A former war correspondent sees chilling similarities between the Chechen war and Russia’s assault on Ukraine today.
It is clear from the military convoy reportedly stretching 40 miles that Vladimir Putin intends to follow his Chechnya military strategy: bomb, terrorize, and occupy Ukraine. The cruelty, as has been said in other contexts, is the point. I know, I saw the original of this movie in Chechnya 27 years ago. Even later, in 1999, under the direction of Putin, it took years for Russia to defeat the insurgency and install a puppet regime, and that only happened after Chechnya’s very destruction: a “victory.”
Touring Grozny in 1995 with a Russian general after the final battles around the Presidential Palace in the first Chechen war, you could see for miles as nearly every building and every bit of vegetation was charred and flattened or nearly so. As one Russian soldier said to me, “You have Disney World and we have Grozny.” It was a scene likened to that of Stalingrad by many and one that should only spring from a demented mind. Another image still seared in my memory is of an older woman, whose corpse was badly bloated, being picked up by the leg and hoisted into the sky by a crane clearing the rubble of an apartment building.
Russian forces, mostly conscripts, were often poorly trained and poorly equipped. I lent my satellite phone to one Russian commander to call in the wounded after he suffered heavy casualties outside the town of Pervomayskaya in 1996, where Chechen rebels had been taken hostage. Those same troops had spent days dug in, without food, water, sleeping bags, and tents, in freezing cold and wet conditions.
Russian commanders eventually tried to “end the siege” by bombing the village from Katyusha with multiple rocket launchers, similar to ones we are seeing on the road from Belgorod into Ukraine. At the time, they tried to kick out journalists like us, staying in farmhouses close by, and argued that all the hostages were dead. When challenged to prove it, they turned dogs onto us. We were able to evade ejection and stay behind in a farmhouse, only leaving later right before the hostage-takers escaped, inflicting heavy casualties on Russian troops in a firefight next to the house we had occupied. Multiple hostages did survive. Those that did not were killed by the bombardment and not the hostage-takers.
The same strategy and issues with supplies seem to be playing out in Ukraine. But the battle this time will be far worse for Russian troops due to the sheer numbers of citizens and the size of the country. Ukraine is 233,000 square miles. Chechnya is 6,680. Chechens were more divided at the beginning of the Russian incursion in 1994, with some supporting Russia over their separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. That is not the case in Ukraine and the population is far larger. Chechnya’s capital Grozny had a population of 400,000 at the beginning of the war. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, has 2.88 million people and many of those have taken up arms, already inflicting casualties among Russian troops, some of which reportedly didn’t know they would be at war.
To illustrate how bad the toll for Russian troops can be, one has only to look at the losses in Chechnya. The oldest human rights group in Russia, Memorial, estimated the number of civilian casualties of both Chechen wars at “more than 200,000” and the number of Russian soldiers killed at 20,000 to 40,000. In a potential sign that Putin was planning this invasion, and knew its cost, he ordered Memorial closed in December. That way there is no independent homegrown Russian group measuring the cost of this conflict and its human rights abuses. Another sign that he knows that the body count will be high is that in the columns of tanks, a mobile crematorium was seen. After all, it was the mothers of slain soldiers in the first Chechen wars, grieving over their bodies back home, that galvanized opposition to the first war, leading to a truce.
Putin has never been able to be satisfied with a truce, a stalemate, or “self-rule” which is what Ukraine represents with its partnership with the West, even while outside of NATO. He re-started the war in Chechnya in 1999 after the destruction and political stalemate of the first war led to criminality and rival factions. His promises of strength, stability, and a Russia restored to greatness after the drunk, bumbling leadership of Yeltsin in the late 90s were embraced by Russians, who were tired of uncertainty.
Up until now, the support of that stability has allowed them to look past his control of the media, the security services, the jailing of dissident oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the poisoning and imprisoning of political rivals like Alexei Navalny. The road to totalitarianism is a slippery slope that has enabled Putin to have complete control over them and what they see and hear. The corrupt, oil-based economy, which he has failed to diversify, is hailed by his state-controlled media as a success, even as most Russians still struggle. But perhaps it is his failed leadership of the economy and of the COVID-19 pandemic which has made him even more embittered and led him to search for a scapegoat. He defines the cause of all Russian failure — his failure — as a Western conspiracy to keep him and Russia down. Our weapons? The very existence of our systems is built on democracy, the rule of law, free-market principles, and free elections where leaders are chosen and not imposed.
It is so disheartening, frustrating, and soul-crushing to see what is happening in Ukraine. The number of Ukrainians ready to fight is much larger, their area of operation much bigger, thus the death and destruction potentially much higher. The U.S. and its partners can do little else than impose crippling sanctions in the face of Putin’s threats of nuclear force. The only option to end this may be relying on the strength of everyday Russians to realize their leader has sold them another big lie. They have shown that strength in defeating Hitler on the Eastern front and ending Communist rule. Even a temporary “defeat” of Ukraine will kill more Russians and Ukrainians, who even Putin concedes are their ethnic cousins. Judging by history, this is a conflict that can also drag on for over a decade. The question is: how much death and destruction can the world and Russians themselves take?