Ghosts of Grozny

Article by Konstantinos Xipolitos

As the world reels from the horrendous level of violence employed by all sides in the Syrian Civil War, our author explores the Russian element in order to determine if the Kremlin's use of strategic brutality is indeed, a learned behaviour.

The Spectre of Chechnya in Syria & the Russian Approach to Insurgencies

Since the Russian military intervention in Syria in late September 2015 the civil war has gained a new dynamic. Government forces have made massive gains all over the country; in the east, they managed to capture the city of Palmyra from Daesh, in the north, Assad’s forces have managed to cut off the rebel forces' supply lines and at the same time envelop the rebel city of Aleppo. With the assistance of Iranian forces on the ground and Russian air assets, Assad’s forces have managed to neutralise enemy offensives; a rebel offensive around Aleppo this summer yielded few gains. The war has been characterised by its brutality and its lack of military ethos. Many people are drawing similarities between the conduct of the war in Syria and the Second Chechen War. This article will therefore analyse the reasoning behind this brutal approach and how it traces back to Russian political culture.

Political culture and historical past play a crucial role in regards to dealing with insurgencies. Firstly, since the time of Tsarist Russia, Russian governments have opted to view all forms of political opposition as illegitimate actors trying to gain power by destabilising the state. The theme that transcends Tsarist, Soviet and modern Russia and remains one of the crucial strategic interests for Russia, is that of the integrity of the state. Consequently, separatist movements pose a very serious risk to that integrity. In addition to the danger of separation, Russian governments need to deal with the threat of their decline and the prospect of regime change. The Russian state has always been connected with its leadership, political group or class as a special entity. Tsarist, Soviet and modern Russian governments have used the state as an extension of their own political self in an authoritarian way which is alien to Western culture and principles. The authoritarian character of their system and apparatus will always be threatened in the face of a new political rival. Their very existence is under attack when a new political actor emerges; that very actor could provide an alternative to their rule. It is therefore necessary for Russia to eliminate all kinds of political opposition, even moderate ones in order for the ruling government to ensure unity and autocracy. The same can be said about Syria, a country that has been under dictatorship for more than 40 years.

The second reason for Russia’s current approach is the views of its leadership. Its head of state as well as the major political and military leaders have all been educated and trained by Soviet standards. Many of them are veterans of state security organisations whose entire professional career has involved the silencing of the opposition and other subversive elements. Similarly, Syria has been ruled by the Assad family since 1971. Various family members have been part of state security institutions such as the military and the secret service.

The third reason is that Russia has no constitutional history in the way that Western democracies do; Russian people suffered under dictatorial rule for more than two centuries. In that time, under orders by the Tsarists, Soviets and Putin, the state’s security apparatus crippled every form of political organisation, federation, union, party and association. Any democratic society can develop due to key elements, public voluntary participation as well as tolerance. The Russian people and in this case, Chechens, have had no experience of democratic culture in their political life since they are unable to organise in a nonviolent manner. For them, political change was and has been inevitably linked with violence. In a similar fashion, the Syrian people opted for a violent solution when the government cracked down on protesters in March 2011.

This creates a problem for Russian policymakers that metastasises. Since emancipation and political dialogue cannot be a solution for Russian political culture in general, due to the mind-set of its leaders as well as the political reality, it is also not a solution when dealing with the various separatist movements, terrorist groups and the populations and sects that they represent. Therefore, in order to protect the fragile structure of the Russian state and its authoritarian nature the government has but one option. To conduct a ruthless military campaign against all enemies of the state. For Russia, their approach to insurgencies has been more of a necessity rather than a well thought out solution. In essence, the reason Russia chooses a military approach towards insurgencies is primarily because its leadership is unable to draw the distinction between extremist elements and moderate opposition.
When Chechnya declared independence in 1990 Russia was going through a problematic transition period. The political system was far from stable, the economy was trying to adjust and the Federal Armed Forces were but a shadow of their former Soviet self. The First Chechen War inflicted casualties to both sides but the Khasav-Yurt ceasefire gave Chechnya its de facto independence. In the years that followed Chechnya became a failed state within a declined state. Crime was rampant; slave markets appeared in Europe after centuries of extinction and general lawlessness was commonplace. Bad economic conditions lead many fighters to result to criminal activity such as kidnapping, in order to earn an income. The Chechen government was fighting with various Islamist militias over issues of legitimacy with many civilians killed in the crossfire. At the same time, Al Qaeda came in contact with local radical elements. The situation in Chechnya confirmed Russian fears that other regions in the country would claim independence and form secessionist movements in neighbouring regions such as Dagestan and Ingushetia. For the Russian government, authority over Chechnya had to be restored. The region had to become pacified and more importantly, Chechnya and its population had to be made example of, an example that would serve as a remainder to the rest of the Russian territories. Vladimir Putin’s speeches at the time refer to the pacification of the area, the liquidation of the terrorist groups and the restoration of Russian rule. This language is reminiscent of the Soviet era purges, where the Communist Party would ensure its rule amongst the country. It is clear that the Russian objectives were not nation building or emancipation but rather the return of Chechnya into the formal system of the Federation, with little regard for human rights or collateral damage.

Finally, Chechnya being part of their country, allows a legitimate area for the Russian armed forces to conduct operations in. Unlike the United States in 2003, the Second Chechen War did not constitute a breach of a states’ sovereignty since Chechnya was quasi-independent. Moreover, many countries around the world felt relieved when Russian took again control of Chechnya, since an fully independent incarnation would run the risk of becoming a terrorist safe heaven.

In 1998, in response to the declining situation in Chechnya, the Russian Duma approved the Federal Law “On Combating Terrorism” which would serve as the legal cornerstone of Russian efforts in countering terrorism. The law was a blueprint of the Russian strategy and placed the successor of the KGB, the Federal Security Service and the Ministry of the Interior as the main policy implementation instruments. The choice of the aforementioned government bodies illustrates that the doctrine was built on the premise of dealing with the violent manifestations of terrorism, such as the attacks, rather than any of the root causes. The Russian strategy was nothing more than a suppression campaign, conducted in true Soviet fashion in order to restore order in the country.

In August 1999, Islamist militia from Chechnya invaded border villages in the neighbouring Dagestan. The Russian response was slow but effectively countered the Chechens; the use of local allies as well their own regular forces repulsed the militia. The Russians also made extensive use of thermobaric weapons with devastating results, both with the militia as well as civilians in the area. At the same time, the Russian apartment bombing attacks took place. Russia responded with an air campaign in an attempt to neutralise Chechnya’s infrastructure. In the resulting bombing sorties more than 100,000 Chechens were forced to flee their homes. The Chechen electricity supply was crippled along with its telephone network.
In October 1999, the second phase of the Russian plan, a land invasion of Chechnya took place. The Russian army invaded and advanced towards the capital of Grozny. During the First Chechen War the Russians learned important lessons. Their army was now composed of professional soldiers rather than conscripts; their advance was slow and cautious and was supported by massive artillery and air support. The Russian Air Force used thermobaric weapons against Chechen units as well as civilians for the second time, with devastating results. After fierce resistance from the Chechen militia, the Russians finally managed to capture the capital of Grozny in December 1999. The siege of Grozny was followed by a lengthy engagement on the mountainous area in the South of Chechnya however, by May 2000, the Russians had established a stable government.

In order to deal with subversive activity in Chechnya, the Russians implemented a number of formal and informal policies. At the strategic level, they found a new ally in the face of Akhmad Kadyrov, a powerful warlord. By deputising him, they gained a local ally at the conflict. Allying with Kadyrov gave the Russians legitimacy and prepared the future political stage for him. At the same time, the use of his local forces added a valuable set of skills to the Russians, mainly as human intelligence assets. In order to effectively monitor the population the Russians created a number of filtration camps along their advance and later all over the country. The legal regime of those camps was rather questionable, gathering a lot of criticism from the international community. The filtration camps were used as detention and torture centres for any known terrorist elements and their families. To assist the duties of the Armed Forces, the Russians created task force teams composed of FSB and MVD units. Those teams would kidnap known terrorists, torture them and execute them without a trail in order to liquidate all opposition. In other cases, the Russians would burn or demolish houses and property of known terrorists and militias as well as their families. Other family members would be kidnapped and tortured in an attempt to lure the dissidents from their hiding places. The security services have also manipulated and blackmailed Chechens for different reasons, such as gaining information on the location of terrorist camps, weapons depots and other facilities as well unwillingly passing poisoned food to the terrorists and rebels. By using people in the close environment of the terrorists such as their families, the Russians have neutralised hundreds of subversive elements and rendered their cells inoperable.
By implementing a policy of polarisation, the same technique employed by the Assad government in Syria, the Russians tried to rob the opposition of popular support. The indiscriminate bombing of rebel controlled areas in both Chechnya and Syria aims at forcing civilians to evacuate the battle zone and isolate them from the opposition. The lack of popular support will in turn undermine the rebel movement which will lose momentum. In time, without foreign support, rebel forces will be forced to negotiate a bad peace or even capitulate to Assad’s forces. After government forces surrounded the rebels in Aleppo and broke their supply lines with Turkey the future of the opposition movements became more grim. The current Russian-Turkish rapprochement serves as a bad omen for the rebel forces.

The lack of oversight and freedom of action led the Russians to commit atrocities and indiscriminate violence of unprecedented levels. The hasty executions, kidnappings and torture of the local population marked generations of Chechens. Even though most the violence since the end of the Second Chechen War is sporadic, it is still commonplace. In 2006 the Russian Duma adopted the Federal Law “On Counteraction to Terrorism”. This is a new update to the existing framework. The new law authorised the use of military force both domestically and abroad in countering terrorism. Apart from military action, the new law calls for the suspension of several liberties and imposes a strong censorship on the media. The law makes no reference to preventive measures to terrorism and does not address the root causes of terrorism. That very law was invoked less than a decade later when President Putin answered Assad’s call for support.

One can easily observe the same results of those tactics in Syria. More than 4 million people have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict and more than 200.000 people have perished. The lack of data about deaths has also forced the UN to momentarily stop conducting research on the matter. Hostilities will not seize even after the end of the war, however that is not the ultimate goal of the Russian/Syrian strategy. Both governments will be satisfied with a small amount of manageable violence and an overall level of pacification. This approach aims to neutralise political opposition and not provide freedom in a Western sense. True political emancipation is not probable, instead, the author will argue that a temporary pacification will take place, in the same manner as Chechnya. The continued success of Assad’s forces will probably have the same outcome as the Second Chechnyan War. A deeply wounded state with generations of people becoming slaves of history.