Putin in Syria: Chechnya All Over Again

Aleppo’s historic citadel in October 2014. Credit George Ourfalian/Reuters.
Aleppo’s historic citadel in October 2014. Credit George Ourfalian/Reuters.

The difference between Aleppo now and Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, at the turn of the millennium is that Western leaders are at least trying to save the Syrians trapped in the besieged city. A decade and a half ago, there were precious few diplomatic missions for the Chechens. Within months of taking power, Vladimir V. Putin had moved decisively to regain control of Chechnya — which had broken free of Moscow’s control in a brief but nasty war in the mid-1990s — and world leaders mostly just looked on.

Otherwise, the picture is broadly the same. Mr. Putin knows now, like he knew then, that he and his proxies can’t win on the ground, so they are trying to solve their problem from the air. Where infantry won’t go, he’s dropping explosives.

Mr. Putin is not alone in this, of course. Western leaders also try to solve complex issues without risking close contact. But Mr. Putin has an advantage over his rivals. There are almost no journalists, politicians or activists in Russia pushing him to spare Aleppo’s civilians, just like there was never much sympathy in Russia for civilians trapped in Grozny while rockets were smashing the city.

This kind of quiet on the home front is helpful for someone looking to win a conflict. If you can bomb a hospital, then another hospital, then two more, with hardly anyone in your own country publicly intervening to stop you, you are in a strong position. It was thanks to the relentless bombardment of Grozny that Mr. Putin won his war in Chechnya.

Those of us who visited the city afterward were stunned by the destruction. It had become acres of shattered buildings, scrunched factories and shredded fences. Today some suggest — as Russia has done in the last week — that Western states are just as bad. But they aren’t. They can’t be: Any Western government that did what Mr. Putin did to Grozny, or is doing to Aleppo, would fall, and would deserve to.

The historic citadel in Aleppo, Syria, as seen in 1997. Credit Ihlow/ullstein bild via Getty Images.
The historic citadel in Aleppo, Syria, as seen in 1997. Credit Ihlow/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Syria’s government needs no lessons in domestic repression, but Moscow can provide resources Syria has never had before. If moderate Syrians, the kind of people the West might seek to build a movement around, remain in the country, the Russian government can help Mr. Assad destroy them.

This is what Mr. Putin did in Chechnya, where his security services picked off anyone worth negotiating with. The rebel leaders who lived longest were the fanatics, driven by rage and perverted Islam. They sent traumatized women to blow themselves up on the streets of Moscow, or attacked soft targets — a school, a theater, a concert. Every atrocity blackened their cause, conferred greater legitimacy on Mr. Putin’s allies and ensured less sympathy for his victims.

Although Mr. Putin need not worry about domestic opinion, he cares desperately about what the world thinks of him. Foreign critics of his Chechnya policy enraged him to the extent that he once offered to have a French journalist castrated. If he succeeds in imposing peace in Syria, even at the cost of leveling Aleppo, he will try to legitimize his victory. He will do that by giving it the outward trappings of a real, democratic peace process: of a Northern Ireland, or a South Africa.

Russian officials talk of Mr. Assad standing in elections, once a new constitution is adopted. They created a new constitution for Chechnya too, and held presidential elections there in 2003 once the fighting had died down. Candidates who were popular enough to threaten Mr. Putin’s preferred candidate were excluded, so we knew who would win before a ballot was cast. I spent that day in Chechnya but saw nothing of how Chechens really felt. My vision was limited by the escort of Russian soldiers we journalists had to accept, by law.

Mr. Putin has always understood the importance of the message. At first his administration just intimidated critical journalists and took over rival media outlets. Later, after Chechnya was stabilized, he innovated, with the creation in 2005 of the English-language television channel Russia Today.

RT, as it is now known, acts as a gathering point for fringe voices ignored by what they call the “mainstream media” — as if a station funded by a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council somehow could be a plucky outlier. The channel treats facts as an inconvenience and will tell any story that shows the West to be corrupt, in retreat or duplicitous.

RT’s success in muddying the information pool has been immeasurable. It keeps pushing Mr. Putin’s message: That he is bombing the Syrians for their own good, just like he bombed the Chechens. That war is peace. This sounds crude, but in a world that is fragmenting politically, the message sticks. This year, Donald Trump appeared on the channel, as did leading politicians from Britain and elsewhere, validating the idea that truth is essentially a mirage.

Mr. Putin’s admirers often compare him to a chess player as a way of stressing his strategic nous (Barack Obama merely plays checkers). But that is to overstate his abilities. Any moderately capable politician could do what he does given a complicit media and control of all three branches of government. Where he does resemble a chess player, however, is in his insistence on linking unconnected issues: Ukraine, Syria, a joint U.S.-Russian program to dispose of radioactive material — all are pieces on his board, to be sacrificed for the ultimate good of the player, namely himself.

If Mr. Putin’s bombs allow his proxies to capture the square on the board labeled Syria, his Western admirers will hail him as a genius. But that victory would be as much a result of his weaknesses as his strengths. Seeing the world as a chess game means he believes the board is filled with pawns rather than people, with agency and ideas of their own.

In the fall of 2013, Mr. Putin thought he had convinced the Ukrainian government to reject a trade deal with the European Union and join a Russian project instead. He then promised it a $15 billion loan. But ordinary Ukrainians wouldn’t go along with the plan — they refused to be pawns — and their revolution ousted Mr. Putin’s allies in Kiev, turning his tactical victory into a strategic defeat.

In the years after Mr. Putin started his Chechen war in 1999, he had Chechnya’s leaders killed and imposed peace via a local strongman. The savagery necessary to maintain order has since driven out at least one-third of the prewar Chechen population, with most of them seeking asylum in Europe. The exodus continues today. Chechnya still requires vast annual subsidies from Moscow, and its peace remains just one assassination away from chaos.

Bombing Aleppo into submission and imposing Mr. Assad on the rubble via fake elections would allow Mr. Putin and RT to present the Syria problem as solved and give the Kremlin’s Western proxies an opportunity to praise their grandmaster’s cunning. But you cannot bomb someone into loving you. For as long as Putin fails to realize that ordinary people’s desires are ultimately more important than his own, any system he creates will remain as fragile as the one he built in Chechnya.

Oliver Bullough is the author of Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus.

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