Very few non-specialist Americans or Europeans could tell you offhand why the name of Grozny is so potent in understanding the modern world, and specifically the Ukraine conflict. Here is a crude attempt to explain why that name matters so very much, why it is so often mentioned in Kyiv today, and why every Western policymaker needs to know it.
The story begins with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the fragmentation of many territories in the North Caucasus. Out of this came the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, a mainly Islamic land that declared independence from the Russian Federation. The Chechen capital was Grozny, which in 1990 had a population of around 400,000. In 1994, Boris Yeltsin began a war to reconquer Chechnya, which resulted in horrendous Russian losses, and rock-bottom morale. The Russians won some important victories, including the very bloody 1996 First Battle of Grozny, which inflicted disastrous damage on the city. Even so, Yeltsin was forced to agree to a ceasefire. In 1997, the Chechen Republic declared itself an Islamic Republic, as Islamists increasingly penetrated other Russian regions such as Dagestan, calling for jihad.
Even so, there was no way a totally disillusioned and war-weary Russian people was going to go back to war under any circumstances whatever – or at least, unless and until Chechens carried out a hideous terrorist attack on Russian soil. That allegedly and reputedly happened in September 1999, when huge bombs blew up apartment buildings in the cities of Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk, killing three hundred plus. Appalled, even moderate, Western-oriented, and liberal Russians were galvanized to face a new war, at whatever cost. Think of it as Russia’s equivalent to 9/11, an event that occurred two years afterward. To pursue that analogy, just remember how in 2001 those 9/11 attacks (briefly) united Americans in military determination, and a quest for revenge.
To make a long story short, there may still be people who actually believe these Russian apartment bombings were not the work of the Russian security service, the FSB, recently headed by Vladimir Putin, but those folks also believe in the Easter Bunny. This is not to say that the Chechen guerrillas were anything other than savage terrorists, but they were not involved in this particular atrocity:
An independent public commission to investigate the bombings was chaired by Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev. The commission was rendered ineffective because of government refusal to respond to its inquiries. Two key members of the Kovalev Commission, Sergei Yushenkov and Yuri Shchekochikhin, have since died in apparent assassinations. The Commission’s lawyer and investigator Mikhail Trepashkin was arrested and served four years in prison for revealing state secrets.
And then there was the Litvinenko affair:
Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who defected and blamed the FSB for the bombings, was poisoned and killed in London in 2006 [using radiation poisoning]. A British inquiry later determined that Litvinenko’s murder was “probably” carried out with the approval of Putin and Patrushev.
Subsequent events have made the Putin connection to Litvinenko certain rather than probable. Beyond any reasonable doubt, the apartment bombings were a provocation and deception, a piece of maskirovka directed by Putin, and the ploy succeeded totally:
Yeltsin’s main opponents and would-be successors were already campaigning to replace the ailing president, and they fought hard to prevent Putin’s emergence as a potential successor. Following the Russian apartment bombings and the invasion of Dagestan by mujahideens [sic], including the former KGB agents, based in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Putin’s law-and-order image and unrelenting approach to the Second Chechen War soon combined to raise his popularity and allowed him to overtake his rivals.
Russia now began that Second Chechen War, which culminated with a long and brutal siege and bombardment of Grozny. This Second Battle defies belief for its viciousness, and the ruthless cynicism of the Russians. This precedent is precisely what is in the mind of every Ukrainian today as they look at the prospects for Kyiv and Kharkiv. Note the targeting of civilian buildings, the cat and mouse playing with evacuation routes, and the simple savagery of the attackers, who created a nightmarish example for decades to come. Wikipedia offers a convenient summary:
During the massive shelling of the city that followed, most of the Russian artillery were directed toward the upper floors of the buildings; although this caused massive destruction of infrastructure, civilian casualties were much less than in the first battles.
The final seizure of the city was set in early February 2000, when the Russian military lured the besieged militants to a promised safe passage. Seeing no build-up of forces outside, the militants agreed. One day prior to the planned evacuation, the Russian Army mined the path between the city and the village of Alkhan-Kala and concentrated most firepower on that point. As a result, both the city mayor and military commander were killed; a number of other prominent separatist leaders were also killed or wounded, including Shamil Basayev and several hundred rank-and-file militants. Afterwards, the Russians slowly entered the empty city and on February 6 raised the Russian flag in the center. Many buildings and even whole areas of the city were systematically dynamited. …..
In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.
Can I repeat that?
In 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.
Perhaps eighty thousand perished in the whole Second Chechen War of 1999-2000, overwhelmingly civilians. At a minimum, some eight thousand civilians were killed in Grozny alone, plus a thousand guerrillas, but actual numbers were surely far higher. Grozny even today has a population far below its peak in the early 1990s.
The historic victory gave Putin his claim to power, which he exploited magnificently. His subsequent political career is built on the ruins of Grozny.
That is the nightmare facing Kyiv and Kharkiv. That is why they don’t trust the Russians for a second when they talk about truces, safe passage, and escape routes. Every word uttered by the Russian state and its armed forces should be assumed to be a lie, until proven otherwise.
I do have one intriguing question, for anyone who is of the appropriate age to remember any of this story, however vaguely – say, anyone over 35 or so. Do you remember any news coverage of this at the time? Do you remember nightly horror stories of the martyrdom of Grozny? Of the Russian betrayals and war crimes, dirty tricks and massacres? I may be in a minority here, but I honestly don’t recall much of this being in the US media at the time: please correct me if I am wrong. I think what happened was that at the time, most Westerners had an impression that this was somewhere off in a generalized Middle East, and that is the sort of thing you had to do if you were fighting in that area (always supposing that most people could find Chechnya even loosely on a map). If you assumed the targets were the Chechen guerrillas, who had attacked the Russian apartments, then they got exactly what they deserved, and civilian victims faded into invisibility. Is that an unfair comment?
By the way, do recall those Russian Apartment bombings. It is highly likely that in coming months, an increasingly cornered Putin will seek to use false flag terrorism once more, whether to galvanize his Russian people, or else to divide Western coalitions. If and when such things occur, we need to be very careful indeed about attributing responsibility.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.