The invasion of Ukraine ordered by Putin is more a continuation of than a departune form his form of rule. Here is an excerpt from an article – The Case for Chechnya – by Tony Wood in New Left Review 2004 that is revealing in this regard.
“According to the Russian analysts Dmitri Trenin and Aleksei Malashenko, preparations for war in Chechnya were ‘well under way’ as early as 1998. The pretext this time was provided by Basaev’s August 1999 incursion into Dagestan, which marked an attempt to expand the influence of Islamists who had already established micro-imamates there, and ultimately to unite Chechnya with Dagestan and form an independent Islamic state. Although Basaev was quickly expelled from Dagestan, a series of explosions in apartment buildings in Buinaksk, Volgodonsk and Moscow in late August and September—fsb collusion has repeatedly, and plausibly, been alleged—prepared domestic opinion for the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ that began at the end of September.
Vladimir Putin’s rule has unarguably marked a transition from the oligarchic capitalism of Yeltsin to a more authoritarian mode—he has, notably, installed dozens of former kgb personnel in key positions throughout government, and brought the powerful plutocrats of the 90s to heel or else driven them into exile. But it is the war in Chechnya—launched within a month of his appointment as prime minister—that has been his principal means of consolidating power, paving the way for his smooth ascent to the presidency in March 2000, and ensuring a staggering degree of compliance from political elites and intelligentsia alike.
Putin’s war on Chechnya has been characterized from the outset by a far more relentless use of force than that of his predecessor, not only in terms of troops and ordnance but also cruelty to civilians from an army bent on revenge, and increasingly composed of kontraktniki, professional soldiers often recruited from Russia’s prisons. On 1 October, Russian forces—100,000-strong this time, compared to the 24,000 Yeltsin had initially deployed—entered Chechnya after several weeks of massive aerial bombardment had virtually levelled the remnants of Grozny. After securing the lowlands north of the Terek in the autumn of 1999, they rolled southward and, in February 2000, took Grozny, suffering heavy casualties in the process. Chechen government troops retreated to the mountains, where they were pounded by Russian artillery and air-strikes.Putin strolled to victory in the March election—Blair rushed to Moscow to be the first world leader to congratulate him—and in June appointed Akhmad Kadyrov as puppet ruler. But for all the talk of ‘normalization’, as Putin passed responsibility for Chechnya from the army to the fsb and then to the Interior Ministry (mvd), Chechen resistance forces remained able to infiltrate Russian lines. The massed troops of the Russian Defence Ministry, mvd, fsb and special forces (omon) controlled the plains by day, but Chechen forces began to conduct guerrilla operations by night, picking off convoys or patrols before melting into the forest. Since then, the conflict has remained one between ‘an elephant and a whale, each invincible in its own medium’.
With Russian casualties rising—the official figure for 2002–03 was 4,749, the highest in one year since 1999, and the monthly average for 2004 is currently higher than American losses in Iraq—Putin has since 2001 adopted a strategy of ‘Chechenization’. This has meant troop reductions—around 60,000 Russian soldiers now face an active resistance estimated at a maximum of 5,000—and the delegation of many combat operations to militias under the control of Kadyrov’s puppet government. Kadyrov was shoehorned into the presidency of Chechnya in a rigged election in October 2003—in which 20,000 of the occupying troops were eligible to vote—but his assassination on 9 May 2004 required yet more fraudulent elections this autumn, won by Kadyrov clan loyalist Alu Alkhanov. The change of personnel will do little to alter the character of the quisling regime. Under the command of Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, the kadyrovtsy have become infamous for their brutality, and have tortured and killed their countrymen no less assiduously than the occupiers themselves. Kadyrov’s administration, while professedly setting about the reconstruction of Chechnya, remained a corrupt clique—Putin’s human rights envoy to Chechnya admitted that no more than 10 per cent of the $500m allocated to Chechnya in 2001 had been spent, and in 2002, fsb director Nikolai Patrushev admitted that $22m had been ‘misused’ that year.
There can be no greater indictment of Putin’s rule than the present condition of Chechnya. Grozny’s population has been reduced to around 200,000—half its size in 1989—who now eke out an existence amid the moonscape of bomb craters and ruins their city has become. According to unhcr figures, some 160,000 displaced Chechens remained within the warzone by 2002, while another 160,000 were living in refugee camps in Ingushetia. The latter figure has declined somewhat since—a Médecins Sans Frontières report of August 2004 estimated that around 50,000 Chechen refugees remained in Ingushetia—thanks to the Kremlin’s policy of closing down camps and prohibiting the construction of housing for refugees there. Those forced back to Chechnya live on the brink of starvation, moving from one bombed-out cellar to another, avoiding the routine terror of zachistki and the checkpoints manned by hooded soldiers, where women have to pay bribes of $10 to avoid their daughters being raped, and men aged 15–65 are taken away to ‘filtration camps’ or simply made to disappear. The Russian human rights organization Memorial, which covers only a third of Chechnya, reported that between January 2002 and August 2004, some 1,254 people were abducted by federal forces, of whom 757 are still missing.
The military stalemate has produced a chilling degeneration among the occupying forces. Sheltered by an official policy of impunity—many officers, for instance, have been permitted to have several different identities, ostensibly to protect them from ‘revenge attacks’ by Chechens—Russian troops have engaged in an orgy of theft and arbitrary cruelty. Each of the ministries operating in Chechnya runs its own fiefdom, with corresponding rackets and sales of arms, often to the Chechen resistance fighters themselves. There are dozens of reported instances of soldiers returning the bodies of civilian casualties only for a fee—which is higher for a corpse than a living person, because of the importance in Chechen traditions of burial on clan lands. The violence has not been limited to Chechen civilians: an estimated half of Russian casualties have come in non-combat situations, mostly due to systematic bullying of demoralized teenage recruits—largely those without parents rich enough to buy exemption from service. Those returning to Russia from service in Chechnya often bring with them the vicious habits learned there.In that sense, the ugly symptoms of Russia’s aggression towards Chechnya have metastasized into a cancer that threatens to consume Russian public and private life.
The Russian media had played a key role in conveying something of the horrors of the 1994–96 war; this time, the authorities have not made the mistake of allowing them freedom to operate, and have closed down or replaced the editorial teams of the two most critical sources of news, ntv and tv6. A striking contrast between the current war and the previous one has been the manner in which Russian official discourse has permeated journalistic commentary, to the point where ‘terrorist’ and ‘Chechen’ have become virtually synonymous. This has had poisonous social repercussions: generalized antipathy to ‘persons of Caucasian extraction’ has often flared up into outright xenophobia, resulting in both official and spontaneous public persecution not only of Chechens but also of several other peoples from the region. It is this widespread public hostility to the Chechen cause, together with the more general political atomization and apathy of contemporary Russia, that largely explain the absence of a cogent movement against the war. There have recently been some stirrings on this front: on 23 October, human-rights organizations staged a demonstration on Moscow’s Pushkin Square that drew up to 2,000 participants, and on 6–7 November the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committees held the founding congress for a new political party. But dissent has thus far focused largely on the war’s brutality rather than its political roots. Even on the left, the question of Chechen independence has at times all but vanished. Vladimir Putin’s rule has unarguably marked a transition from the oligarchic capitalism of Yeltsin to a more authoritarian mode—he has, notably, installed dozens of former kgb personnel in key positions throughout government, and brought the powerful plutocrats of the 90s to heel or else driven them into exile. But it is the war in Chechnya—launched within a month of his appointment as prime minister—that has been his principal means of consolidating power, paving the way for his smooth ascent to the presidency in March 2000, and ensuring a staggering degree of compliance from political elites and intelligentsia alike.”
As the French say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”