As soon as he contemplated the images of bodies of murdered civilians, thrown in the streets of Bucha, a suburb of kyiv where Russian troops have been accused of having perpetrated a massacre during the weeks in which they occupied the town, the journalist sebastian smith says: “Well, now that we know what has happened there, it really does look like a repeat of Chechnya.” Smith, a journalist for Agence France Presse (AFP) in Washington and author of a book on that conflict that he covered in the 2000s, Allah’s mountains (Destination), he adds: “There are clear parallels between the two wars, because this strategy is in the DNA of Vladimir Putin’s thinking and that of the Russian military.” A high-ranking international official who often traveled to the Caucasus during those years is even more emphatic: “Chechnya had a decisive influence on Putin.”
Upon coming to power, Putin ordered an offensive against Chechnya that in its brutality is reminiscent of what has been happening in Ukraine since the Russian invasion. The destruction of cities, the bombing of non-military targets and indiscriminate killings marked a conflict during which massive human rights violations took place. In Ukraine, the Moscow Army has also bombed hospitals, including a maternity hospital, has been accused of murdering civilians and perpetrating indiscriminate attacks on residential neighborhoods or has prevented citizens trapped under artillery fire from leaving for weeks.
“For the Russian military in Chechnya and again now in places like Mariupol, the goal is to annihilate,” explains Sebastian Smith. “It is about defeating the enemy, but also about destroying the civilian population, destroying their morale and even their future. As in Chechnya, they attack hospitals, schools, infrastructure, everything that is needed for a life normal. It is a way of showing that they have more than military power: they have the power to literally alter the meaning of life. And forever”.
Chechnya is a Muslim republic of the Caucasus, with a million inhabitants, which is part of the Russian Federation. It declared its independence taking advantage of the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s. In 1994, then-President Boris Yeltsin launched a war to try to retake the territory, which ended in military disaster for Russia. As he has reported in New York Times the journalist Carlotta Gall, one of the reporters who spent the longest time in Chechnya, the Russian troops sent to the Chechen capital, Grozny, “were greeted by highly motivated units of Chechen fighters, armed with anti-tank rocket launchers, who ambushed their columns, trapping and burning hundreds of Russian soldiers and armor in one night. An entire brigade was almost completely annihilated.”
The Kremlin responded by bombing Grozny off the map, not caring that civilians were trapped under constant artillery fire, with a military tactic that seemed to be taken from World War II and reminiscent of what happened in cities like Mariupol or Kharkov during the war. current invasion of Ukraine. Chechen fighters retreated into the mountains and two years later launched an offensive and again defeated the Russian army. They then reached an agreement with Moscow in which independence was suspended, but the war was stopped, although the republic fell into an internal conflict between the different Chechen clans and plunged into violent anarchy. The radical wing of the independentistas committed numerous atrocities. Until Putin came to power, first as Yeltsin’s prime minister in 1999 and then as president in 2000.
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Using as a pretext an incursion by Chechen guerrillas into neighboring Dagestan and an obscure attack on two apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999 – Chechen terrorists were accused, although many experts believe it may have been organized by the Russian secret services -, Putin unleashed a ruthless military offensive with the civilian population as the main target. during calls zatchistki, ethnic cleansing operations, entire villages were exterminated. Sexual violence against women was a constant in that conflict.
“Putin had just come to power and was willing to win that war at any price,” explains the senior international official, who prefers not to be quoted by name because he no longer holds the position for which he was traveling to Russia. “Putin argued that the world did not understand what was happening in Chechnya, that it was a fight against international jihadism. And it is true that after the 9/11 attacks, the international community looked the other way and considered the Chechen chapter closed. Putin believed that in Ukraine he could do the same: he thought that the Ukrainians were weak, that his Army was out of the game, he had in mind that in the end no one intervened in Crimea. Surely, he thought that it was going to be a military parade, that it would end a pro-Russian government in kyiv and a few military bases in the country”.
Sebastian Smith also believes that Russia has repeated the mistakes it made in Chechnya. “But it’s not just mistakes,” he points out. “They are also part of the DNA of the Russian military. Since it is not a democratic country, since power is so concentrated, since Putin has tried so hard to do away with the concept of individual rights and responsibilities, the military reflects that. Just as they don’t care about the rights of the people they point their guns at, they don’t care about their own soldiers either. This was a big problem in Chechnya. One of the reasons the Chechens were able to carry out such incredible guerrilla operations against the Russians was because they had the opposite mindset. They worried about their losses. They gave small units the power to make decisions. This seems to be the same mentality among the Ukrainians, perhaps in part because they have been taught this way by NATO instructors in recent years, but also clearly because they have a more democratic mentality in which they feel responsible for their actions, beyond from fear of their commander.
Putin’s way of ending the war was to agree with a powerful Chechen clan, the Kadyrovs, and turn them into an ally. Ajmad Kadírov ruled first, assassinated in 2004, and then his son, Ramzán Kadírov, who claims to be fighting with Russia in Ukraine at the head of a brigade of Chechen fighters. His way of controlling Chechnya is through terror, the same terror that Moscow’s troops applied during the war. The main witness and narrator of that conflict was the brave Russian journalist Anna Politkóvskaya, assassinated in Moscow in 2006, a political crime for which the authors were convicted, but not the instigators.
Collected in books like a dirty war or the russian disgrace —both are out of print in Spanish, although part of their articles are gathered in the compilation volume Only the truth, which Debate has just reissued—, Politkóvskaya’s stories of the second Chechen war show the cruelty unleashed by the Russian troops, encouraged by their superiors, and narrate how this violence ends up permeating society when the soldiers return to House. Her chronicles reflect how the Chechens were dehumanized, turned into enemies who did not deserve mercy, with a speech not far from the idea of invading Ukraine to end a “Nazi government”.
“This hatred is the fruit of impotence,” writes Politkóvskaya. “’We can’t do anything against the Chechens. Everyone who is here knows that nothing is useful with them, except to kill them, humiliate them and crush them’, they repeat to me quite frequently. And she kills herself, humiliates herself and tramples on herself.”
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