Despite the hesitancy in some quarters to acknowledge the likelihood of an invasion before February 24, the landscape of analysis and punditry—including myself—has, since that entire calamity earnestly began, come to terms with the fact that what Russia is doing in Ukraine right now is absolutely dreadful. The barbarism, the brutality aimed at and against civilians, the indiscriminate killings, and the terror campaigns, are revolting—but they should not be surprising, as it is without question, not the first time that we have witnessed this from Russian President Vladimir Putin, his administration, and his nation’s military.
In fact, since Vladimir Putin took over for Boris Yeltsin—as his handpicked successor as active-Prime Minister on the ninth of August, 1999, officially two days after the Second Chechen War is considered to have officially begun—and later as the President of Russia in early-2000, this current chosen solution to regional issues has actually been quite the normal course of action and recourse for this nation when faced with some sort of allegedly existential crisis, challenge or allied request for military assistance: They move their military in, bomb, blow and destroy much of what lays before them—with either their own troops or private mercenary groups—and create havoc that brutalizes the very society that the war is occurring around, while assaulting, raping, stealing, terrorizing, traumatizing those people all the while.
None of this is to say that US interventions have avoided the same outcomes; even if we accept claims that it is better intentioned, it has still started conflicts leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in the War on Terror. Moreover, American actions in Iraq especially also served to help normalize the kind of unprovoked invasion we are seeing today. No nation or military on this planet should escape punishment for crimes against humanity and other war crimes, and the US is no exception—though its insistence on exceptionalism does weaken the entire concept of international criminal justice. But the United States has, especially since the inauguration of Joe Biden, actually curbed its worst excesses and made progress, however halting, towards a less barbarous foreign policy. Russia, on the other hand, with its conflict in Ukraine, is perpetuating a pattern in the most disgusting ways of its previous conflicts in Chechnya and Syria.
Chechnya in 1999
While Russia began its second conflict with Chechnya in late 1999, that conflict requires some foreknowledge of circumstances within that region and regarding Russia, Chechnya, and other, neighboring nations. Tensions had been high since before the First Chechen War which began in December of 1994 when the land that is now referred to as Chechnya decided it wished to be its own Republic and not just a part of the Russian Federation of nations that was formed in 1991. That angst and uneasiness did not dissipate much throughout the relatively long Yeltsin administration, or after that first conflict officially ended in 1996 either, and would fuel terrible fires in the years since.
During that first conflict, the First Chechen War, which was precipitated in part by the multiple attempts at “covert” regime change by the Russian government against the Separatist President Dzhokar Dudayev, another leader within the Chechen people was growing in prominence in that nation as well. He was a Muslim man from a family that had been, a generation earlier, expelled from Chechnya during the reign of Stalin, and which had previously founded the Islamic Institute in Kurchaloy and whom, around this period, began to support the Separatist President more vocally and outwardly than he had previously. His name was Akhmad Kadyrov, and he came to greater prominence in the formally unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria around this time, serving and fighting for that polity during this conflict. In 1995, in fact, he would be given the title of Chief Mufti of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. During this time, he had become a well-respected leader and figure amongst certain groups of Chechens in their struggle for national sovereignty and separation from Ingushetia, as well as from Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and satellite Soviet nations like the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic that had disintegrated alongside the Soviet Union itself.
While the Russian government was not thrilled with any of this, nor with the elections of Presidents like either Dudayev, his successor post-assassination, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev or the final elected President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, former Soviet Colonel, and First Chechen War commander and war hero, Aslan Maskhadov, this did not really come to a head once more until the late-Summer of 1999—Chechnya was effectively self-governing for this in-between period.
It was the Chechen invasion of the Republic of Dagestan that created a domestic pretext for Russia to begin once again its machinations concerning and within the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, while the alleged bombings of buildings across Russia, allegedly planted by sympathetic, Islamic figures, added fuel to the metaphorical Russia-Chechen fire. When forces that included Wahhabists and other extreme elements violently entered Dagestan from the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria before declaring Dagestan a free Islamic nation, the Russian response was to first drive those forces out of that nation and back to where they came from. After that, however, it turned its eyes upon the area from which they had entered Dagestan—the de facto independent Chechnya.
And so, it was late-1999, September and October precisely, only weeks and months after Vladimir Putin was handed the Premiership in Russia by Yeltsin, when he and his nation bombed and subsequently invaded the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, beginning in earnest what is known as the Second Chechen War, after accusing Chechnya and its government of being both illegitimate and simultaneously incapable of effectively or safely governing its people. Russia claimed that Grozny had failed—and was actively failing—to handle or control the nation or its diverse and multicultural population in the face of competing warlords and government figures and offices; therefore, of course, Russia would have to secure the region.
But as Russia had surrounded, bombarded and was invading Chechnya for this second time—and even as Chechnya, like Ukraine today, was earnestly fighting back—things were not good in the unrecognized Republic of the Chechens. As the nation was being roughed up by the brutal and renewed Russian assault, to put it nicely, Akhmad Kadyrov, who had formerly fought and led Chechens and their society against Russia with the larger majority of the nation, did what, for many Chechens, was and remains unthinkable: He changed sides and threw his hat in with the Russian government, President Vladimir Putin and those pro-Russian Chechens.
The former rebel and religious leader turned his back on his nation, its people, and many of his Muslim followers in return for power and security in and for Chechnya, which Putin assured him and granted him after the Second Chechen War was over; Chechnya was, after the “Major Combat Phase” officially ended in the middle of 2000, to be aligned with Moscow. Kadyrov would become the first President of the Chechen Republic in 2003, after serving as a head figure since May of 2000. Despite the Russian military presence remaining in Chechnya until 2009, all was stable and peaceful—from the Russian perspective of course.
There is still, to be sure, throughout Chechnya, violence with and concerning those anti-Russian Chechens who do not agree with the since assassinated Ahkmed Kadyrov’s still-living son, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has ruled as the President of the recognized successor nation to the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Chechen Republic, since 2007. The younger Kadyrov now has sent Chechen soldiers into Ukraine to do to that nation what was done to his during his childhood, continuing his father’s shame for power and the phantom of prestige.
The alleged and confirmed atrocities committed in that small and relatively brief conflict, the Second Chechen War, by the Russian government that Vladimir Putin would come to lead and dominate for the next twenty years are, without question, as bone-chilling as anyone might read about in the books or hear about today on the television or radio. They include rape, torture, murder, terror campaigns, bombings, artillery shelling, the targetting of innocents and many of the crimes that are now being discussed in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The entire story is barbarous, grotesque and fascinating in equal portions, and for a number of reasons. While the indiscriminate violence and barbarism was already touched upon previously, the entire political circumstance also warrants further discussion, for it is similarly interesting vis-a-vis this current Ukraine circumstance. While the brutality of Russia’s time in Syria is also important for understanding what is being witnessed in Ukraine, and is the more immediately available point of reference, the political angles of Ukraine are much similar to that which was seen in Chechnya. Both cases represent the Russian variant of the infamous international diplomacy of targeted “Regime Change.”
Russia supplies weapons to the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic.Russian President Vladimir Putin, December 2015
The Syrian Civil War is another difficult matter to address, largely because there is such a massive propaganda campaign to make it all appear as though it is exclusively a made-up or overblown circumstance, proliferated and perpetuated by the usual cabal of Western powers. While American involvement in this crisis hasn’t been glorious, to say the least, it cannot bear the entire weight of an issue that Russia is simply much more involved in, and over the course of nearly a decade.
Much as we have seen with the campaign within Ukraine regarding their claims of nazis and needing to “denazify” the nation, what Russia does perhaps better than any other is certainly the art of bending and molding information that might have some shred or shreds of truth into something that is way different than it actually is. For example, while Ukraine has neo-nazis, so does Russia and most of the rest of the world to some degree. While Syria was unstable and suffering before their pro-Assad intervention, as the US was aiding rebels during the administration of Barack Obama, Russian involvement has not necessarily added any humanity or relief to the conflict, and the Russian air campaign has led to thousands of civilian deaths.
The excuses that Russia uses to justify the widespread violence and criminality of their efforts to assist peoples or regimes have a certain common logic to them. Just as Russia now claims that it must “denazify” Ukraine—with Nazis, mind you—it once claimed that Chechnya needed invading to suppress the Wahhabists that attempted to secure Dagestan before the Second Chechnyan War, and emphasized the threat of jihadists in Syria as it first sent soldiers and mercenaries there as well. While there is evidence enough to believe that Nazis, Wahhabists and Jihadists are not fabrications of Russian propaganda, that does not mean that those groups were anything more than the convenient pretenses to invade. They serve as internationally arguable or justifiable pretenses when it serves them to conceal alternative, regional or international interests, an old story in foreign policy (and one the US is certainly guilty of as well).
While living under the Assad regime is likely quite better than living under Daesh, which has found itself embroiled in the complicated fighting that has unfolded over the last decade-plus, along with anti-Assadists, Sunni Jihadists, Kurds and other volunteer foreign fighters, that is hardly the standard that nations should be striving to live up to. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly guilty of crimes against humanity. He is not a good leader, nor has his leadership—and Russian intervention—left Syria a secure or even, for many Syrians, a tolerable place to live. This is due only in part to the sanction regime that hangs as a yolk around the collective, metaphorical neck of that nation for the deeds of their President and his administration. The iron fist with which Assad rules (and which he largely shares with his father, who ruled before him) is a major factor in sabotaging Syrians’ quality of life, and it has been enabled by Russian military might.
Over the course of the Civil War, Russia has backed Syria with both its military and its vast array and supply of neo-nazi, pro-Russian mercenaries in working to maintain control over that nation from a hodgepodge, unrelated and uncooperative bunch of rebels including various branches of the Islamic State, Kurdish freedom fighters on the edges and borders of the unofficial yet widely recognized Kurdistan that straddles four different nations, as well as many other groups and peoples from across that region and the greater world.
Here too, stories abound of the gruesome and disturbing war crimes that have been committed against innocents by the armies of Syria and Russia, as well as those lackeys who work for them. And this conflict still goes on, rarely being discussed even when Russia isn’t actively invading an Eastern European nation, despite the quite sizable mass of people —it unfairly displaces—another parallel to Ukraine. Had the rest of the world to have reacted in as multilateral a fashion to those circumstances concerning nations like Chechnya and Syria over the past thirty years—as they have taken notice regarding Ukraine—then perhaps the conflict in Ukraine would not be happening at all today.
Yet instead, Ukraine has always been the primary focus. While the Russians were first targeted by sanctions in 2014, that foray into the sanction regime occurred only after Russia invaded the Ukraine—not for their involvement in Syria years earlier, their brief invasion of Georgia in 2008, and not for their involvement in Chechnya nearly 15 years later. Would an earlier sanction regime have pushed Russia away from future aggression? I do not believe so.
However, sanction regimes are not the only recourses for each and every international ailment— events like the aforementioned should have created volition for international conferences aimed at creating mutual procedures and agreements for avoiding these types of grotesque atrocities, no matter who the perpetrator. Such an international agreement, however, would require truly international participation, and would need to be binding on all parties—including the United States, which has often rejected such previous efforts.
The lack of massive, multilateral responses, collective protestations or consequences regarding either the Chechnya affairs or the Syrian civil war helped to create the perceived environment in which Putin invaded Ukraine expecting little international uproar or blowback.
While the world looked at 2014 in Ukraine as a tough, fast response to an international issue within Europe itself, the Russian President simply appraised things on a scale that extended back nearly twenty years earlier. He was able to remember the lack of resistance to his use of military force in other nations, like those mentioned above and others, and based on that scale, he saw that the relatively weak response that his invasion of Crimea earned him was the first such response any such incursion had earned him in over 15 years. Moreover, in the post-Crimea period, Russia had carefully constructed its economy to be less susceptible to economic sanctions
Vladimir Putin gambled, felt what the repercussions were, and doubled down moving forward that he could get more without suffering too terrible a burden proportionately speaking. He attempted to create an economy that could withstand a sanctions barrage—despite that he never imagined the sanction regime created for his deeds would be so massive or multilateral—and his wager was unwise. However, he was likely correct that, after years of preparations, sanctions would be insufficient to stop him from achieving his goal. Long term, forever sanctions simply do not “work” in the ways in which their authors or applicators intended, because, while they destroy society, the economy, and the lives of many millions of innocents—should they not immediately force the desired capitulation—their continual application does not necessarily incentivize any greater mutuality or diplomatic cooperation after the tenth or twentieth year than after the first month or so of the conflict in question; what once was a massive, widely felt punishment eventually becomes the detestable, everyday reality for people who steadily forget what things were once like.
Furthermore, should executive prevarication occur within most any illiberal, pseudo-democratic state—such as Russia and Iran to name two—and so long as the hierarchy and military remain supportive of those leaders, sanctions will mostly wither away men, women and children instead of the intended target and targets. Now, this does not mean that Vladimir Putin or his regime are entirely safe from either the serious external or internal repercussions, of which have spawned from his regional machinations, yet the sanction often weakens without entirely creating the conditions to prevent a conflict, dissolve active conflicts or administrative regimes.
While President Putin believed that he could make his dreams come to life in Ukraine quickly, decisively, and without much blowback from Western nations, he was incorrect in this estimation. While Putin can likely withstand sanctions in isolation, the physical resistance of the Ukrainian army has created serious problems for the operation which were likely unforeseen. This was an obvious miscalculation, and the uproar against Russia’s actions has been swift and terrifying in its sheer magnitude and scope,while support for Ukraine has gradually built into a real challenge for Putin. It could very well be the conflict of which marks the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin as President and leader of Russia, as well as for Russia as a nation in its current iteration. While he maintains his security apparatus’ and speaks with firm, aggressive language, cracks, both within the government as well as the society, are beginning to appear.
Should he lose this “special operation” in Ukraine, however; should he be unable to maintain a proper and functionally positive territorial hold over enough land in either the Donbas or elsewhere—with or without a bilateral and multilateral treaty in place between Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the international community—or should he remain in prevarication as his economy and society literally shrink and shrivel up to levels last seen many decades ago, his continual leadership will simply be untenable in the most basic and necessary of diplomatic, economic, and practical conditions and matters.
This can be considered a byproduct of a long term sanction regime should one desire to declare it to be as much, but, again, even when sanctions inflict damage or affect change, context is important. These sanctions do not appear to be stopping this violence in Ukraine as of yet, despite that they are obviously working in the sense of deprivation and isolation of various sorts; Vladimir Putin is also in no imminent danger of losing his current grip on power. Yet if the aforementioned deprivation tactics lead not to the desired effect regarding this current conflict in Ukraine, but, instead, to some change many, many years down the line, those sanctions failed in regards to their actual and primary objectives; hence, two seemingly incongruent points—that sanctions in the long-term will not affect the desired changes vis-a-vis Russia, any more than short-term sanctions have thus far, and that Vladimir Putin has set both himself and his nation on an undeniable path towards change—can coexist without much issue.
Chechnya but 20 times larger
Over the previous years and decades, Vladimir Putin’s persistent and pervasive use of force and brutality against innocents is unmanageable and unreasonable, as well as obviously and blatantly illegal. His use of neo-nazi mercenaries—while simultaneously claiming to be saving populations and nations of whom Putin often calls nazis or extremists in some other sense—is as unreasonable, when analyzed, as claiming that you must invade a nation to save it from genocide, only to bomb, shell and annihilate the cities, towns and citizens of the polity into nothingness.
In Ukraine, like Chechnya and Syria before it, Russian interference has only exacerbated what issues were already existing within the polity—but Russia has so far been unable to identify and prop up an allied ruler like Kadyrov or Assad. While the Ukrainian resistance has been in large part due to the incredible resilience of those people and their military, as well as the resources that much of the world has given them, individual external forces have also made a difference. Here are many Chechens fighting Russia and its allies currently who were previously driven from their homes by pro-Kadyrovites and pro-Russian forces and supporters, as well as the Syrians, and are other foreign fighters fighting with or against Russia and its allies for similar feelings, including the neighboring Belarusians. The foreign fighters in Ukraine to a great extent represent a very tangible blowback to decades of violent intervention.
What is being witnessed in Ukraine is only the further expansion of violence that has been experienced for years already by so many peoples across this globe. Russia has backed and supported groups loyal to them for years, including neo-nazi laced mercenary groups, fascists, alleged-psuedo-Socialists and violent, despotic strongmen at each and every turn. What Russia now seems intent on doing regarding the strip of Eastern Ukrainian land (and which it likely intended for the whole country at the beginning of the invasion) is not dissimilar to those previous atrocities; President Vladimir Putin, his administration, and his Russian military and bands of mercenaries, are simply behaving that way on a stage with much greater spotlight than the previous targets of large-scale Russian involvement, and the results are similar. We are seeing a familiar barbarism on a scale that is like Chechnya, but 20 times larger.
Featured Image is After battle. BTR-80, lined with militants, by Svm-1977