In the early years, the leaders of the new Russian Federation were worried that Russia could unravel along ethnic lines as the Soviet Union had done. They responded strongly to the one ethnic republic that did attempt to secede, Chechnya, even though that response was delayed by the general chaos prevailing in Russia in the early 1990s.
The Chechens were a Muslim people of the Causcasus Mountains who, in the 19th century, had fought a prolonged war against the Russian occupation of their region. Like several other Soviet minorities they had been accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis, and they were all deported to Soviet Central Asia afterward.
Nikita Khrushchev allowed their return, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Chechens sought secession. Under Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, Chechnya declared independence in 1991.
Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Chechnya, issued a warrant for the arrest of Dudayev, and sent a detachment of Interior Ministry troops. The Chechens easily repulsed the half-hearted intervention, by ruse more than by force, and seized strategic facilities within their republic.
Yeltsin ordered an economic blockade and then, given the chaotic state of Russia at the time, basically ignored the situation for the next three years. The lack of any police force facilitated smuggling and other criminal operations.
In a search for outside resources and allies, the Chechens made contacts with mafias from Russia and Islamist extremists from the Middle East. Corruption spread, the economic situation grew dire, and Dudayev became more dictatorial.
After supporting a failed attempt by a rival Chechen faction to seize power, Russia sent three armored columns into Chechnya on December 11, 1994. The Russian legislature, which had not been informed, protested vociferously.
The invasion did not go smoothly. The Russians made a hasty and ill-prepared assault on Grozny, the republic’s capital, which they seized only after a month-long bombardment that killed an estimated 25,000 people and left the city a ruin.
Dudayev and his fighters receded into the mountains, from where they conducted an extended guerrilla campaign. Civilian casualties continued to run high. The struggle attracted Islamist volunteers from North Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan.
In March 1996, with presidential elections looming in Russia, Yeltsin offered to negotiate with Dudayev through an intermediary. A Russian missile killed Dudayev in April. Fighting flared again in June, and the Chechens reoccupied parts of three cities, including Grozny.
A cease-fire was finally signed in August. Russian troops began to withdraw. Although the agreement left Chechnya’s permanent status to be decided, the republic proceeded to act as if it were independent.
Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of staff of the Chechen armed forces and a former Soviet army colonel, was elected president of the republic in January 1997. Little rebuilding was accomplished, however, and Maskhadov was unable to establish order. In the prevailing lawlessness, kidnapping for profit became a widespread practice. In an effort to outflank the Islamists in factional infighting, he imposed Islamic law and courts.
Chechnya became the focus of attention again in 1999. Shamyl Basayev, formerly a field commander and briefly a prime minister under Maskhadov, had broken with the Chechen regime. In April 1998 he and a Jordanian-born Islamist founded the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, which proposed to unite these two adjacent ethnic republics.
In August 1999 they launched a raid into Dagestan and then declared that the republic had seceded from Russia. The following month, a series of bombs exploded in apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities. The act was widely attributed to the Chechens.
On August 9, 1999, Yeltsin dismissed Sergei Stepashin, who had been prime minister for three months, and appointed Vladimir Putin to replace him. Putin had catapulted through a number of Kremlin staff positions to become head of internal security in July 1998.
He was still generally unknown to the public when he was named prime minister, but he quickly became associated with the new Chechen war, which was known as Putin’s "antiterrorist operation". Opinion polls gave Putin an approval rating of 33 percent in August, 52 percent in September, and 65 percent in October, in a land where few politicians rose above single digits.
In October Russian armor was once again moving into Chechnya, without any distinction being made between the Chechen government and renegade commanders. The army performed more effectively this time. The cities were taken quickly, and a pro-Russian Chechen administration was put in place.
Resistance, however, would drag on year after year in the countryside, and there would be terrorist attacks in other parts of Russia. Russian forces would respond at times with extreme brutality. With the bomb blasts fresh in people’s minds, however, this Chechen war was far more popular with the Russian public than the previous one.
Four months before the legislative elections of December 1999, Yeltsin once again created a new party from scratch, Unity, a party completely dependent on the Kremlin for funding, expertise, and personnel. Putin gave it his public endorsement, and the party, too, became identified with the Chechen war effort.
Unity won 23 percent of the party-list vote and 64 single-member districts, leaving it second only to the Communist Party. In third place was Fatherland–All Russia, a coalition of personalistic parties built around prominent governors. For the first time, the State Duma had a dominant bloc of parties that were not ideological adversaries of the Kremlin.
Yeltsin, within seven months of the end of his second term in office, surveyed a political landscape that suddenly appeared quite favorable. He then shocked the world by promptly resigning on December 31, 1999, and naming Putin as acting president.
An early presidential election was called for March 26, 2000, which Yeltsin’s chosen successor would now approach with all the advantages of incumbency while other candidates were caught off guard.
Indeed, Putin won in the first round with 52.9 percent of the vote against 10 other candidates, despite having been a virtual unknown the previous August. He promptly obliged his predecessor by issuing a blanket pardon for anything Yeltsin might have done during his years in office.
As president, Putin no longer devoted himself solely to the prosecution of the war. Economic reform continued but Putin’s primary focus appeared to be order, stability, security, and consolidation of the Russian state.
Russia was very much in need of order by that time, but Putin’s notion of consolidating the state reflected his upbringing within the Soviet Union. Rather than make state institutions more effective, he set out to make all institutions dependent on the president.