With Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine seemingly moving slower than expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin may turn to the indiscriminate tactics of the wars in Chechnya that turned Chechen cities to rubble in the 1990s and early 2000s, a noted Russian human rights activist says.
Memorial International Director Aleksandr Cherkasov told Current Time on March 4 that Russian forces in Ukraine increasingly turn to the use of artillery and missile strikes while targeting residential areas.
“If we talk about [parallels], then Putin started the same way [in Chechnya] as he has [in Ukraine and] continues as we move to a new stage [of the conflict],” Cherkasov said. “It [also] began with a war that was originally called a ‘counterterrorist operation’ and was not described as an armed conflict.”
The First Chechen War was in 1994-96 and the Second Chechen War began in 1999, with Moscow sending in forces to put down armed and political movements in Chechnya aimed at seceding from Russia. The Kremlin used infantry, planes, tanks, and artillery while carpet-bombing the capital, Grozny, and other parts of Chechnya with seemingly little regard for civilian casualties -- killing tens of thousands.
During both wars, Memorial was involved in helping victims and refugees from the conflict and was part of negotiations during hostage situations and prisoner exchanges. It also sought to protect the rights of Russian soldiers and their relatives.
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Cherkasov said he fears the Kremlin is repeating parts of the North Caucasus playbook in Ukraine, especially as Russian forces face stronger than expected resistance from Ukrainian forces.
As with Chechnya, the Russian government has also turned to censorship and intimidation at home to head off popular discontent and better sell its version of the war to the public.
Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, authorities have introduced new censorship in the country, banning many leading news organizations and blocking social media websites. New legislation threatens up to 15 years in prison for the dissemination of materials that refute the official statements related to the Russian military.
Similar to Ukraine, military casualties were also initially denied and minimized during the Chechen campaigns, with the Kremlin framing the conflict as a military struggle with “terrorists” like it now does in Ukraine against “fascists,” Cherkasov said.
“The fact that the authorities do not refer to the reality of what is happening in their words -- that the authorities are trying to act outside the legal field -- this did not begin yesterday,” Cherkasov said. “But this is where the current government began and there was probably no more truth then than there is now.”
After being a surprise pick for prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin in 1999, one of Putin's first major acts was to oversee a wholesale offensive against the rebels in Chechnya.
Although Putin denied a ground invasion was being prepared, tens of thousands of Russian troops were ordered into the breakaway Muslim-majority region along with an aerial and artillery bombardment that leveled Grozny.
“[State media] also said then that the military was doing pinpoint strikes, but what kind of pinpoint strikes did we see?” Cherkasov said. “[There were] attacks on the center of Grozny, rocket attacks on markets, the post office, and [even] maternity hospitals.”
Grozny, which was already badly damaged during the First Chechen War, was described by the UN at the time as the most destroyed city in the world following the second conflict that started in 1999.
“Putin behaved like a political kamikaze, throwing his entire political capital into the war, burning it to the ground,” Yeltsin later wrote in his memoirs.
Fighting in Ukraine has escalated as Russian forces have begun to rely more heavily on artillery and rocket attacks and increasingly target residential areas in besieged cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and others.
The war in Ukraine has already seen more than 2,000 civilian casualties since Russia invaded on February 24.
“It's terrible for me to think that this is happening again,” Cherkasov said.