Exotic species of the North Caucasus (Pt 1) | Guest Post

Exotic species of the North Caucasus (Pt 1) | Guest Post

The collapse of the once great Soviet state, was in fact, a foregone conclusion by 1988, when the republics of the USSR began to gradually proclaim the supremacy of their laws over the Union ones. It didn't take long - the August coup that took place in 1991 showed the complete failure of the communist government. Such a powerful political event served as a kind of signal for the republics and marked the beginning of the "parade of independences": all the republics of the USSR left the union one after another, and even Chechnya and Tatarstan, members of the RSFSR, hastened to declare their sovereignty from the federal center. But the matter was not limited to independence- in the territories of many countries that had just appeared on the world map, bloody conflicts broke out.

The Caucasus and Central Asia became the epicenter of the violent discord: from 1992 to 1997, hostilities between the opposition and the central government took place in Tajikistan. In 1992, a long-term ethnopolitical conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis resulted in the war for Nagorno-Karabakh; and in 1991-92, Georgia, torn apart by civil war, unleashed military operations in the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in order to suppress separatism. Each of these conflicts became traumatic for the post-Soviet society in its own way, but compared to others the Chechen war became the most painful and terrible, and its echoes in the form of Islamic radicalism resonate to this day.

Arsenals for "Ichkerians"

In this article, we will take a unparalleled look at the use and proliferation of weapons on the territory of Chechnya and the North Caucasus as a whole, with an emphasis on weapons that were not produced in the USSR or the Russian Federation, and also try to trace their sources and supply channels.

In order to understand why we are focusing specifically on foreign weapons, it is enough to understand a little about the regional specifics. By the time the First Chechen War began in December 1994, the military units and warehouses of the Russian Ministry of Defence located on the territory of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic had become the main source of equipment and weapons for the militants of the Ichkerian armed forces. In 1992, after the refusal of the Defense Minister Marshal E. I. Shaposhnikov to divide all military property in Chechnya in half (It was assumed that 50% would go to the pro-Dudayev forces, 50% was taken by the federal centre), systematic attacks began on military camps, warehouses and other areas to seize the rich stocks of materiel that lay within. It was reported that at least 60,000 small arms were eventually captured, including:

- 158 Automatic Grenade Launchers (AGS-17)
- 113 Rocket-Propelled Grenade Launchers (RPG-7)
- 678 Vehicle mounted machine guns including PKT, DSHKT, KPVT, NSVT
- 319 Heavy machine guns DShK, KPV, NSV
- Around 2,000 RPK, RPK-74 and PK/PKM machine guns
- 18,832 AK-74 and AKS-74 assault rifles
- 9307 AKM and AKMS assault rifles
- 533 SVD sniper rifles
- 10581 APS, TT and PM pistols
- 100,000 grenades of various types; RKG-3 anti-tank grenade, F-1 and RGD-5 hand grenades
- 80,000 disposable Anti-Tank launchers, including RPG-18, RPG-22 and the modern RPG-26 and RPG-27 types.
- 27 Trucks full of ammunition
- 7 9K310 Igla-1 MANPADS: and a number of other MANPADS types, said to be 9K32(M) Strela-2(M) and 9K34 Strela-3
- A number of special purpose  weapons, including AS VAL, VSS "Vintorez" and APB
Pro-Dudayev forces ("Dudayevtsy") with AKM assault rifles, RPK-74 light machine gun and AGS-17 grenade launcher. Chechnya, November 1994.

In addition, Chechen separatists managed to seize a significant amount of armoured vehicles, aviation and anti-tank systems. It should be understood that all the military property in the warehouses of the Russian Ministry of Defense was produced in the USSR - within the framework of the military doctrine of the union, the use of foreign firearms was permitted. Hence, the theoretical number of non-USSR produced weapons in the Soviet army was reduced to zero (Excluding testing of foreign weapons, etc). Therefore it is precisely foreign-made weapons, as weapons that are regionally uncharacteristic, that allow us to get a more complete picture of the sources of cross-border illegal traffic as was impossible for them to be looted from domestic stocks.

It's not surprising that the Kalashnikov assault rifle, as the main model of infantry weapons in the Warsaw Pact countries,  also became the main service weapon of the Chechen separatists. By the beginning of the First Chechen War in December 1994, most of the separatists' small arms were represented by AKM/AKMS assault rifles chambered in 7.62x39 and 5.45mm AK-74/AKS-74/AKS-74U. There were also small numbers of older AK-47s of all three types (Type 1, the first stamped AK rifle, and Type 2 and 3, which were milled and hence easily distinguishable).

Later in the course of the development of the conflict, modern AK-74M assault rifles, captured as trophies during battles with federal forces, also fell into the hands of the "Ichkerians". Additional earlier variants of the AKM/AK-74 platform were also captured, as the Russian Army had not fully transferred all units to using the AK-74M. Other weapon classes such as sniper rifles and infantry support weapons were also captured: represented mainly by Soviet SVD and PK/PKM machine guns. Occasionally, PKT machine guns, usually stripped from the burning hulks of Russian Tanks and BMPs or pulled from armouries earlier, were converted for infantry use in an ad hoc fashion.

Separatists defending Grozny armed with AK-74 and AKM which are absolutely typical for the First Chechen War. January, 1995.

But, as noted, classic Soviet Kalashnikovs constituted only a part of all the assault rifles, although they were the bulk of small arms used. By the beginning of active hostilities in late 1994, AK-pattern assault rifles manufactured in other countries could also be found in the hands of the separatists. This practice is absolutely atypical for the territories of the former RSFSR - these weapons could only get into Chechnya by illegal ways. It is quite obvious why: these samples were not in service with the army of the USSR, and they simply could not be purchased under any official contracts from the countries of the Warsaw Pact due to the fact that Ichkeria was an entirely unrecognised state with the sole exception of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a name that you may have seen in the news recently for an entirely unrelated reason.

Gifts of Abkhazia

In archival photos taken in the first year of the war, one can often find an easily recognizable rifle -  a side-folding wire stock and a wooden handguard with integrated vertical grip allows an experienced eye to identify a licensed copy of the AKM with the designation of PM md. 90, produced by Romania. There were dozens of such rifles captured only on camera, but in reality the number of rifles which were in circulation with the Chechen separatists are likely to be in the hundreds. Less commonly, militants had another Romanian assault rifle: the PA md. 86, chambered in 5.45x39. In comparison with the Soviet AK-74 (besides markings) it has a rather small number of visual differences, however, like the PM md. 90, it is usually equipped with a folding wire stock and foreend with a vertical grip.

Both of these rifles have their heritage in the Romanian PM md. 63 & 65, which were essentially direct copies of the AKM & AKMS, with a few changes. The PA md. 86 has internal and external features closer to these classic AKM-pattern rifles as opposed to the Soviet AK-74; one example of these is the AKM-style (45 degree) gas block.
PM md. 90 of a fighter from the brigade of one of the commanders of the Ichkerian Armed Forces Salman Raduev. Grozny, early 1995.
Presumably, AKM assault rifles with installed folding stocks from PM md. 90. Grozny, early 1995.
A soldier of the National Guard of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, armed with an AKS-74U with a notable 5.45x39 metal magazine from the Romanian PA md. 86. Approximately 1996.
A group of Chechen militants, one of whom is armed with the Romanian PA md. 86. Around 1999-2000.

But what was the source of these rifles? The answer is Georgia. In 1991, a batch of 1000 PM md. 90 rifles were ordered by the then-President of the country, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. However, by the time the assault rifles arrived in Georgia, he had already been overthrown, and most of the rifles had settled in the hands of the Georgian paramilitary "Mkhedrioni" militants, and only a small part of the supply reached the supporters of the former president (the so-called "Zviadists").

Subsequently, the militants of the Mkhedrioni took part in battles in the territory of Abkhazia, where some of the weapons were lost and fell into the hands of the Abkhaz. In 1993, the new government of Georgia again acquired weapons from Romania - this time it was Romanian copies of the AK-74, the PA md. 86. The exact number of units purchased is unknown, but the batch was known several times larger than the first delivery of PM md. 90. Both deliveries also contained large quantities of magazines and ammunition.

Zviadist rebels pose in Senaki during the Georgian civil war. Romanian PM md. 90 rifles can be seen in the hands of many. October 1993.
Zviadists in Senaki. Now with the PA md. 86. October 1993.

An important detail is that Shamil Basayev, the notorious Chechen fighter and organizer of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in modern Russian history, fought on the side of the Abkhaz from 1992 to 1993 as the commander of the corps of the troops of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus. Basayev's troops, which were in the vanguard of the Abkhaz forces, showed themselves excellently in battles with Georgian troops, and Basayev himself was even awarded the "Hero of Abkhazia" medal. Based on the testimonies of direct participants of the events, due to the lack of real control over the borders and the circulation of weapons in general, the militants managed to take some of the weapons in service with the CPC corps back to Chechnya.

It can be said with great confidence that it was the militants of Basayev who were responsible for the presence of the Georgian PM md. 90 and PA md. 86 rifles in the hands of  Chechen separatists at the very beginning of the war.

One of the leaders of the Chechen militants, Shamil Basayev, with his assistant, holding the Romanian PM md. 90. Botlikh, Dagestan, 1999.

Problematic MANPADS

Of course, one should not forget about the obvious and characteristic for every conflict; cross-border smuggling of weapons, usually enabled by criminal organisations, even if tacitly allowed by states. However, in the case of the First Chechen War, the smuggling of small arms for the infantry was the exception rather than the rule. Preference was given to the illegal import of either so-called "status weapons" or more serious hardware, the use of which could have a qualitative impact on the course of hostilities. Specifically, one of these examples will be discussed further.

Probably the biggest piece of speculation in the Russian media of that time regarding illegal supplies for Chechen militants was the FIM-92 "Stinger" portable anti-aircraft missile systems. The first reports about the receipt of MANPADS from the "American special services" by the "Ichkerians" appeared in the media in October-November 1999 and they were quickly picked up by Russian officials: soon the then-Minister of Defense, Marshal Igor Sergeev, declared that the militants had no less than 70 "Stingers". Of course, such statements had little to do with the real state of affairs, but despite this, a certain number of Stinger MANPADS really did fall into the hands of the militants, and to this day information about their real origins basically hasn't been available. More precisely, their origins and quantities were entirely opaque until now.

Ichkerian field commander from Saudi Arabia, the famous Amir Khattab with a FIM-92 "Stinger". Chechnya, 1999-2000.

In fact, the history of the Chechen Stingers began long before 1999: the first FIM-92 fell into the hands of the separatists back in 1995-1996. Oddly enough, it arrived in Chechnya from Georgia. In Chechnya it was in service with one of the units of the Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria called the "Shatoi Regiment". It is noteworthy that this MANPADS was initially in a malfunctioning state (The problem was said to be battery related), but Musa Bamatgiriev, who was in charge of the regiment's air defense, managed to bring it into a combat-ready position. Later, they even tried to use the "Stinger" for their intended purpose and fired at the Russian combat aircraft, but they failed to hit it.

Musa Bamatgiriyev with FIM-92 "Stinger" without a gripstock. Shatoi, 1996.
The same MANPADS with one of the soldiers of the "Shatoi regiment". Shatoi, 1996.

But how did the American Stinger end up in Georgia in the mid-90s? The answer to this question may surprise some, while others, on the contrary, will be disappointed with its banality. The source of these famous systems was Afghanistan, where the CIA, as part of Operation Cyclone, supplied MANPADS to the forces of the "Afghan Opposition" represented by the Mujahideen. The purpose of the deliveries is very prosaic - to counter the Soviet military aviation.

The successful combat use of FIM-92 in Afghanistan is well known and needs no repeating, but it certainly made an impact not only on Soviet aviation but on the wider cultural conciousness.

The fact that Soviet MANPADS such as the 9K32M Strela-2M have been used in much larger quantities worldwide is of no matter, as the Stinger and it's notorious branding are firmly entrenched.

Despite all the attempts by CIA to prevent any the proliferation of these systems in order to deter their use for terrorist purposes (Primarily their use against Passenger Aircraft), some of the Stingers still fell into the hands of both radical and criminal structures. It was thanks to the criminal channels that the "Chechen MANPADS" ended up in Georgia, where it was planned to be used by one of the sides of the civil war. However, the apparent malfunction of the single MANPADS system foiled that plan, and later it was transferred into Chechnya, where there was an urgent need for weapons capable of shooting down Russian military aircraft. As evidence, it is enough to compare the markings of the "Chechen Stinger" missile (GDP86F001-383 / 369302) with open source image of Afghan examples and find sufficiently close serial numbers, which at least suggests that they were all produced at almost the same time and are very likely to be of the same origin.

Markings of some FIM-92 MANPADS used by the Afghan mujahideen.

The Stingers arrived in Chechnya for the second time in the summer and autumn of 1999. This time, the number of smuggled systems turned out to be slightly more significant and amounted to 3 units. Like the first "Chechen Stinger", this batch also arrived from Afghanistan. Emissaries sent from Chechnya tried to purchase a large batch of "Stingers" from the Taliban for no less than $80,000 apiece (In 2021, equivalent to $134,000!), but only a limited batch of 3 MANPADS gripstock assemblies with an unknown number of missiles/batteries were procured. These Stingers were delivered by land via classic smuggling routes through Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The FIM-92 MANPADS is clearly visible.Chechnya. October 27, 1999.
Search for targets for MANPADS. November 14, 1999.

Despite the fact that by that time these MANPADS had been in Afghanistan for more than 13 years, surprisingly they turned out to be partially operational.

MANPADS are complex technology and degrade over time, especially when inproperly stored; usually batteries and cooling units. This can sometimes be solved; for example the thermal batteries used with the 9K32 Strela-2 series of MANPADS can be replaced with improvised solutions that can actually be more effective than the original batteries, providing power for longer. An excellent example of this can be seen in this report from the Counter Improvised Explosive Devices Centre of Excellence in Spain. In later models, this is much more difficult.

All 3 "Stingers" were launched. However, on the available footage not a single hit was recorded. There is information that one of these "Stingers" were used to shot down a Su-24MR tactical bomber on October 4, 1999 in the Urus-Martan region, but it is not possible to confirm this. Also, sources among former militants say that all 3 FIM-92s turned out to be faulty due to the "actions of the Russian special services". Allegedly, at a certain stage, the units were intercepted and deliberately damaged, but this cannot be confirmed; blaming failure on malicious outside parties is always tempting.

Another unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a plane the very next day.  Chechnya, 15 November 1999.

Most likely, the real reason for such an ineffective use of the FIM-92 was down to the lack of skills or experience in using such complex equipment. MANPADS are known for their difficulty of use, and it was simply impossible for an untrained militant to hit the target with ease. It is possible that foreign fighters in Chechnya may have had some knowledge of Stinger use but it appears that unfortunately for the Chechen rebels they weren't able to use these valuable and very expensive MANPADS to deter Russian air power.

The militant demonstrates FIM-92s just delivered to Chechnya. Pay attention to the removed markings and blue tape, observed on many Stingers in Afghanistan and in particular in Chechnya. Late summer-early autumn 1999.
A newly arrived Stingers. Chechnya, late summer-early autumn 1999.
For comparison, a Stinger seized from the Mujahideen with a similar blue tape one the foreend. Afghanistan, 1987.
Another FIM-92, note the blue tape and erased markings.  Chechnya, autumn 1999.

Summing up, it can be said that the presence of the FIM-92 "Stinger" in the hands of the Chechen separatists was more a psychological weapon than a real one. In fact, more than 70 Igla-1, Strela-2(M) and Strela-3 MANPADS, captured at the very beginning of the war, were able to make a more impressive contribution to suppressing enemy aircraft. The question of their performance is also open, but if it was possible to shoot the "stale" Afghan FIM-92, then repair and reuse of the Soviet MANPADS should not have been an unsolvable task.

Nowadays, the few FIM-92 that weren't purchased back by the CIA or weren't used many years ago are no longer a threat to civilian aviation (as the West originally feared), Western Aircraft over Afghanistan, or to Russian combat aircraft over Chechnya, as they will have degraded way beyond a usable state.

However, in addition to simple smuggling in the history of equipping the Ichkerian separatists, there was also another little-known channel for the supply of weapons: from Georgia. This channel became evidence of the de facto direct support of the militants from the then Georgian government. In the next chapter we will address the little-covered Kodori Gorge conflict in 2001.

An Unexpected but Logical Union

Rather soon after the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, the militants were driven out of Grozny in February 2000, but the federal troops were not going to let them go just like that. The retreating militants were first surrounded in Shatoi, where, during the breakthrough, a large group of Chechen separatists had to split up: Khattab's group went northeast towards Ulus-Kert, and a group led by field commander Ruslan Gelayev retreated to Komsomolskoye. But even there, the troops of Gelayev were blocked by the "Federals" who were pursuing them. In early March, Russian troops launched an assault on the village, during which each side suffered heavy losses. Realizing their precarious position, the militants commanders (Gelayev and Mezhidov) decided to break out of the blockade and leave for Georgia. The Pankisi Gorge was chosen as the base. The reasons for this choice were quite understandable: mainly "brotherly" Kist Chechens live in the in the area, and at the same time the Georgian government had little control over these territories.  

Ruslan "Khamzat" Gelayev with his troops. 2001-2002.

The militants managed to reach Pankissia, despite all the difficulty of the journey. For more than a year, Gelayev's troops licked their wounds and replenished their ranks with the tacit consent of the Georgian authorities. By the summer of 2001, according to the statements of the federal forces, a huge group of more than a thousand people had accumulated there. However, such asylum, granted at the most difficult time, comes at a price.

At the end of that summer, the Georgian authorities came up with a "brilliant" idea, aiming to solve the problem of unrecognized Abkhazia, whose territory was never returned under control. This would be to release a huge quantitiy of militants on them that had accumulated on the territory of the Pankisi Gorge.

Hence, Khamzat's Unit was given the green light, and trucks with militants were allowed to drive through all of Georgia. The urgent problem with the lack of weapons was also resolved - the required small arms and ammunition were issued to the Chechens from Georgian state stocks.

Georgian PM md. 90 among the trophies of the border special forces of the FSB after the battles with the group of Khamzat Gelayev. End of December 2003.

According to conflicting reports from the Russian media, 9K38 Igla MANPADS were also issued to the militants to counter the possible use of Russian aircraft to protect Abkhazia. It is simply impossible to assert how true this information is; nevertheless, several 9K38 systems can be seen in images of the troops led by Gelayev in 2002. Later, as a result of battles in the area at the time, the Russian authorities claimed to have captured 5 such MANPADS.

It should be noted that initially 9K38 "Igla" MANPADS weren't included in the list of property left in military bases and state arsenals in Chechnya, only 7 9K310 Iga-1 systems were mentioned. However, Soviet accounting wasn't always known to infallible.
Militants returning from the Pankisi Gorge under the command of Gelayev. 2002.
Another "Igla" MANPADS is in the hands of Gelayev's troops. 2002.

The battles in the Kodori Gorge were unsuccessful: according to the original plan, Georgian forces were to come to the aid of the militants, including the "Monadire" paramilitary formation, consisting of Georgian Svans. Without waiting for any military assistance after two weeks of active fighting, Gelayev decided to return back to Pankissia. It is worth mentioning that  at the very beginning of their "Abkhazian campaign" the militants accidentally shot down a helicopter with observers from the UN Observer Mission in Georgia which could be an indication of the use of MANPADS from Georgian state stocks.

As for Gelayev, he was known to occasionally left and then returne to the Pankisi Gorge, until in early 2004 he was killed by Russian border guards during one of these crossings.

Gems from Baku

A very interesting weapons supply route was also established from adjacent Azerbaijan. There, the war for Karabakh had just died down, and a large number of illegal weapons naturally surfaced on the black market. A feature of this smuggling channel was the specificity of the imported weapons. A good example was the Israeli Uzi submachine guns which came to Chechnya from Azerbaijan. This fact is not surprising at all - close relations between Baku and Tel Aviv began to form back in the 90s, including in the field of military cooperation, and these offered compact, reliable firepower.

A police officer of the Chechen Republic with an Uzi submachine gun. Grozny, 1994.
Chechen girl with an Uzi submachine gun. March 1995. 
Tankmen of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces with UZIs. ~2010.

Even a very rare compact submachine gun, the IMI Micro Uzi, the list of operators of which is very small to this day, appeared in the hands of Chechen militants. Any combat use of these is not worth discussion - most likely this submachine gun was used as a so-called status weapon and was intended only to demonstrate the high position of its owner. As in the case of the Uzi, this compact version also arrived in Chechnya from Azerbaijan. There is, of course, a discordance between the use of an Israeli submachine gun by Islamist Sunni fighters, but this has never been a problem for al Qassam brigades and other Palestinian factions, and so was never an issue in Chechnya either.

A Micro Uzi somewhere in Chechnya. Roughly mid-2000s.

In one of the most famous photos of the First Chechen War, you can see a very unusual rifle for those places- a Chinese Type 56 with a stock from an AK-74. In the early stages of the war, Chinese rifles could be counted on one hand - most likely, these weapons were smuggled into Chechnya before the looting of the warehouses of the Russian Ministry of Defense, when there was still a certain shortage of small arms. They were imported from Azerbaijan, where these rifles were actively used by both sides during the Karabakh war but nowadays are rarely used, retired in favour of modern Russian small arms.

A Chechen fighter with a Chinese Type 56. Grozny, January 11, 1995.
Azerbaijanis in Agdam examining the Chinese Kalashnikovs issued to them. March 16, 1992.

Here's another very similar rifle in archival photos - one of the Armenian soldiers is holding a Chinese Type 56 with a plastic forend and exactly the same buttstock from an AK-74. There is a small but distinct possibility that the exact same AK can be seen in the photo from Grozny!

Type 56 with an AK-74 stock in hands of an Armenian soldier. 1992.

Other rare guests in Chechnya were the Romanian PSL sniper rifles, also from Azerbaijan. Contrary to popular belief, these rifles are not derivatives of the SVD and do not share parts.

Azerbaijani servicemen in Fuzuli. A Single PSL rifle can be seen in the second row. 1995.

Esoteric Hardware Continues...

In conclusion, it can be noted that although cross-border smuggling and even support of Chechen militants from the outside in the form of weapons did take place, the primary role in equipping and increasing the combat power of the separatist forces was played primarily by weapons captured in army warehouses before the outbreak of hostilities. However, it is always valuable to assess how regional politics and legitimate arms procurement have second and third order effects, sometimes many miles away; whether simple AKs or MANPADS.

In the second part of this material, we will analyze in detail how the Caucasian Islamists from Imarat Kavkaz and later on the Islamic State Wilayah Kavkaz have armed and are still arming themselves.

Moreover, we will cover:

  • How were Glock pistols smuggled to the North Caucasus in the dozens?
  • Where do IS terrorists in the North Caucasus get their weapons from today?
  • How do cross-border smuggling networks continue to operate?
  • Where did the militants get American M4s?

Stay tuned!

Calibre Obscura Note: This article was written by @ArmoryBazaar with considerable assistance and editing from myself. Please follow him and his work, there is more to come.