Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo

Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo

A city blasted into rubble, its civilians fleeing, hiding, or simply dying in the ruins while a world looks on in horror. Bombs spilling from Russian warplanes and shells and rockets thundering from Russian guns and launchers. Today this is a portrait of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Not long ago, it was Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechen War, which lasted from 1999 to 2000 (even if sporadic small-scale violence never really stopped). These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

After all, from the Russians’ perspective, what the Second Chechen War demonstrated was the strategic value of brutality, when applied in sufficient quantities.

“All war is terrible; sometimes the art is to be the most terrible,” one Russian officer said to me with a shrug last year, talking about the Second Chechen War’s battle for Grozny, which left thousands of people dead, tens of thousands homeless, and the city described by the United Nations as the most ruined one on the planet. The officer’s original quote also included a cleverly macabre pun, as Grozny means “terrible” in Russian.

Like Aleppo, Grozny was battered not just by conventional artillery and air power but also the TOS-1 “Buratino,” able to fire salvos of 24 rockets armed with thermobaric munitions, whose devastating blasts are second only to nuclear weapons in their capacity to level city blocks and blast houses to rubble.

Russian warfare can also be subtle and even restrained, as witnessed in the near-bloodless capture of Crimea in 2014. However, when the aim is not just to take territory but to convince insurgents, whose morale is one of their key assets, that resistance is both futile and lethal, the playbook is very different. Of course Putin is not wholly in charge of the war, and Bashar al-Assad and even Iran also play a significant role, but on this they appear of one mind: peace on Damascus’s terms depends on a striking victory and the demonstration of irresistible firepower. And Aleppo is the unlucky example.

At present, Moscow and Damascus face the anger and dismay of the international community. There is talk of further sanctions, and the U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting in September where Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said, “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counterterrorism — it is barbarism.” Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has suggested that there are grounds to suspect war crimes are being committed.

All water off the bear’s back. The Kremlin, rather than being chagrined, has turned to its usual playbook for managing accidents, abuses, and atrocities, a process honed in Chechnya.

It flatly denies even claims that are backed by evidence. In Chechnya, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the time that the rebels were opening up a “second front” in the media and that the pictures of homes and hospitals bombed were simply disinformation intended to “cast a shadow on the actions of the federal authorities, to try to complicate Russia’s relations with partners in the world.”

At the recent U.N. session, Russia’s veteran U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, echoed such rhetoric, dismissing the voluminous documentation of air and artillery strikes as an “attempt to launch a media campaign aimed at discrediting the government’s measures to push terrorists out with the use of fake and old video recordings.”

What cannot be denied is minimized, normalized by claiming that everyone does the same, or else deflected with furious counterclaim. In Chechnya, where admittedly the rebel regime had become increasingly dominated by Islamists, the war was presented simply as part of a global struggle against the Taliban and al Qaeda, with a Russian defense minister calling Afghanistan and Chechnya “two branches of one tree.” Any attempt to question Russian methods was spun as trying to shield terrorists.

Likewise, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has claimed that U.S. accusations regarding Aleppo are a ploy to distract attention from their recent attack on Syrian troops near Deir Ezzor and, for good measure, that “the White House is defending [the Islamic State].” Never acknowledge, always counterattack.

The point is that Moscow believes such gambits are successful because the West is at once cynical and easily distracted.

Time and again, talking to Russians in or close to political circles, I have been struck by a genuine belief that in the West, realpolitik is all. Talk of core values and human rights is dismissed as self-justificatory rhetoric, highfalutin rationalization, or outright hypocrisy. The irony is that just as Russian policy increasingly takes an ideological turn, the more willing so many within its leadership are to assume that the West believes in nothing.

So there is an assumption that if push comes to shove, the West will swallow any brutality on Russia’s part if it leads to a desirable end, like the destruction of Islamic State, with a theatrical wringing of hands and a knowing wink.

In Chechnya, after all, although there was no lack of loud dismay at Russia’s brutal military assault and the vicious counterinsurgency campaign that followed, Western governments did nothing to back words with deeds. In some quarters, Moscow’s claim that this was just a local theater in the “global war on terror” was accepted. In others, there was simply no appetite to challenge the newly elected President Putin when the hope was that he could be a more viable and reliable partner than his ailing and alcoholic predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

Whatever the reason, the lesson internalized in Moscow was that Western commitments to human rights could be ignored with safety.

Besides, there is also a belief that the West has trouble sustaining its indignation. Chechnya was a cause célèbre for some at the height of the war but was soon forgotten. The 2008 invasion of Georgia was followed less than a year later by the ill-starred U.S. offer of a “reset” of relations.

Admittedly, Moscow’s easy assumptions in short Western attention spans have been challenged by the way sanctions imposed after Crimea have held (so far). Nonetheless, the expectation is still that, however terrible the act, all Russia has to do is weather the immediate storm of outrage, and today’s story quickly becomes tomorrow’s history.

Despite the apparent similarity of some of the tactics, Putin does not show signs of believing that the Syrian war is in any way a replay of Chechnya. The country is much larger, the rebels more powerful but also more divided, the international community more deeply engaged. However, if he does seem to have taken one lesson from his bloody triumph at home, it is that a brutal war is best won by brutal means. Poor Syria.

Photo credit: AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images