When Chechnya first declared independence from Russia in 1993, the Russians promptly invaded. The Russians quickly tired of getting a lot of their troops killed for what appeared to be little gain. In the wake of their 1994 withdrawal from Chechnya, Russia simultaneously declared Chechnya still a part of Russia (and paid pensions and government salaries there) and left the Chechens to their own devices. But the Chechens could not govern themselves. It was as simple as that. The central government in the province controlled little beyond the capital Grozny. At least six major warlords held sway, and then quite loosely, over the rest of the province. Criminal activity rapidly increased. Between 1997 and 2000, some 1300 Russian civilians from southern Russia were kidnapped for ransom. When the money did not appear to be forthcoming, the victims were murdered. Hundreds of these captives were rescued as Russian troops again advanced into Chechnya in late 1999. But kidnapping wasn't the only racket. There was also auto theft, rustling, drug running and diverting oil from pipelines running through the province. This last scam was abetted by gangsters taking over local oil refineries and going into the fuel business. Add to this the usual gambling, extortion and prostitution rackets and you have a pretty grim place. For while a lot of the victims were fellow Chechens (who didn't belong to a particular gangs clan), most were in neighboring areas.
But what really mobilized public support for another invasion of Chechnya was one gang that specialized in religious fanaticism (in addition to some more secular crimes, everyone found kidnapping and smuggling too lucrative to give up for religious reasons.) Not content with just turning Chechnya into crime central, the Besayev gang decided to turn all the southern Caucasus into an Islamic republic. Most Chechens practiced the more laid back Sufi form of Islam, but Besayev and his followers managed to convert a few thousand Chechens to the more hard nosed Wahhabi form of Islam. It aid in this, non-Chechen fundamentalists came in to join the jihad. A few hundred converts were made in neighboring Dagestan. In the Summer of 1999, Besayev and company decided it was time to stop preaching and start fighting. Several thousand holy warriors invaded Dagestan. The Chechen criminals were bad enough, but this was too much for the Dagestanis, and they fought back. Some 32,000 Dagestani civilians who fled the invasion, and the 1,500 locals were killed in the fighting, sometimes massacred by the holy warriors for resisting. Twice the Russian police and troops drove Besayev's warriors back into Chechnya. But after the third invasion, the new prime minister of Russia decided to reestablish control of Chechenya.
In February 2000, the senior Islamic cleric of Chechnya, Mufti Akhmed Khadzhi Kadyrov, proclaimed that the Russian occupation of Chechnya was the only way the people were ever going to be free from all the criminal activity. During the late 1990s, the Russian government had basically ignored the pleas of Chechnya's neighbors for relief from the increasing criminal activity. Reassuring press releases and more border guards were all that was sent to paper over the situation. But the local resentments built up, not just in the Caucasus, but throughout Russia. What was going in Chechnya was symbolic of the lesser degree of lawlessness throughout the country. Russians were waiting for someone to do something. But no one wanted a lot of Russian troops to get killed in the process. The 1993 battles in Chechnya had been humiliating for the Russian military, and people as a whole. In 1999, the Russians were more careful, numerous and decisive. This time the Chechens were also divided. The Russians soon occupied the entire country and began negotiating with many of the clan based groups for some kind of deal. The Russians wanted to get a majority of Chechens to agree to keep the crime rate, especially against people outside of Chechnya, down.
Chechen independence was not a major issue, Chechen's disruptive effect on the entire region was. This was nothing new. The Chechen's had, for centuries, been one of the more powerful ethnic groups (out of over fifty) in the Caucasus. The Chechens were used to doing as they wanted, and were tough enough, and ruthless enough, to get away with it. Two centuries ago, this unruly attitude brought the Chechens into violent contact with the expanding Russian empire. The Russians kept killing Chechens until the survivors agreed to behave. But such bloodletting is never forgotten in places like the Caucasus. The Chechens hate the Russians and want to be free to do whatever they want. And that's what the war in Chechnya is all about.
The Chechen gunmen who seized a school full of children in southern Russian (North Ossetia, about fifty kilometers from Chechnya) have cut off the telephones. The Chechens demanded that Russia get out of Chechenya and release Chechen gunmen seized in earlier operations. Chechen gangs have tried this sort of thing several times in the past five years. It has never worked. The Russians either negotiate and let the Chechens get away, or Russian commandoes attack and kill the Chechens (and many of their hostages.) But this situation is a little different, because so many children are involved. Russians are pretty fanatic about the welfare of children, which puts the Russian government under extraordinary pressure to resolve the situation without getting any kids killed.