By Barry Renfrew

Russia’s disastrous war in Chechnya has witnessed butchery and savagery on a scale and intensity recalling World War II. During the 1990s massive formations of Russian tanks, artillery, and aircraft pounded Chechen cities and towns to charred ruins. Since then, Chechnya has endured years of guerrilla war and government security sweeps in which thousands of people have been killed or disappeared. The conflict has spilled into neighboring republics in southern Russia, destabilizing an already precarious region. Guerrillas have indiscriminately struck deep into the heart of Russia, killing hundreds of civilians, including children. Human rights and the laws of war appear meaningless to both sides.

The first phase of the war in Chechnya began in 1994. Both sides routinely committed atrocities during this conflict, though the far larger Russian military was guilty of more frequent excesses. Russian troops indiscriminately attacked towns and villages, killing and raping civilians, pillaging and burning homes. Chechen fighters executed prisoners and civilian opponents, attacked civilian targets in Russia and used civilians to shield their forces, and drove thousands of Russian civilians out of Chechnya in a systematic campaign.

There is no neat, simple answer as to why this war was so savage. It was a war inflamed by intense nationalism and ethnic hatred; a calamitously managed war that swiftly degenerated into a brutal campaign of suppression that only increased Chechen resistance; a war in which an ill-trained, disintegrating army, in truth little more than a mob, was pitted against a smaller, but highly motivated and skilled guerrilla force; a war in which a democratically elected government employed the ruthless methods and forces of Soviet totalitarianism against a civilian population. It was also a war between peoples and cultures that have waged merciless wars of conquest and extermination against each other for centuries with unrelenting medieval savagery.

Kill or be killed was the sole motivation of most soldiers in the disintegrating Russian Army, who were desperately fighting to stay alive rather than win a war. Win or die was the creed of Chechens inspired by fanatical patriotism and their Islamic belief in jihad, or holy war, against the traditional enemy. Many Russians saw Chechens as swarthy, treacherous savages and habitual criminals. The Chechens saw the Russians as ruthless conquerors and despoilers of their motherland.

Russia is a disparate patchwork of conquered ethnic and national groups, and every Russian government, whatever its ideology, has believed that the existence of Russia depends on preserving this empire at any cost. Many Russian leaders and ordinary people were deeply aware that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had stripped away huge tracts of territory and much of their national pride, and feared that Russia was on the brink of disintegration. Putin’s government viewed the idea of Chechen independence as a prelude to the unraveling of Russia and refused to consider any strategy but military victory.

The Chechens, an intensely nationalistic and martial people, were among the last to be conquered by czarist Russia in the nineteenth century. They never accepted Russian domination and Moscow’s rule was correspondingly harsh. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported virtually the entire Chechen nation, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, to Central Asia in the 1940s, where many perished in appalling conditions.

Chechnya declared independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Most Chechens regard their right to independence as a fact of nature as indisputable as the mountains of their land. They see no need to justify their claim of independence through international law or history. A Chechen asked such a question would give you either a look of pity because you were clearly a fool or else a threatening retort that you must be an enemy.

International law has little to say on whether the Chechens have the right to secede or whether Russia was justified in using force to stop them. (Although international treaties often refer broadly to the self-determination of peoples, it is usually construed to refer to anti-colonial struggles of faraway peoples and not to parts of a nation.) But governments assert their sovereign right to preserve their territorial integrity, by force if necessary—tacitly accepting the right of other States to do likewise.

Russian soldiers were bewildered when they were sent into Chechnya in December 1994. Women and children tried to block the Russian tanks, begging the troops to turn back. One Russian general halted his forces, saying it was not the role of the army to fight its own citizens.

That early uncertainty evaporated as Chechen forces inflicted heavy losses on the Russians. The ill-trained, poorly led Russian troops were mowed down by the hundreds in futile human-wave attacks against Chechen positions. What was supposed to be a swift police action turned into a gigantic disaster for the Russian military. Atrocities began almost at once, with Chechens literally tearing captured Russian airmen to bits while Russian forces indiscriminately bombed civilian settlements.

Grozny, the Chechen capital, was engulfed by a pitched battle. After infantry assaults failed, the Russian military set out to pulverize the city into submission. Russian aircraft bombarded Grozny while armored forces and artillery hammered the city from the ground.

The Russian assault fell mainly on Grozny’s civilians, mostly ethnic Russians. The city’s small Chechen population had fled to surrounding villages. Separatist forces operated from buildings filled with Russian civilians as shields.

Under international humanitarian law, the Russians were justified in seeking to capture the city because it was the rebels’ main base and the location of legitimate military targets, regardless of the presence of civilians. The fact that Chechen forces had fortified large parts of the city also meant that apartment blocks and other civilian structures were legitimate targets if they were being put to military use. And many civilians perished not because of the Russians, but because Chechen forces were using them as human shields, and, at times, prevented them from leaving the city or being evacuated. A Russian strategy of capturing Grozny by destroying it as a whole target was illegitimate, however, under the rules of war because targeting must be discriminate and aimed at discrete individual objectives. Combatants may not lawfully treat all the targets in an area, such as an entire city, as a single, giant target.

Reporting from Grozny during the battle, I could see clearly that both sides would do anything to win. Talk of law or humanitarian concerns was meaningless to most Russian and Chechen commanders, especially those who indifferently sent their own troops to be slaughtered day after day in a war of attrition.

Chechen fighters, as well as using civilians as shields in battle, killed prisoners and civilian opponents, especially supporters of pro-Moscow Chechen political groups, frequently torturing and mutilating victims.
Some captured Russian soldiers were tortured and executed, while others were treated well and released.

During this period, the West chose to see the war as an internal matter with no legal or practical basis for outside intervention. Although painfully aware that Russian forces were responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, the West believed it had to support Yeltsin as the best guarantor of moderate, pro-Western government in Moscow. Russian democracy was in its infancy, and powerful Communist and nationalist groups in Russia were calling for Yeltsin’s removal and a return to the country’s totalitarian past. Outside Russia there were scattered calls for sanctions, but Western reaction was confined to appeals for restraint and occasional rebukes.

By the summer of 1996 the war appeared to be winding down with Moscow claiming victory. In August, the separatists captured much of Grozny in a surprise attack. Moscow, seeing no hope for a military victory, pulled its forces out and tried to save face by saying a decision on Chechen independence would be made at a later date. The Chechens said they were independent.

After several years of low-level conflict, Russian forces forced their way back in to Chechnya in 2000 and restored direct rule after taking Grozny. Various attempts at finding a negotiated settlement failed and the Chechens fought on from the hills. Increasingly, the Russians have pursued a strategy of “Chechenization,” putting local pro-Moscow forces in charge of security and claiming that the war is over. A series of referenda and elections has been staged in Chechnya under conditions that human rights groups reject as a climate of fear. By mid-2006, the dominant figure in Chechnya was the Russian-backed prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the former president Akhmad Kadyrov who was assassinated in 2004. On the other side, the rebel forces have suffered the loss of some of their most influential leaders: Aslan Maskhadov, the main separatist leader, was killed in March 2005, and the military commander Shamil Basayev in July 2006.

There are few military engagements any more, but the bitterness and criminality of the conflict remain unchanged. During this second phase of the conflict, Russian forces and their Chechen allies have been accused of widespread abuses against civilians, including enforced disappearances, torture and indiscriminate killing. International and Russian human rights groups estimate that up to 5,000 civilians have been abducted by Russian or pro-Russian security forces. Many of the victims are never seen again, while survivors report being held incommunicado and tortured to try to force them to admit ties to the guerrillas. Kadyrov’s security forces, the so-called “kadyrovtsy,” are now believed to carry out the majority of abductions. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights says that the kadyrovtsy operate a network of secret prisons and are responsible for up to 75% of the war crimes committed in Chechnya.

The Russian security forces in Chechnya remain poorly trained, demoralized, undisciplined and corrupt. There has been little accountability for abuses they have committed over the years: the handful of Russian officers and soldiers put on trial for crimes in Chechnya have mostly been acquitted or received modest sentences. In one of the few trials of Russian military personnel, two soldiers were acquitted of killing six civilians in 2005 after saying they were following the orders of their superiors: a defense that has been rejected since the Nuremberg Trials following the defeat of Nazi Germany.

At the same time Chechen attacks against civilian targets have been stepped up. Trying to take the war to the Russians, Chechen detachments have attacked several Russian cities, often using civilian hostages as human shields. In October 2002, Chechen fighters took over a Moscow theatre during the performance of a popular musical, leading to a rescue attempt in which over 100 hostages were killed by a gas released by Russian forces. Two years later, Chechens seized about 1,000 hostages at a school in the southern city of Beslan, a raid that left some 330 people dead, half of them children. Other attacks have been directed against hospitals, public concerts and residential areas.

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen military commander behind the school attack, who was later killed by Russian forces, said in a 2005 interview it was necessary to make every Russian feel the pain of the war. “Responsibility is with the whole of the Russian nation … If the war doesn’t come to each of them individually, it will never stop in Chechnya,” he said.

There are persistent claims that some Chechen commanders have links to al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.

As Russia showed signs of swinging back to its authoritarian past under Vladamir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin, the United States and other Western nations were more critical about growing evidence of human rights abuses in Chechnya. George Bush threatened in 2000 to cut off aid if Russia continued “killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees” in Chechnya. The West’s tone changed dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. The United States, looking for allies in an international war on terrorism, was eager to accept help from Moscow, which portrayed the Chechen conflict as another front in the conflict against Islamic terrorism. The European Union, the U.S. State Department and others have occasionally urged Russia to curb human rights abuses in Chechnya, but there has been little action to back the censure and the issue has almost disappeared from international politics.

The Russian government has also managed to deflect domestic attention from Chechnya and there is little public discussion of the issue. Journalists, human rights groups and others are restricted and Chechnya remains a very dangerous place for outsiders and locals.


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