The wars in Chechnya and Ukraine – similarities and differences

The attack on Ukraine is not an isolated act of insanity on the part of Vladimir Putin, who is clinging on to power. It is a continuation of his policy of grabbing pieces of land that used to belong to the Russian, and later Soviet Empire. In 2005, Putin called the fall of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, and three years later he attacked Georgia. He then turned his attention to Ukraine, which was confidently, although not without problems, moving towards Europe. But the story began in a completely different place, namely in Chechnya.

Over the past few days, the internet has been full of post receiving hundreds of likes with approximately the following message: “The whole world is shocked by Russia’s actions. Everyone, besides Chechens.” In the time that has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this small separatist region in the North Caucasus has lived through two full-scale wars with the federal forces of Russia. The first was in 1994-95, a war that Chechnya won. The second, which was in its active phase from October 1999, and passed through several stages from large-scale military confrontation to a guerilla phase that was met with unspeakable brutality by the Russian government, lasted until the end of 2014, and Chechnya lost. There are significant similarities as well as significant differences, between the two Russian-Chechen wars and what is now happening in Ukraine.

The second Russian-Chechen war is the more appropriate for comparison. Firstly, it was connected to a wish to improve the ratings of a rather unknown KGB lieutenant colonel by the name of Vladimir Putin. Secondly, public opinion was affected by mysterious apartment bombings in different Russian cities. Hundreds were killed in the bombings and Kremlin blamed the Chechens, although what little evidence there is points in the other direction, towards the Russian security services. The consequence was that Russian opinion turned against Chechens, and in favor of the war. Similar propaganda techniques are used now against Ukraine, with at least partial success.

Let’s first look at the similarities, which are not many, but which nonetheless do exist:

1. Russian authorities did not recognize events in Chechnya as an armed conflict or a war. The euphemism “contra-terror operation” was used, and Chechen forces were unanimously branded as terrorists, and hence not subject to normal laws and norms of warfare. The same is happening with Ukraine now: There’s no war, there is only a “special operation for de-Nazification”. In other words, the Kremlin automatically brands Ukrainians fighting against Russian aggression as Nazis.

2. In 1999 Russia suddenly declared that the democratic elections in Chechnya in 1997, which they earlier had recognized, were illegitimate. This is similar to the situation in Ukraine. After Viktor Yanukovich fled the country during the Maidan revolution, he was formally removed from power by a decision in the Verkhovna Rada on 22 February 2014. A second President was elected on a democratic and competitive basis. Yet, to Putin the “legally elected leader” is still Yanukovich. The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces almost on the same date was probably no coincidence.

3. The establishment of a fake opposition and providing it with money and weapons. As the Chechen territory was seized, power was nominally transferred to people dependent on Moscow. It is clear that Ukraine is destined for the same fate. Names like Viktor Medvedchuk and Viktor Yanukovich are mentioned as people who would be placed in Kyiv, should Russian troops manage to take it;

4. Using negotiations to divert attention from the build-up of additional forces so as to continue the war on more favorable terms. The disruption or postponement of negotiations had a strong psychological impact on the civilian population of Chechnya, depriving them of hope of an early end to the bloodshed. The talks, one round of which was recently held between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations, and the second expected these days, seem to be pursuing the same goals.

In all other aspects, these two conflicts are very different.

Ukraine is a country of several million inhabitants with recognized borders and full membership in the United Nations. Although Chechnya declared its independence earlier than other Soviet republics and even before the official collapse of the USSR in 1991, not a single state in the world recognized it. It covers an area of ​​about 100 km. from West to East and 140 from North to South. By the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war, its population was not even a million people.

The Chechens did not have a conscript army. The backbone of its armed forces were self-organized groups that had formed during the first war, detachments of militias. That is, it is something similar to the Ukrainian territorial defense. They also did not have a centralized supply of weapons and food. In the interwar period 1997-1999, the authorities of the independent Chechen Republic tried to create a national guard, but without much success. The reason was economic blockade by Russia and, accordingly, a lack of necessary financial resources.

Ukraine is armed with a significant number of tanks, artillery, air defense systems and aviation. The Chechens, except for small arms and grenade launchers, had almost no heavy weapons. Nevertheless, Russian troops spent two and a half months marching towards the capital, from four different sides, and avoided fighting with a lightly armed enemy.

The tactics of the Russian troops at the initial stage consisted in delivering fire strikes on residential areas of cities and villages of Chechnya in order to intimidate the population and deprive them of any desire to resist. In the first three or four days of the war in Ukraine, Russian troops mainly shelled military facilities. Perhaps also because Ukrainians and Russians are connected by similar languages and a joint centuries-old history. In Russia itself, Ukrainians are the second largest national group, and many Russians have family ties with Ukrainians. Chechens, on the other hand, are a people with a different language and a different religion. The Russian forces from the start killed civilians in great numbers. This may very well happen in Ukraine as well.

The two Russian-Chechen wars were fought under conditions in which not a single state in the world unequivocally and truly seriously spoke out against it. There were no sanctions. Condemning statements and resolutions were adopted in international organizations, but Moscow’s right to use force against the separatists were not disputed. The international community merely demanded that human rights, ephemeral in the conditions of an undeclared war, be respected. The soft criticism did little to ease the reign of terror Russia imposed: brutal cleansing operations in villages, filtration camps, torture, enforced disappearance of around 6000 people and extrajudicial executions. Putin’s local enforcer, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his guardsmen have reigned over the Chechens for years, but the human rights situation has not improved.

While towns, villages and lives were destroyed in Chechnya, the US president George W. Bush declared that he had had a “glimpse of Putin’s sould” and the EUs commisioner said that EU and Russia were as close as “vodka and caviar”. the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for Reconstruction and Development regularly made multi-billion-dollar transfers to Russia. Loans were also provided by individual countries. Russia remained a member of the Council of Europe andwas also allowed to participate in the G7 and join the World Trade Organization.

If in 1999 the international community had spoken out against the war in Chechnya, it could possibly have been ended. Wilful blindness on behalf of the West have reinforced the climate of impunity that has driven Russia’s conflicts and lead us where we are today. There might not have been a large war in Europe today if there had been a forceful reaction in 1999, perhaps not even sanctions would have been necessary at the time, as Russia still as a poor country back then.

The great difference between the wars is the strong western response to the current Russian invasion in Ukraine. But both wars are parts of the same chain with which Kremlin has sought to enslave its neighbours.


Read about the crimes committed during the second Russian-Chechen armed conflict in the publications of the Memorial Human Rights Center, now banned in the Russian Federation.

Separate incidents describing war crimes are also published on the website of the Natalia Estemirova Documentation Center.

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Aage Borchgrevink

Head of The Documentation CenterEmail: [email protected]Phone: +47 90 75 11 50 Twitter: @aageB
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