11 October 2016

Kremlin war crimes: From Chechnya to Syria

Russia’s Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet governments have all engaged in war crimes and terrorism against both domestic and international opponents. State leaders consider the mass murder of unarmed civilians and even genocide as an effective means to eradicate their adversaries and expand Russia’s imperial reach.

Within the Soviet Union entire nations were exiled or slaughtered to serve the interests of the ruling party. Since the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin has engaged in systematic war crimes and mass terror in Chechnya, Ukraine, and now Syria. Human lives are secondary for Moscow in campaigns to consolidate its control and preserve its allies and proxies in power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria over their bombardment of civilians and aid workers in Syria's largest city of Aleppo. Both Russia and Syria are signatories to the Geneva Conventions, which establish protections for civilians and soldiers during war. Nonetheless, Moscow consistently violates international treaties and its scorched-earth offensives have killed hundreds if not thousands of unarmed people.

Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the UN, declared that "what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism — it is barbarism.” Instead of feigning surprise, U.S. representatives should vigorously assert that Moscow’s intervention in Syria is the continuation of Russian state terrorism, defined as the indiscriminate targeting of civilians to achieve specific political objectives. Unfortunately, Washington has thus far encouraged Moscow by turning a blind eye to its terrorist tactics since the attack on Chechnya in the 1990s.

In Chechnya itself, an estimated 150,000 residents or 15% of the population perished in the two wars waged by Moscow to stifle any moves toward independence. The vast majority were non-combatant civilians bombed into oblivion by Russian planes and artillery. This surpassed the massacre of Bosnian Muslim civilians in the war unleashed by Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, where an estimated 100,000 perished, or under 6% of the population.

Both Presidents Yeltsin and Putin engaged in indiscriminate bombing against civilian targets. Yeltsin asserted that he would use all means to reverse Chechnya’s independence and launched the first war in December 1994. Russian forces captured the capital Grozny following an intensive bombing campaign in which approximately 25,000 civilians were murdered. Although vastly outnumbered, Chechen forces still managed to defeat the Russian military and retook Grozny during August 1996. On a level playing field, Russian soldiers are no match for Chechen fighters.

In October 1999, the newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin violated all legal principles and treaty obligations with Grozny by launching the Second Chechen War. Following the systematic destruction of Grozny, Russian forces captured the capital in February 2000 and terminated Chechen independence, driving the government into exile. Putin installed the Kadyrov clan as his loyal puppets and  provided it with unlimited funds to prevent renewed secession and empowered it to terrorize the population. The Kremlin’s counter-insurgency strategy throughout the North Caucasus remains heavily reliant on mass repression with little attempt to distinguish civilians from combatants.

Much of the Chechen resistance turned from nationalism to jihadism and employed terrorism against Russian officials and civilians in revenge for the slaughter of their kindred. Insurgent terrorism in turn proved useful for Putin’s international diplomatic offensive, allowing him to pose as a global champion of anti-terrorism, an image that still fools gullible Western officials. In reality, during the past twenty years Russia’s state terrorism has claimed more civilian victims than all jihadist terrorist networks combined, while Moscow itself has created the conditions for non-state terrorism to thrive.

In Ukraine, Russia’s war crimes have been camouflaged behind a proxy insurgency, as Moscow has sought to avoid direct responsibility for the slaughters. Russian forces have only rarely bombed targets, seeking to demonstrate that they are not involved in the conflict. Instead, the Kremlin uses paid mercenaries to slaughter civilians in order to seize their land and property.

Kyiv defines the imported insurgency as a terrorist attack on its territory. Indeed, if an armed militia sponsored by a foreign power had seized towns in the United States and bombarded civilian targets this would also be described as an anti-terrorist war. Attacks on civilians are a daily routine in Ukraine’s Donbas, with clear evidence of Russian involvement in financing, arming, and coordinating terrorist groups. There are approximately 38,000 illegal military forces in the region and the death toll has surpassed 10,000 people, with hundreds of thousands having fled the conflict zones.

In July 2014, Moscow was guilty of another terrorist outrage. A Dutch-led investigation team recently concluded that it had “irrefutable” evidence that a Russian-built missile shot down a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. Pro-Moscow mercenaries controlled the launch area and ultimate responsibility rests with the Kremlin.

While the catalog of Russia’s war crimes and terrorist attacks continues to grow, the UN Security Council remains paralyzed in establishing an international tribunal because of Moscow’s veto. Without legal accountability through an international court and until Putin is placed alongside infamous figures such as Slobodan Milošević on the list of war criminals, no one should be surprised if the Kremlin continues to act with impunity because it possesses a guarantee of immunity.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/TASS