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Chechnya Conflict and Environmental Implications, ICE Case 93, 2002, by Chris Ingold


1. Abstract

Besides the great loss of life and property, what has the conflict in Chechnya done to the natural environment? Some environmental implications of nearly one decade of fighting are obvious and others are just becoming apparent. Bombing of oil wells has led to massive amounts of air and water pollution. In some cases, destruction of their traditional way of life has forced Chechens to find other means of survival at the expense of nature.

2. Description

Russia's civil war in the breakaway province of Chechnya has had a profound impact on the environment. As a result of Russia's "scorched earth" methods employed in the region, the land is scarred by shelling and contaminated with land mines. Other concerns include groundwater pollution from oil leakage and dangerous amounts of radiation from abandoned waste. Though all-out war has stopped, the region still is by no means peaceful. It will take some time before the land and natural resources of Chechnya, not to mention the people, can recover.

Chechen (Noxche) people are an indigenous group of herdsmen and farmers who have lived in the mountains of the North Caucasus for thousands of years. They share ethnic ties with the Ingush and other Caucasus peoples. Islam is the dominant religion in this area and a key influence in culture and identity. Chechens speak a distinct language that is neither Slavic, Turkic nor Persian. Languages similar to Chechen include Bats and Ingush tongues. Most Chechens also speak Russian. Grozny is the capital of Chechnya.

The relationship between Chechens and Russians goes back at least to 1559, when Russia established a fortress at the mouth of the Sunja river, near the Caspian Sea. Relations between the Chechens and the Cossack Russian groups that settled there were mostly peaceful until 1722, when Russian troops engaged with Chechen tribes for the first time. This was during Peter the Great's reign, when the ruler declared himself heir and crown prince of the Georgian Kingdom and Russia's imperialistic era in the region began.

The Soviet era

Shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, an independent state known as the Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples was formed. By 1921, however, the government was forced into exile by advancing Russian troops. Armed resistance by the Chechens was reported all the way up to the early 1950s. In 1944, almost the entire Chechen population was deported to Kazakhstan on charges of Nazi collaboration. The latter half of the Soviet era was marked by mostly peaceful coexistence between the Chechens and their Russian neighbors, despite an almost constantly changing official status of the region. Sometimes Chechnya existed. Other times it did not.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and the former Soviet republics found themselves stumbling into a new era of uncertainty. In Chechnya, the largely Muslim population embraced the end of the Soviet regime with nationalistic fervor. Chechnya proclaimed its independence from Russia in 1991, under the leadership of Dzhokar Dudayev. Dudayev had been instrumental in overthrowing the communist party in Chechnya, who had supported the 1991 coup. Russia, having already lost territory to the south, in Georgia and Azerbaijan, was not keen to lose more, especially the oil rich land of Chechnya. Troops moved into the region in 1994. They managed to capture virtually all urban areas, but could not gain a foothold in the mountainous region, where guerilla rebels were ensconced.

In 1996, the rebels retook Grozny, and under the Khasavyurt peace accord, Russia agreed to a cease fire and to undergo talks about Chechen independence in five years. In 1999, Chechen rebel groups make two incursions into neighboring Dagestan. Also at that time, Russia pins the blame on Chechen rebels for a series of deadly apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities.

Russia renewed its assault on Chechnya. A full-scale assault on Grozny begins Dec. 25, 1999. The second war continues today, with neither side showing signs of relenting.

A scene from Grozny during the second war. (From the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, KS Website:

3. Duration

This conflict has occurred in two stages. The first was from 1994 to 1996. The second began in 1999 and continues today.

These shots show the city of Grozny before (left) and after heavy bombing and shelling by Russian forces. (Source: free photo archives

4. Location

Continent: Europe

Region: East Europe

State: Russia

Chechnya is located in the eastern part of the north Caucasus mountains, between the Caspian and Black seas. It is roughly 17,000 square kilometers in size and has a population of about 1.2 million. It lies directly north of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

5. Actors

Russian military, Chechen guerilla fighters, civilians

II. Environment Aspects

The environmental catastrophe in Chechnya has been a temporary economic boon to some, like 41-year-old Movsar Mozayev. He is one of many citizens of the Chechen capital of Grozny to take advantage of a vast underground pool of spilled oil near the city, the Los Angeles Times reported in December. These entrepreneurs are "refining" crude oil with makeshift equipment then selling it on the black market to help put food on their families' tables. In Mozayev's backyard, a steel boiler pokes out of the earth feeding a small pipe, which drips gasoline into a container on the other end. Though profitable, the work is backbreaking and highly dangerous. Mozayev complains of feeling sick, and there is the ever-looming chance that Russian army officers will demand a bribe, shut down the operation, or worse. The process itself is also risky. Mozayev must keep a small fire burning constantly to prevent the condensed gas from exploding.

The subterranean oil spill in Grozny accounts for about half of the four million tons of oil dumped in Chechnya altogether. At the end of the Soviet era, thieves helped themselves to the oil flowing through Chechnya's pipelines and stole huge quantities of reserve oil from Grozny refineries. They then built "mini-refineries" which, like Mozayev's, were far from meeting professional standards. At a professional refinery, about 90 percent of the oil ends up as a finished product, like petroleum or natural gas. The rest is wasted, as that is simply the nature of the process. In the amateur refineries, the amount that goes to waste or (more accurately), is spilled on the ground, is closer to 50 percent.

About 15,000 of these "mini-refineries" were the cause of the spread of oil contamination from Grozny to the countryside.3 Many of the refineries later were blown up, either by the Russian army or by retreating Chechen fighters. Not only did the rate of oil leakage increase at this point, but plumes of thick, black smoke poured into the air. Nothing much was done about either.

Boris Alekseyev, a Russian military officer and chairman of the Russian Federation's armed forces environmental security department, said in a January, 2000 press conference that women in the region who would hang white linens out to dry would come back to find them blackened by soot when the refineries were working. Alekseyev puts the blame for this ecological nightmare firmly on the Chechens because they established the network of illegal refineries. He described appalling conditions surrounding these makeshift facilities, saying there simply are no living things. "Not even grass." The rivers in Chechnya are devoid of fish in some places.

Further effects of oil pollution
The impact of oil pollution on Chechnya's water supply has been tremendous. About 20,000 tons of oil leaked into the two rivers that flow from Grozny, the Terek and Sunzha. Eighty percent of the fish in some areas are too poisonous to eat. Rivers are contaminated between 100 and 1,000 times the normal levels and there are concerns the pollution could spread into the Caspian Sea. Alekseyev said there will be a catastrophe in the Caspian unless funds are allocated and work gets underway soon. Agriculture also has been seriously harmed, with one-third of arable land soaked in oil waste. This is one reason some people, like Movsar Mozayev, have been forced to find other means of survival.

Military action and environmental damage
Environmentalist Aleksei Yablokov, a former aide to Boris Yeltsin, believes Russian bombing has rendered Chechnya an "environmental wasteland." Damage by shelling and missile attacks could upset the ecological balance, destroying plant and other wildlife. Quality of drinking water is another major concern in Chechnya, as a result of missile attacks on power stations. With no power, the motors that run wells are useless. The number of cases of typhoid has gone up in some parts of the region because people are drinking stagnant pond water. Reports from one village say Russian troops shelled a water pipeline just past their positions, enabling themselves to have fresh water but denying the villagers. The Russians say the Chechens steal pump parts and therefore have no one to blame but themselves.

While they admit military action has exacerbated the problem, Russian military officials say Chechnya's environment was already damaged by the 15,000 illegal oil refineries operating in the region. The military claims it did consider environmental implications when planning military strikes.

Radioactive waste

The war was, in some cases, an effective smokescreen for environmental abuse. Dumping of radioactive waste has become evident in Chechnya and other former Soviet republics. Four policemen in Grozny were hospitalized in 2000 after exposure to high levels of radiation from a canister found by children on a roadside. Around Grozny, as many as 67 different sources of radiation have been bombed, including a radioactive waste dump site founded in 1965. This burial site, named "Radon," contains 906 cubic meters of substances such as Plutonium, Beryllium, Radium- 226, Caesium-137, Thorium, Thulium-170, Iridium-192, Americium-241 and Iodine-131. The heavy shelling and bombing of the site could lead to future contamination. "Radon" is located near the Terek River, which runs into the Caspian Sea. Wind transportation of radioactive dust across the region is another threat. Soldiers assigned to guard the site have abandoned their duties out of fear for their lives. This has led to reports of theft of radioactive material from the site. A black market for the material exists because of its use in the manufacture of "dirty bombs."

6. Type of Environmental Problem

Source: Natural oil deposits in the north Caucasus region

Sink: Spill over from makeshift crude oil refineries contaminates soil and groundwater as well as rivers and lakes.

7. Type of Habitat: Temperate

8. Act and Harm Sites

Act Site Harm Site Example
Chechnya Caspian Sea Oil pollution from rivers flowing from Chechnya
Chechnya Chechnya Chechen civil war
Chechnya Caucasus region Air and water pollution in neighboring republics


III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: CIVIL WAR

10. Level of Conflict: HIGH

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: 6

From 1994-1996 it is estimated up to 80,000 died (mostly Chechen civilians). For the second war, beginning in 1999, the number of fatalities has not been determined.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct and Indirect

Direct links include damage to the environment caused by bombs and landmines. Oil pollution became a problem only after the war had already begun. The war created an atmosphere in which the control of oil and other resources was up for grabs. Oil wells also were a valuable military target not only for reducing enemy revenue, but for the disruptive explosions.

Fighting caused by ethnic, nationalist tensions
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Oil wells bombed Farmland destroyed ------------------- > Other forms of revenue sought
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Air, water, soil contamination <------------------------------------ Illegal refineries established

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Ongoing

Small-scale fighting continues between bands of Chechen rebels and Russian military stationed in the region. Sweeps of Chechen villages by Russian soldiers have drawn criticism because of alleged mistreatment of detainees.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and Cases

ICE Cases:

Chiapas Civil War and Environment

The Acehnese Resistance Movement and ExxonMobil

The Chaco War

Lebanon Civil War and Waste Dumping


16. Relevant Web Sites and Literature

FAQ from "Conflict in Chechnya," a special section of the Christian Science Monitor

Web site of the Chechen Republic

Chechnya Information Channel

Daniszewski, John. "Chechens Find A Way To Live Off The Land -- Through Oil." The Los Angeles Times. Dec. 3, 2001.

Lambroschini, Sophie. "Chechnya: War Worsens Environmental Woes." Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 2000.

Remnick, David. "In Stalin's Wake," The New Yorker, July 24, 1995.

Slackman, Michael. "Oil Dumping Creates Swathes of Sludge." Sydney Morning Herald. April 4, 2000.

Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. Report on Russian environmental issues. Aug. 29, 2001.

Transcript of press conference with Boris Alekseyev, Russian military officer and chairman of the Russian Federation's armed forces environmental security department. January, 2000.

Report on meeting of Chechen and Georgian environmental groups in Tblisi, Georgia. November, 1999.