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The Road to Nowhere: Russia’s 10 years of war in Chechnya

Sebastian Smith

1st March, 2005

They’ve a big new sign by the road announcing GROZNY, each man-sized Cyrillic letter fresh and neat. Only the city itself is no longer there.

Grozny has been destroyed. From the outskirts, it is the untouched buildings, rather than the ruins, that stand out. Some buildings are lacerated, others neatly punctured, others torn from the inside. The destruction has many signatures: cannon shells have gouged big, rough-edged holes out of brick and stone; aerial bombs have swallowed enormous, messy chunks; the sharp, flower-petal scars left by mortar shells are almost pretty.

This is not quite a dead city. People still live here, but they are damaged, too, and the quiet, steady existence they knew 15 years ago, before the start of the independence movement and two wars with Russia, is probably gone forever.

At every block, you are reminded only of what was. Our guide, Aslan, points through the car window: there you could buy delicious bread; there lived a rich uncle; there were the university residencies… Present tense is not used much in Grozny – future not at all.

In the centre, at a big loop in the River Sunzha, even the past is gone. This was the epicentre of the two Russian campaigns to storm Grozny – the first 10 years ago under President Boris Yeltsin in the winter of 1994-95, the second under President Vladimir Putin in the winter of 1999-2000.

In Soviet days, all the Communist Party buildings were here and when Chechnya declared itself independent in 1991, they became the presidential palace, parliament, national bank and security ministry. Lenin Square was renamed Freedom Square. Here was one of the main bridges over the Sunzha. Here were the highest and most desirable apartment blocks – nine and 12 storey complexes built in the 1980s, as well as many streets of elegant five-storey buildings from the early 20th century. Here was the Oil Institute, one of the principal such centres in the Soviet Union (Grozny was a major oil refining city). Here too was Tolstoy University, Chekhov Library and Kirov Park. Here were the cafés and restaurants and principal shops. Here were trams and fountains and ice cream sellers. Today there is mud and sky. A square kilometre of nothing.

From here, the devastation radiates through huge, deserted neighbourhoods of what used to be private homes and gardens. Grozny’s once great refineries are now reduced to an eerie jungle of antiquated and bombed-out piping and tanks. The Red Hammer machine factory is a cavernous ruin. Telephones, rubbish collection and sewage systems stopped working long ago. Time and poverty are eating away at what’s left: plundering the rubble for building materials is one of the only ways to make money (people even rip up old tramlines). In a city once home to almost half a million people, perhaps only 150,000 remain; my estimate is based on the number of buildings showing lights at night.

No less destruction has been visited upon the people of Chechnya. Out of the million Chechens resident in 1994, perhaps 200,000 – 20 percent – have been killed, says Taus Djabrailov, a top official in the latest local government installed by Moscow. Others estimates go as low as 50,000. Around 100,000 would be a sober reckoning. The US Holocaust Museum has put Chechnya on its Genocide Watch list.

Why was this done? Ten years ago, the Kremlin claimed it simply wanted to disarm bandits. According to official figures, 10,000 Russian soldiers have died in the subsequent bitter warfare; according to conservative unofficial estimates, 20,000 Russian troops have died. Some in Moscow said the wars were about protecting ethnic Russians: they’d left Chechnya in droves after the collapse of the Soviet Union, partly in fear of Chechen criminal gangs. But it was precisely Grozny’s ethnic Russians, the least mobile section of Chechnya’s population, who were most exposed to Russian carpet-bombing. Putin said the war was about fighting terrorists. The Kremlin compared the situation to Northern Ireland. But there was no aerial bombing, rocketing and annihilation of infrastructure in Ulster. There were no mass disappearances. British soldiers did not burn people in their cellars, rape prisoners or execute men in mud pits. Neither did IRA terrorism, even at its peak, match that emanating from Chechnya: the taking of hostages in huge numbers from hospitals and a Moscow theatre; the massacre of Beslan’s schoolchildren; passenger planes blown from the sky; underground and commuter trains shredded…

Yet just 10 years ago all this was unimaginable.

‘It’s like a dream,’ Leila, 51, says as she fills canisters at a broken water pipe. ‘I can’t believe this has happened to us. This nightmare war.’

There have been many attempts to explain the Kremlin’s real motivations in Chechnya. One is that in the early 1990s the Kremlin thought Chechen secession would ignite a chain reaction throughout the multi-ethnic jigsaw of the Russian Federation. But no other corner of Russia has seen a similar independence movement; not even in the North Caucasus, where there are many other small, Muslim ethnic groups with a similar culture to that of the Chechens and a shared history of persecution under the Russian empire and then Stalin.

Another explanation is that Moscow needs to control the oil in Chechnya and the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline snaking from Azerbaijan through the republic to the Russian Black Sea. The 1990s were a decade of heady expansion for the Caspian oil industry. But at the same time, Russian influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia faced mounting challenges; and it still does: US troops are now stationed across the region, from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, and pro-Western revolutions have begun to transform both Georgia and Ukraine.

However, the role of oil per se was never vital to these wars. There is very little in Chechnya (although what there is is of fine quality), and the republic’s oil infrastructure has patently not been high on Moscow’s list of priorities: witness the demolition of Grozny’s refineries. As for the pipeline, it has long been re-routed around Chechnya and is, in any case, of declining importance.

Indeed, anyone searching for signs of strategic thinking in Moscow’s decision to go to war in Chechnya, or some master plan, will come away empty-handed, for this is a tragedy in which logic played little role.

For the real roots to Moscow’s Chechen adventures you would do better to peer into the opaque and capricious workings of Kremlin politics, which in 1994 led to Yeltsin reaching one of his lowest ebbs. He was desperately unpopular. The hopeful, post-Soviet days of democracy and free-market experimentation had given way to an era of discontent. Yeltsin himself was sick. His defence minister Pavel Grachev was accused of massive corruption. The last liberals were abandoning the president’s cabinet, and a team of cynical, often barely competent politicians was in the ascendancy. Blamed by the public for Russia’s feebleness, Yeltsin and his hardline friends invaded Chechnya mostly to show they were still in charge, probably little guessing that their bright idea would end 21 months later, in 1996, in humiliation.

Of course, the Yeltsin campaign not only failed for the politicians; it destroyed Chechnya as well. In the aftermath, central authority collapsed in the republic, and while Russia and the outside world stood by, warlords, kidnappers and bandits took over. By 1999 Chechnya was a legal black hole and undoubtedly a danger to Russian security, albeit a self-inflicted danger.

At the same time, Yeltsin and his clan had once more become dangerously weak and unpopular. The Russian economy was in deep crisis, Yeltsin was again badly ill and his inner circle was increasingly the target of corruption allegations. Defiant and criminalised Chechnya seemed to symbolise his failure.

So it was that the Kremlin began to plan for war. Of course, logic would suggest that another full-scale conflict would make things worse, but, as in 1994, broader interests were of little matter. The way the Kremlin saw it, a patriotic war would reunite the country and suppress an unusually emboldened opposition. Above all, a major national security emergency would help turn Russia over to the FSB security services (the ex-KGB) and their low-profile chief Vladimir Putin. In other words, what might be called a creeping coup was arranged.

A casus belli was not long in coming. In the summer of 1999 the radical Chechen commander Shamil Basayev made a bloody and somewhat bizarre foray into the neighbouring region of Dagestan. Heavy fighting ensued. Then a string of horrific bomb attacks targeted apartment buildings in Moscow, shaking Russians’ self-confidence to the core. Guided by Putin (by then prime minister), the military machine, which had long been marshalling its forces, rolled into action.

Even today, troubling questions about these events remain unanswered. The apartment bombings were immediately blamed on Chechens, but the proof was flimsy and many believe that the FSB itself may have been to blame: a terrifying thought, but not unfeasible in Russia. Of the Russians who tried publicly to investigate this theory, one has died of food poisoning, another has been shot dead, another currently faces prison for what his lawyer says is a trumped-up weapons charge, and yet another – a woman who actually survived the apartment bombings – has just been granted political asylum in the US.

To what extent the Kremlin stage-managed the war remains a matter of speculation. The outcome, however, was clear. When Putin promised to ‘wipe out the terrorists in the shit-house’, Russians were unashamedly thrilled and the army went to war amid waves of anti-Chechen propaganda. Yeltsin resigned, slipping into discreet and luxurious retirement. There was no further talk of impeachment or lawsuits. Putin became interim leader, and faced no serious challenge when snap presidential elections were held in the spring of 2000.

‘anti-terrorist operation’ was popular at first. The Kremlin promised a limited campaign of what it called surgical strikes and special operations. The military appeared unstoppable.

But while the generals had learned many tactical lessons, strategically speaking the new and improved second war soon quickly began to resemble the first. The vast Russian army was unable to take Grozny from its lightly armed defenders without extraordinarily bitter fighting. Even after the city was taken remnants of Chechen defenders managed to escape into the mountains, where those who did not die of cold or hunger regrouped and fought on in the spring. Five years later, some 80,000 Russian troops remain tied down in an area less than 4 per cent the size of Iraq.

What has changed over time and made the war ever harder to resolve is the fragmentation of both sides. Whereas in the first war the rebels were, broadly speaking, united under the nationalist flag, their forces today comprise everything from independence fighters to Islamic ideologues and freelance groups seeking revenge. The federal side contains a bewildering array of special forces and interior ministry, defence ministry and paramilitary police units, each controlling its own patch of territory and business: smuggling, arms dealing, ransoming prisoners and siphoning off aid money.

Open fighting is currently restricted to the mountains. Long-range artillery salvos are often audible from Grozny during the early hours of the morning. Air strikes also continue, though far from the eyes of most people, who mainly live in the plains. It is in the mountains that Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet colonel who was elected president of Chechnya after the first war, is holed up. Shamil Basayev is also believed to be somewhere in the Caucasus’s thickly forested foothills. Up there are the die-hard fighters, including some foreigners, who have perfected the techniques enabling them to survive their enemy and the region’s long, hard winters.

‘It’s not easy, year after year running around the mountains in the cold and hunger and heat,’ a rebel source told me. ‘Russian soldiers are afraid to go eye to eye with the fighters there. They know that the fighters are brave because they have nothing to lose, that they go to death as if to a ball.’

Down in Grozny and in the plains, regular Russian forces man fortified checkpoints at every major road intersection. They make frequent use of Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) to mount impromptu roadblocks. They appear to be in control. However, here too there is war: a campaign of assassinations and terrorist bombings, and a counter-insurgency in which soldiers never show their faces, prisoners are never seen again, and all allegiances are suspect.

This shadowy conflict has brought with it new fear, particularly among families that include young men – whether or not they are rebels. Raisa, a mother of two boys, described how masked soldiers came one night in 2002 for her 23-year-old son Shamil. Why was Shamil wanted? He was no rebel fighter, but he had tripped a booby trap some months before while scouring ruins for scrap metal. Most likely it was his wounds that got him on the hit list. By luck, he happened to be away with other relatives that night and so escaped capture.

‘They came at 3am,’ Raisa told me. ‘They never said who they were. They broke down the gate, they stole our clothes and our food from the cellar. It was cold outside and they smashed a window.’ As soon as the masked men were gone, Raisa told the family: ‘I can’t live here anymore.’ The family loaded a car, left their home, drove to another area of Grozny and settled into one of the many abandoned houses there. Two years later, they’re still hiding, refugees within their own city.

Where the Russians take prisoners in their unmarked vans and APCs is rarely revealed. These are not arrests in the sense of warrants, charges, detention centres, lawyers, and official records. The Russians call them ‘targeted mop-ups’. Most Chechens can tell the story of a friend or relative being taken in such a mop-up. The stories generally end either with the prisoner being released after beatings or torture, or in their being handed back dead or vanishing altogether. Sometimes bodies are found by roads; sometimes just pieces of bodies are found, for prisoners have been blown up, presumably to hide evidence, or perhaps out of sadistic pleasure. Other bodies are sold back to relatives of the deceased.

How many have disappeared? The Russian human rights organisation Memorial attempts to compile accurate lists. But people vanish, then reappear after long periods in secret prisons. Others vanish, but may simply have left Chechnya or gone into the mountains to fight. ‘Sometimes a person might be killed in winter,’ said Memorial researcher Timur Akiev, ‘but it is only with Spring and the melting snow that they are discovered, possibly because a dog has begun tearing at the body.’ Memorial’s list of the dead and the missing – compiled across only a portion of Chechen territory – is a work in progress. For the period lasting from July 2000 to July 2001, there is now some certainty: 1,304 people killed, mostly in illegal executions. The annual death rate has slowed markedly since this peak, but never dried up. Last year, Memorial documented 148 people missing or dead after being abducted. About 200 others had been snatched, then released.

I caught a glimpse of this hidden war while being driven through Grozny by a guide one night. Near the street in the semi-ruined neighbourhood where we would spend the night, a grey vehicle stood with all its doors open. In the near darkness it was possible to make out that this was a UAZ mini-van: the Russian army’s favoured non-armoured vehicle for raids. Also visible was the silhouette of a man with a rifle. Further down the street, on the next corner, was another UAZ. We turned to clear the area. Yet another UAZ passed by. We turned in behind a building, lights off, and waited, feeling a twinge of what so many Chechens had described to me: a creepy, intangible sort of dread. Whom had they come for this time?

Among the main tools in the counter-insurgency are Chechen informers and Chechen men recruited into the ranks of pro-Russian units, which range from traffic police to special forces. Some join out of conviction, persuaded they are fighting the hated foreign Islamic mercenaries. Many join simply because there is no other work. Others are ex-rebels handed amnesties and a chance to lead a new existence. And some who join are rebel infiltrators.

The biggest and most notorious of the Chechen-Russian groupings is the so-called Kadyrovites, formed by Akhmad Kadyrov, the Russian-installed president of Chechnya who was assassinated last summer. With their mishmash of uniforms and habit of driving at high speed in blacked-out cars, the Kadyrovites look unnervingly like the rebel fighters most of them once were. Now that Kadyrov is dead, they answer to his widely detested son. No one is quite sure what their role is and where their loyalties lie. Russian officers have long complained that the Kadyrovites are a fifth column; human rights groups blame them for many of the disappearances and torture cases; some, including Kadyrovites themselves, say they are a buffer between the Russian military and the Chechen population.

Such blurred lines run right through the Russian forces, and can result in infighting between rival units and even collusion with the rebels. A senior security official told me that the rebels in the mountains cut deals to keep certain areas quiet. So there may be fighting in one district, but a haven for the rebels (and peace for the soldiers stationed there) in another. Likewise, there has long been evidence of weapons sales by federal troops to the rebels. Another senior security source went further, describing the situation as similar to the chaotic years between the first and second wars, when armed men ruled the streets and all significant economic activity was criminal. ‘This is not a war of so-called resistance, but a dividing up of business influence between divisions of the power structures,’ he said. ‘It’s a so-called “manageable small conflict” in which uncontrollable parts of the security forces can sell arms… There is a huge arms trade across the North Caucasus.’ In an extraordinary admission, this officer said that the rebels were more principled than many of the federal groupings.

Amid such lawlessness, a man who has lost his family, his friends, his house or sense of honour, cannot find justice. The police and military are unlikely to do more than file his complaint. Only handfuls of such cases have made it into the Russian courts over the last decade. He could try filing a case with the European Court of Human Rights, but that might take years. Alternatively, he could take a gun and a bomb and, as they say here, ‘go into the forest’: that is, become a rebel or terrorist.

In Chechnya today, the forest is the highest court of appeal.

Western leaders have rarely said in open what they think about Chechnya. There’s been a good deal of hand wringing, but little else. With its giant gas and oil fields and perennially worrying nuclear arsenal, Russia cannot be pushed around. It is no Yugoslavia or Iraq. If a Serb general lobs 3,000 artillery shells a day into Sarajevo he goes to The Hague; the Russian generals who fired 3,000 artillery shells an hour at Grozny got medals, governorships, big dachas and, no doubt, some cushy trips to Brussels for Nato-Russia summits.

After 9/11, this policy of turning a blind eye to Chechnya gathered fresh impetus. Crudely put, Putin gave the US a green light to operate in former Soviet central Asia. In return, the Bush administration increasingly endorsed the Kremlin’s view that the Chechen problem was all about Islamic fundamentalism: a Russian version of the fight against al-Qaeda. Moscow could now parrot Bush’s crusader speeches, and Washington, London, Paris and Berlin could finally wash their hands of Chechnya. Armies of politicians, journalists and analysts, few, if any, of whom had ever been near the republic, joined the bandwagon, concocting stories about the spread of Chechen terrorism from London to Kabul and Baghdad. A ludicrous article in the Washington Times outdid them all with its report about Chechens ‘with backpacks’ sneaking into Arizona.

There is a foreign Islamic element in Chechnya. Indeed, the Taliban was the only foreign government (of any sort) to recognise Chechen independence. But the influence of the global jihadists is limited. Raised on a blend of Sufi Islam and indigenous mountain laws, most Chechens regard the puritanical teachings of al-Qaeda with distaste. The feeling is almost certainly mutual. It is also fair to say that some foreign Islamic fighters have gone to Chechnya: the same types who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and Bosnia in the 1990s. But their numbers are of questionable importance. In military terms, Chechnya is too small a territory and the war is too intimate to absorb many foreigners; Chechnya is not Afghanistan, but a place smaller than Wales.

As for Chechen involvement in various jihads and radical movements around the world, that appears to be grossly exaggerated, if not fantasy. There have been hundreds of reports of Chechens fighting in Afghanistan, but no sighting by any independent journalist. The confusion may stem from the tendency of people in the region to describe all people from former Soviet central Asia, of whom there are many fighting in Afghanistan, as Chechens. There is even less credible evidence of Chechens being active in Iraq. For the record: eight Russian citizens were among the men detained in Afghanistan and taken to Guantanamo Bay; not one was Chechen.

Inevitably, radicalisation will deepen. A new generation of fighters is appearing. These are too young to remember the original independence movement, let alone a peaceful life with Russia. Let down by the West, they may well look favourably on offers of help from the global jihadists. What can’t be emphasised enough, though, is that the chief recruiter for Chechnya’s insurgents, be they traditional guerrillas, or Islamic radicals, is not al-Qaeda or some nebulous anti-Western movement, but Russia itself. Torture, rape, destruction, looting and the lack of redress in the court system: these are the things that drive Chechens to take up arms and, with still very little frequency, become suicide bombers and terrorists.

Oddly, it may have been the carnage at Beslan that finally helped Western governments to see this. For all the shock at the mass murder of children, there was incredulity over Putin’s wild statements about foreign forces wanting to tear ‘juicy chunks’ out of Russia. Kremlin claims about Arabs and even an African being among the hostage takers were quickly revised. Ultimately, it became clear that nearly all the terrorists had indeed been locals and that Beslan was a home-made disaster: a spillover from the mayhem in Chechnya.

Until then, many in the West treated Chechnya as an isolated problem. The Chechens’ suffering was almost never seen on television. Terrorist attacks were sufficiently far apart to be considered freak events. And unlike the Kremlin’s assault on the Yukos oil company, Chechnya had no impact on oil prices or Western business interests.

Yet far from being a side event, the past 10 years in Chechnya encapsulate everything that has gone wrong with the post-Soviet experiment: Chechnya drove the last reformers from Yeltsin’s side; it brought Putin and the former KGB establishment to power; it drove Putin’s dismantlement of the free media; Chechnya helped racist politicians to the top ranks of Russia’s parliament. And how did Putin react to the tragedy of Beslan? He announced that Russians would no longer be allowed to elect their regional governors. Chechnya, what Yeltsin liked to say was an ‘internal affair’ and Putin calls ‘part of the international war on terrorism’, is becoming everybody’s business.

    I have seen men and women cut in half by shrapnel in Chechnya. I have seen many grey, dead faces staring from pavements, car seats and muddy roads. I have heard planes diving and the screams of people injured by their bombs. I have seen and smelt a 16-year-old boy of whom there remained nothing but roasted sticks collected in a bucket. I have seen heads without bodies and bodies without heads. There are few places in the world where war victims have been chosen so arbitrarily and given so little opportunity to escape.

A recent survey by the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) found that nine out of 10 Chechens had lost someone close in the war, and that one in six had witnessed the death of a close relative. Eighty per cent had seen people wounded. Almost every single person interviewed in the survey had come under aerial bombardment or crossfire. Two thirds said they never felt safe. For parallels, MSF suggested Sierra Leone.

Russians, too, have been terribly wounded. Many tens of thousands of conscripts have been pushed through the Chechen grinder, learning that in some parts of their country human life has no value. The same, with predictable consequences, goes for the huge numbers of police rotating between the war and their far-off home regions. Russian society has experienced every extreme of emotion, from outrage to humiliation, from fear to apathy. Any idealism has been lost in the process. That modest goal Russians have of living in a ‘normal’ country seems beyond grasp. Normal is hard to define, but a country with the Chechen war will never be normal. And while one day the killing may stop and some of the damage might be repaired, for many peace will come too late.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2005


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