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Putin's Long-Ended War Enters Its 10th Year

Despite a massive security presence, violence in Chechnya continues.
Despite a massive security presence, violence in Chechnya continues.
Perhaps hoping to emulate the devil's imputed success in convincing much of humanity that he does not exist, Russian propagandists have taken great pains over the past several years to persuade the world that the war in Chechnya is over, and the region is on the fast track to stability and prosperity. No effort has been spared in ensuring that the Russian spin on the situation is heard loud and clear and remains unchallenged.

Even with official accreditation, no foreign journalist is allowed to travel within Chechnya unchaperoned. Vast swathes of the republic still remain off-limits to outside observers. Human rights organizations are routinely harassed. Foreign NGOs and aid agencies are being squeezed out one by one. The Russian media in general, and television in particular, rarely question the official line, all too aware of the perils of crossing the Kremlin. Few seem to remember these days that freedom of speech is enshrined in the Russian Constitution. Indeed, it is almost inappropriate nowadays to subject the issue of Russian laws and their application to a critical analysis.

Throughout the Putin era, from late 1999 onwards, Chechnya has been the most sensitive political issue in Russia. And it is not hard to understand why, given that Vladimir Putin's ascent to power was a direct result of his decision to go to war to crush the Chechens' independence aspirations. The approach that Putin adopted was truly counterintuitive, however. Not only has the resistance not been defeated, it has spread across virtually the entire North Caucasus, even to regions where anti-Russian sentiment never existed in the past.

The rise of Putinism, which can roughly be described as a somewhat modernized and sanitized version of the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, is linked with the effort to bring Chechnya back into the fold. Indeed, given the negative fallout from the war and dubious security benefits the country reaped from it, it is difficult not to suspect that the military campaign had quite different motives. As the conflict progressed, the Putin regime, dominated by former security service officers with a mentality to match, quietly erased most of the freedoms won since the demise of the USSR.

It is rarely mentioned but important to remember that the war Putin unleashed on Chechnya -- which had already been devastated by his predecessor in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin -- was marked by the worst mass killings of Russia's population since World War II, not that the fact seems to trouble his conscience in the least.

A State Within A State

Nine years and thousands of destroyed lives later, Chechnya remains a bleak and desolate place, its cemeteries filled with fresh graves, evidence of the war still visible amid the Potemkin villages hastily erected by the local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, to impress the occasional visitor. Kadyrov, Putin's cherished protege and the chief purveyor of violence and corruption, runs Chechnya in despotic style and with little regard for the laws of the country.

Since he came to power after the assassination of his father in 2004, Kadyrov has managed to create something of a state within a state, a phenomenon that, not long ago, was inconceivable and to which Moscow prefers to turn a blind eye. Kadyrov’s small Orwellian fiefdom imposes its own rigid codes of behavior, forcing women to wear head scarves, for instance. It has its own army, a powerful militia known as the Kadyrovtsy, and a propaganda apparatus which tirelessly fuels his personality cult and viciously attacks anyone critical of it. Kadyrov even levies his own private taxes. The fund named after his father and nominally headed by his mother regularly shakes down businesses and extorts money from government-sector employees.

Never shy to lavish praise on Putin, Kadyrov nonetheless appears aware of the need to secure his position against possible contenders for power. After all, "if they make ya, they can break ya," as the saying goes. The Chechen leader's power base stems largely from the thousands of Kadyrovtsy who provide some semblance of security and hunt down the insurgents for the Kremlin. Kadyrov makes sure that this paramilitary force, recently integrated into the regular Interior Ministry units, remains loyal to him personally.

And that poses a dilemma for Russia's leadership: should the need arise, it would be almost impossible to remove Kadyrov from his position without plunging Chechnya into a new, potentially destructive, conflict. Amazingly, Kadyrov and his henchmen have succeeded in lacing tight the ropes binding Putin to his regime, effectively making the Kremlin Gulliver a hostage to his misguided policies in Chechnya.

Violence Spreads

In the meantime, and contrary to Russian claims, fighting across the region continues. Since the beginning of October, there have been at least 13 attacks on the Russian forces and their local allies in Chechnya -- and that is only according to official figures, which are widely known to understate the problem. Eighteen servicemen have been killed, and another 14 wounded. True, that is a far cry from the mass battles of the early stages of the war. But Chechnya is no longer the only focus of the resistance in the North Caucasus. These days the insurgents are employing different, more effective, tactics. The main objective now is to spread the conflict geographically, to reduce the effectiveness of the Russian security forces by decentralization of their potential targets. Chechens are no longer the only identifiable enemy of the Russian Army.

In fact, since the beginning of October, militants in Ingushetia, which is much smaller than Chechnya, have launched at least 29 attacks on the Russian Army and local police, killing 15 people and seriously wounding 16. In a belated acknowledgement that such violence cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on October 30 sacked Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov (like Putin, a former career official in the Federal Security Service) and named as his temporary replacement army Colonel Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, whose sole claim to fame is as commander of the Russian paratroopers who occupied the Pristina airport in Kosovo in 1999.

Nine attacks were reported in Daghestan in which seven people were killed, and two in Kabardino-Balkaria, where a police lieutenant was shot dead. Even in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, a relatively quiet part of the North Caucasus, there was a gunfight on October 2 between a group of local militants and security forces.

Regardless of how you define war, one thing is certain: by no stretch of the English (or Russian) language can this be called peace.

Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL