance with its international treaty obligations and observance of humanitarian law in Chechnya. On the contrary, it supported continued assistance from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. As Rachel Denber, the Moscow representative of Helsinki Watch, pointed out, “despite the Chechen conflict, 1995 must be considered a jackpot year for the Russians as far as funds from the international community are concerned.”  The 1995 loan was followed by a further $10.2 billion from the IMF in early 1996.  The two loans combined exceed most estimates of the total cost of the first Chechen war, leading some observers to argue that the West actually “paid for the Russian invasion.”[13]

The difficult decisions made by the Clinton administration in the winter and spring of 1995 put concerns about human rights on the backburner.  Humanitarian tragedy turned out to be less important than other big issues on the administration’s agenda, such as European security and Russian reform.  Chechnya was a “sore spot,” as Chernomyrdin called it in his conversation with Talbott (Document 13).  It was something the top U.S. leadership preferred not to have to talk about with their Russian counterparts. During the Moscow summit, the discussion of Chechnya was limited to the U.S. request to search for the disappeared Fred Cuny, which might have left some with the impression that only his life mattered.  On that occasion, it was NATO expansion that loomed large in the minds of American policymakers, adding to their inclination to put aside uncomfortable problems like Samashki.  Accommodating Yeltsin on Chechnya might encourage the Russian president not to push back on the issue publicly and to join the Partnership for Peace.  And for better or for worse, Yeltsin remained a reliable U.S. partner on many other international issues.  

 

Read the documents

Notes

[1] For an account of the background to and consequences of the war in Chechnya, see Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars:  Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002).

[2] DIA Information Report, Russian Air Force Shortcomings in Chechnya, March 7, 1995 points out the Russian capability to locate Dudaev by electronic means.  DIA declassification, National Security Archive FOIA

[3] Iu.M. Baturin, A.L. Il’in, V.F. Kadatskii, V.V. Kostikov, M.A. Krasnov, A.Ia. Livshits, K.V. Nikiforov, L.G. Pikhoia, G.A. Satarov, Epokha El’tsina: Ocherki politicheskoi istorii [The Yeltsin Epoch: Sketches of a political history] (Moscow: Vagrius, 2001), pp. 622-623.

[4] Baturin, et al., Epokha El’tsina, p. 625.

[5] Baturin, et al., Epokha El’tsina, p. 631.

[6] See Grachev’s own account in Petr Aven and Alfred Kokh, Revolyutsiya Gaidara: Istoriya reform 90x iz pervykh ruk (Gaidar’s Revolution: History of the 1990s Reforms from First Hands) (Moscow: Alpina Publishers, 2015), pp. 350-353

[7] Svante E. Cornell, “International reactions in massive human rights violations: The case of Chechnya,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 51, no. 1 (January 1999), pp. 85-100.

[8] David Remnick, Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 263-264, original emphasis.

[9]Mark Kramer,Russia, Chechnya, and the Geneva Conventions, 1994-2006: Norms and the Problem of Internalization,” in Matthew Evangelista and Nina Tannenwald, eds., Do the Geneva Conventions Matter? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[10] Ken Fireman, “Russian Tactics Wrack Chechnya,” Newsday, 17 April 1995.

[11] Elaine Sciolino, “Administration Sees No Choice but to Support Yeltsin,” New York Times, 7 January 1995.

[12] Baturin, et al., Epokha El’tsina, p. 786.

[13] All quotes and figures from Cornell, “International reactions.”