Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine, rehearsed in Chechnya | conflict news

Kyiv, Ukraine – As Maryam watched online video taken in Ukraine of a Russian attack, the memories flooded back.

She heard the howl of a diving Russian plane, took the headphones out of her ears, looked up at the sky above her, and fell to the ground in shock.

“I haven’t heard this sound since the war,” Maryam, a Chechen refugee based in a western country, told Al Jazeera by phone.

He withheld his last name and other personal information because he still has family in Chechnya.

It wasn’t just the sound.

The way in which Russian missiles, bombs and artillery appeared to be deliberately targeting residential areas and the allegations and evidence that Russian soldiers tortured and killed civilians in the occupied territories reminded Maryam of what she and many Chechens went through .

Human rights groups and analysts have said the brutality and alleged war crimes in Ukraine, a nation of more than 40 million, began in Chechnya, a mountainous province the size of Qatar with a current population of 1.5 million.

“In this war, many observers see echoes of previous atrocities under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Ivar Dale, senior policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera.

“Especially for the Chechens, the indiscriminate shelling of civilian infrastructure is reminiscent of attacks on [Chechnya’s administrative capital of] Grozny in 1999,” he said.

The Kremlin’s military strategies and tactics used in Ukraine have been tested in Chechnya, military analysts have said.

“Possibly the most important thing is that [in Chechnya] the Russian army and law enforcement really got used to fighting and killing,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at the German University of Bremen, told Al Jazeera.

Even the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war, let alone previous military conflicts involving communist Moscow, were not massive enough for such practices to take root, he said.

For decades, the Soviet military mostly had theoretical knowledge of warfare and imitated it during drills.

“And here – direct experience in which all or almost all units of the ground and air force were involved” in both Chechen wars, Mitrokhin said.

Dark Age

Maryam was a teenager when the first Chechen war began in 1994.

It killed tens of thousands of civilians and ended Chechnya’s de facto independence from Moscow in 1996.

In 1999, the newly appointed Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, launched the second invasion of Chechnya, or as he called it, an “anti-terrorist operation.”

For many Chechens, these years were a throwback to the Middle Ages.

Maryam’s family lived in a basement with no electricity or running water, and she had to dig endless buckets from the well and chop wood for heat and cooking.

“I don’t even remember my first love,” she said. “War, war, everywhere [was] the war, the war that became part of daily life, the main thing in your life.”

The new invasion pitted the Chechens against each other, caused tens of thousands of deaths and “returned” the North Caucasus province to Moscow’s control.

Moscow convinced the Muslim scholar Akhmad Kadyrov to switch sides and become the leader of Chechnya.

After his assassination in 2004, he installed his son Ramzan, a bull-necked boxing enthusiast, as head of the Chechen Republic.

Ramzan Kadyrov.
Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov [File: Chingis Kondarov/Reuters]

In Ukraine, the Kremlin also wanted to install a more pro-Moscow leader as president.

As its plans to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy failed, Moscow appointed Russian-friendly Ukrainians to govern the occupied areas.

But they were shunned by the general population, while some were killed by Ukrainian intelligence and rebel fighters.

“An attempt to find a ‘Ukrainian Kadyrov’ failed,” Sergey Bizyukin, a fugitive Russian opposition activist, told Al Jazeera.

“And that was critically important. Essentially, [first Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and Putin lost the war in Chechnya, but won the ‘special operation’ after finding a vassal,” he said.

Brainwashing both sides

Maryam fled the government of Ramzan Kadyrov, whose henchmen still kidnap, torture and kill critics, suspected “radicals” and their families, according to survivors, witnesses and human rights groups.

The sound of the Russian plane in the video brought back her pent-up horrors.

“It was so horrible that I couldn’t control myself for about 20 minutes. The flashback was very strong,” she said.

And she was angry with average Russians, analysts and journalists who say they can’t imagine that the Russian military in Ukraine is capable of committing atrocities.

And a million people [in Chechnya] who have been through this hell sit and listen to Russians pulling their hair and saying, ‘Oh God, how did we let this happen?’” he said.

The second Chechen war also restarted the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.

“Russian control comes with a lot of militant propaganda,” a Russian human rights defender who documented war crimes in Chechnya on condition of anonymity told Al Jazeera.

In 2013, Valery Gerasimov, who is now leading the Russian invasion of Ukraine, published his views on the “hybrid wars” doctrine, arguing that modern conflicts need ideological elements to attack civilian populations on both sides.

For years, propaganda demonizing “radicals” and glorifying Russia’s “peacemaking” corroded hearts and minds, even among Chechens with firsthand experience of wars.

“What I know from my Chechen friends is that they are shocked by the number of people around [them] they really believe in this propaganda after all they have been through,” said the defender.

Russia began to replicate the pattern in Ukraine just after it annexed Crimea in 2014 when the Kremlin started vilifying local Muslims.

“They will turn us into a second Chechnya,” a Crimean Tatar Muslim said in March 2014.

Within weeks, he had to flee to mainland Ukraine when Moscow-based authorities began arresting and imprisoning Muslims around him, branding them “radicals” and “terrorists.”

death from above

In Chechnya, Moscow also “pioneered” the use of ballistic missiles in civilian areas.

On October 21, 1999, they attacked an open-air market, a maternity hospital, and a mosque in Grozny, killing 118 and wounding more than 400.

For many more weeks Grozny was shelled with artillery, now internationally banned cluster bombs and cruise missiles that killed thousands and razed the city to the ground.

Small groups of infantry then moved in and shot anyone in sight, according to survivors and media reports.

Chechens carry an elderly woman in a cart away from the fighting in central Grozny on January 8, 1995.
Tens of thousands of people died during the Chechen wars [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP]

Colonel Alexander Dvornikov led a motorized rifle division there, and 22 years later, from April to June, he served as commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Ukraine.

Many more battle-tested officers in Chechnya are now among Russia’s top brass.

Even some Chechen rebels who had joined Kadyrov are now fighting in the Ukraine, albeit with mixed results.


Grozny fell on February 6, 2000, boosting Putin’s approval ratings and paving the way for his election as president a month later.

And as Russia was establishing control over Chechnya in the early 2000s, federal forces began mass murdering civilians.

On February 5, 2000, riot police in Putin’s hometown of Saint Petersburg executed 56 civilians in the town of Novye Aldy.

“They just went in and shot whoever they wanted to,” the defender said.

Russian forces systematically “cleansed” residential areas to detain, torture or kill disloyal locals and terrorize survivors.

Those “cleansings” still fill Maryam with dread.

“The war itself was not as horrible as the cleanups,” he recalled.

For years, human rights groups documented the “cleansing” and its aftermath, and now they can compare it to what happened in Ukraine.

“Russia’s attack on Ukraine finally puts these horrors in context, and when the war finally ends, historians will surely see patterns that stretch across all of Putin’s wars, as well as other human rights disasters under his leadership.” said Dale of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

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