Don’t Ignore Putin’s Trail of Blood

Talk about Russia and Vladimir Putin fills the news in the Euro-Atlantic region. But in considering the problematic aspects of cooperating with the Russian government, too many focus on relatively trivial and ambiguous issues such as Russian operatives exposing embarrassing statements by American politicians. Even those who do criticize the Russian regime seem to go no further than the murders of political opponents and journalists, awful as those might be. More serious problems, in particular Russia’s record of genocide-like war crimes in Chechnya, are either forgotten or willfully ignored.

During the two Chechen wars, Russian military and security forces destroyed virtually every building in the capital of Grozny and devastated other Chechen towns and villages. The Russian security services had begun with a campaign to demonize and scapegoat Chechens. There were serious allegations that the FSB itself blew up large apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in the fall of 1999, then blamed it on Chechens in order to create a casus belli. The entire might of the Russian military was unleashed on Chechnya. Surface-to-surface missiles were used along with aerial carpet bombing, artillery, and tank bombardment. I visited human rights advocates in Grozny in July 2002, on behalf of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights; one my coworkers remarked that the condition of the city was “worse than Kabul, even 1945 Dresden.” 

It is impossible to obtain exact figures of casualties in the two Russo-Chechen wars, because the only entity able to make a serious investigation would be the Russian state, which apparently has no interest in the truth. Estimates vary between 85,000 and 250,000 of the roughly one million Chechens in the area at the times of the open conflict. That would mean anywhere between 8 and 25 percent of the population.

During the second war, numerous villages were encircled by Russian forces, the stated goal being to “mop up” and neutralize rebels. Residents were systematically robbed, beaten, raped, or shot. Many were abducted and disappeared.  Around 8,000 of those who disappeared are still missing, but what really hurts Chechens today is that under Ramzan Kadyrov’s oppressive regime people still disappear, and authorities will not even consider requests for investigations. And people are still tortured by police and security forces.

Russian leaders, primarily Vladimir Putin, have made Chechnya an example of what happens when a part of the Russian Federation seeks independence, which is makes their encouragement of pro-Russian Ukrainians in Crimea and the Donbas a bit ironic. But punishment was also meted to independent countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union, and earlier of the Russian Empire. The message: Accept Russian dominance -- or else. 

Putin and his subordinates have wrapped their war crimes in the mantle of the “War Against Terrorism;” 9/11 was a gift. The Chechens' defense of their ancestral lands and their freedom was presented as “International Islamic Terrorism.” Many in the West seemingly accepted that as a fact, even though nobody, Chechen or other Muslim, has at any time struck in Russia proper to promote some “Caliphate.” 

How can any Western politician think of Russia, under Putin, as a reliable partner in the conflict between liberal democracies and Islamist extremists?  There is no evidence that Russia has fought against the real jihadis, like ISIS. On the contrary, Russia directly and indirectly cooperates with the “Shia Axis”: Iran, Syria's Assad, and Hizb’allah. There is a straight line between Putin’s manipulation of the “threat of Islamism” in Russia, and the Russian/Assad campaign in Syria, where the war serves political purposes and civilians and moderate opposition forces are used for target practice by Russian forces while the Islamic State is often given a pass. Indeed, Putin has left a trail of blood in post-Cold War Europe and the Middle East -- in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, in Syria, a trail that may soon extend to Belarus and to the streets of Russian cities. 

In liberal democracies, the Left and Right have traded places when it comes to Russia. While the Left for decades considered the Soviets to be morally equal to America, now they all of a sudden see Russia as a threat. Putin and the ethno-nationalist and neoimperialist Russian approach to sovereignty and human rights find favor in among a wide range of European and American conservatives. Some see Putin as defending traditional Christian values against the excesses of secular postmodernism. Indeed, Putin has touched a sore spot – a neglect by Western elites of the value of national identity and deeply-rooted moral beliefs. Others, like Henry Kissinger, see a Russian sphere of influence where particular cultural and political values should legitimately rein. A Danish MP recently claimed not ”to see any Russian threat anywhere;” the Russian takeover of parts of Ukraine was a fait accompli, and sanctions should be dropped, she insisted. What is important now is “dialogue.” 

With Russia on the move, and threatening a nuclear war in Europe, the reflex of Cold War appeasement has resurfaced. What is important, as President Donald Trump has said, is to “get along with Russia.” He may soon change his mind. In America, it is mainly left-wing Democrats who complain about Russia, but their concerns are remarkably parochial, centering on claims that Russian hacking may have tilted the presidential election against Hillary Clinton. 

What these positions have in common is a shocking ignorance of recent history, and a chilling indifference to the tens of thousands of victims of Russian brute force in this century, as well as the lives of Russian citizens and to the future of freedom throughout the former Soviet Union and for the former Eastern European Russian satellite states. 

Yes, nobody wants war with Russia. But if we fail to hold accountable alleged perpetrators of war crimes, and to clearly and forcefully defend the human rights and freedoms of those under Russia’s authoritarian yoke, we are not making such a war less likely. And at the same time, we are allowing commitment to our own freedoms to erode. 

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007, and later co-founded the Freedom Rights Project.

Talk about Russia and Vladimir Putin fills the news in the Euro-Atlantic region. But in considering the problematic aspects of cooperating with the Russian government, too many focus on relatively trivial and ambiguous issues such as Russian operatives exposing embarrassing statements by American politicians. Even those who do criticize the Russian regime seem to go no further than the murders of political opponents and journalists, awful as those might be. More serious problems, in particular Russia’s record of genocide-like war crimes in Chechnya, are either forgotten or willfully ignored.

During the two Chechen wars, Russian military and security forces destroyed virtually every building in the capital of Grozny and devastated other Chechen towns and villages. The Russian security services had begun with a campaign to demonize and scapegoat Chechens. There were serious allegations that the FSB itself blew up large apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in the fall of 1999, then blamed it on Chechens in order to create a casus belli. The entire might of the Russian military was unleashed on Chechnya. Surface-to-surface missiles were used along with aerial carpet bombing, artillery, and tank bombardment. I visited human rights advocates in Grozny in July 2002, on behalf of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights; one my coworkers remarked that the condition of the city was “worse than Kabul, even 1945 Dresden.” 

It is impossible to obtain exact figures of casualties in the two Russo-Chechen wars, because the only entity able to make a serious investigation would be the Russian state, which apparently has no interest in the truth. Estimates vary between 85,000 and 250,000 of the roughly one million Chechens in the area at the times of the open conflict. That would mean anywhere between 8 and 25 percent of the population.

During the second war, numerous villages were encircled by Russian forces, the stated goal being to “mop up” and neutralize rebels. Residents were systematically robbed, beaten, raped, or shot. Many were abducted and disappeared.  Around 8,000 of those who disappeared are still missing, but what really hurts Chechens today is that under Ramzan Kadyrov’s oppressive regime people still disappear, and authorities will not even consider requests for investigations. And people are still tortured by police and security forces.

Russian leaders, primarily Vladimir Putin, have made Chechnya an example of what happens when a part of the Russian Federation seeks independence, which is makes their encouragement of pro-Russian Ukrainians in Crimea and the Donbas a bit ironic. But punishment was also meted to independent countries that were once parts of the Soviet Union, and earlier of the Russian Empire. The message: Accept Russian dominance -- or else. 

Putin and his subordinates have wrapped their war crimes in the mantle of the “War Against Terrorism;” 9/11 was a gift. The Chechens' defense of their ancestral lands and their freedom was presented as “International Islamic Terrorism.” Many in the West seemingly accepted that as a fact, even though nobody, Chechen or other Muslim, has at any time struck in Russia proper to promote some “Caliphate.” 

How can any Western politician think of Russia, under Putin, as a reliable partner in the conflict between liberal democracies and Islamist extremists?  There is no evidence that Russia has fought against the real jihadis, like ISIS. On the contrary, Russia directly and indirectly cooperates with the “Shia Axis”: Iran, Syria's Assad, and Hizb’allah. There is a straight line between Putin’s manipulation of the “threat of Islamism” in Russia, and the Russian/Assad campaign in Syria, where the war serves political purposes and civilians and moderate opposition forces are used for target practice by Russian forces while the Islamic State is often given a pass. Indeed, Putin has left a trail of blood in post-Cold War Europe and the Middle East -- in Chechnya, Georgia, and Ukraine, in Syria, a trail that may soon extend to Belarus and to the streets of Russian cities. 

In liberal democracies, the Left and Right have traded places when it comes to Russia. While the Left for decades considered the Soviets to be morally equal to America, now they all of a sudden see Russia as a threat. Putin and the ethno-nationalist and neoimperialist Russian approach to sovereignty and human rights find favor in among a wide range of European and American conservatives. Some see Putin as defending traditional Christian values against the excesses of secular postmodernism. Indeed, Putin has touched a sore spot – a neglect by Western elites of the value of national identity and deeply-rooted moral beliefs. Others, like Henry Kissinger, see a Russian sphere of influence where particular cultural and political values should legitimately rein. A Danish MP recently claimed not ”to see any Russian threat anywhere;” the Russian takeover of parts of Ukraine was a fait accompli, and sanctions should be dropped, she insisted. What is important now is “dialogue.” 

With Russia on the move, and threatening a nuclear war in Europe, the reflex of Cold War appeasement has resurfaced. What is important, as President Donald Trump has said, is to “get along with Russia.” He may soon change his mind. In America, it is mainly left-wing Democrats who complain about Russia, but their concerns are remarkably parochial, centering on claims that Russian hacking may have tilted the presidential election against Hillary Clinton. 

What these positions have in common is a shocking ignorance of recent history, and a chilling indifference to the tens of thousands of victims of Russian brute force in this century, as well as the lives of Russian citizens and to the future of freedom throughout the former Soviet Union and for the former Eastern European Russian satellite states. 

Yes, nobody wants war with Russia. But if we fail to hold accountable alleged perpetrators of war crimes, and to clearly and forcefully defend the human rights and freedoms of those under Russia’s authoritarian yoke, we are not making such a war less likely. And at the same time, we are allowing commitment to our own freedoms to erode. 

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom – Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993-2007, and later co-founded the Freedom Rights Project.

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