Russia’s wars in Chechnya offer grim warning of what could happen in Ukraine: NPR
Dmitry Belyakov/Associated Press
Russia launches an intensive bombing campaign. Towns and villages are reduced to rubble. Thousands of civilians are killed.
Russia did it twice – against fellow Russians – in Chechnya in the 1990s. This raises the question of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the same playbook as he wages war in Ukraine today. today.
In Chechnya, a tiny Muslim republic in southern Russia with just 1.5 million people, resistance to Russian rule dates back at least two centuries. Rebels began campaigning for independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
After a few years of growing tension, Russia unleashed a major invasion marked by relentless airstrikes and heavy artillery volleys. Thousands of Chechen fighters and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. The Chechen capital, Gronzy, was devastated.
Block after block almost every building was completely destroyed. No other city had been so heavily bombarded for decades. The devastation evoked those black-and-white photos of European cities destroyed during World War II.
Russia waged the campaign for two years, with its mighty army repeatedly trying and failing to crush a small group of rebels. Remarkably, Russia lost.
The government of President Boris Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Chechnya in 1996, withdrew all Russian troops from the territory and granted Chechnya broad autonomy, but not formal independence.
Putin comes to power
But three years later, as Yeltsin was about to leave office, he appointed an obscure spy-turned-politician to be his prime minister – Vladimir Putin.
Putin took office on August 9, 1999, and by the end of that month Russia was waging a new bombing campaign against Chechen rebels in a bid to reverse earlier humiliation.
The Second Chechen War was also brutal, although it proved to be more successful. Russian forces took control of the breakaway republic after only a few months.
In March 2000, a triumphant Putin, who had by then become president, flew to Grozny in a Russian fighter plane. He stepped out of the plane in a full pilot’s suit, to commemorate the victory.
Putin installed a pro-Kremlin leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, to strengthen his grip on the territory. Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, but his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, now rules Chechnya.
In the current battle in Ukraine, Chechen forces have been sent to fight with the Russian army.
Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press
Parallels between Chechnya then and Ukraine today
Thomas de Waal, a journalist who covered Chechnya in the 1990s, said he saw many similarities between then and now.
“There are some pretty disturbing parallels,” said de Waal, who is now in London with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The use of heavy artillery, the indiscriminate attack on an urban center. They bring back some pretty terrible memories for those of us who covered the Chechnya war of the 1990s.”
There are also political parallels, he said.
“There was a plan to put Chechnya back under Russian control, and today in 2022, to put Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence,” de Waal said. “And there was no plan B. Once people started to resist, which surprised in Chechnya and surprised in Ukraine, there was no political plan B on what to do with resistance.
He said Putin expected little or no pushback, as happened when Russian troops quickly and bloodlessly seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Instead, Putin obtained Chechnya in 1994.
After more than two weeks of heavy fighting in Ukraine, the Russian invasion is progressing much slower than expected.
With their superior firepower, Russian forces are closing in on Ukrainian cities. But the Ukrainians still resist fiercely and still hold the capital, Kiev, and other major urban centers.
Meanwhile, the civilian toll is growing.
“When Russia says it ‘does not wage war on civilians,’ I first call out the names of these murdered children,” Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska said in an open letter last week. “Perhaps the most terrifying and devastating part of this invasion are the child victims.”
At least 549 civilians were killed and nearly 1,000 injured, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The actual number could be much higher, according to the office.
“Schools, hospitals and kindergartens have been affected, with extremely devastating consequences,” the UN agency said in a statement. “Civilians are being killed and maimed in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks, with Russian forces using wide area explosive weapons in or near populated areas.”
US intelligence officials painted a grim picture last week, predicting that urban fighting in the coming weeks could be even more intense.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, said: “Our analysts believe that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by setbacks and could instead worsen, essentially doubling down. “
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmyre1.