If you want an insight into what Vladimir Putin's Russia is all about, look no further than Chechnya. Political regimes show what they are truly made of in extremis, at the points that they come under stress or are forced into battle. Russia's regime has displayed its swagger, its stupidity, and its brutality in Chechnya. When George W. Bush looked into the eyes of Putin and saw his soul, he saw the soul of a man responsible for orchestrating crimes comparable to those of Slobodan Milosevic. A man who still ruled over an empire and would commit the most horrific crimes to maintain his rule over a people he despised.
Soviet breakdown and the first war
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it meant independence for its fifteen constituent republics. For Russia to try and maintain control over all of these countries was inconceivable; it would have involved fifteen wars across ten time zones with thousands of nuclear weapons floating around. Only the fifteen full "republics" of the union were allowed independence, however. Chechnya was technically an "autonomous republic" of the federation of Russia, and regarded as inviolably Russian.
The Chechens had different ideas. This predominantly Muslim people had fought Moscow's control for centuries, whereas Russians regarded Chechnya as a sort of "Wild West" populated by savage and warlike peoples. The Russian aristocracy went there to hunt animals and rebels, and then during the Soviet period millions of Soviet citizens went to the Black Sea coast on holiday. Stalin once uprooted the entire population of Chechnya and sent them to Kazakhstan because he thought they were aiding Hitler in World War II; they were only allowed to return over ten years later. The Chechens are technically Russian citizens with the same legal rights as any other Russian citizen, but as they are not ethnically Russian there has always been institutionalized discrimination. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they wanted to rule themselves.
In 1991, one political faction declared independence. This was not recognized by Moscow, but for a few years nothing was done about it; Russia had problems everywhere and its armed forces were in a dire state. Chechnya was not a priority. Yet if nothing else, Chechen behaviour ensured that sooner or later Moscow would become reinvolved. Members of other ethnic groups fled Chechnya bearing stories of the terrible violence that was engulfing the territory as a civil war raged between various factions; law and order was non-existent, and as such it became a hive of racketeering, smuggling and banditry. Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided he would not tolerate this situation and decided in 1994 to re-establish control.
The initial assault by Russian forces on Grozny, the Chechen capital, was a disaster. It later emerged that it was ordered by the minister of defence at a drunken party at a military base. When U.S. forces go into battle, detailed plans (called op plans) are put together which dictate the precise movement of every unit and contingencies to follow depdending on what happens. Russian forces were told to "follow the tank in front". What they lacked in precision and planning, they would make up for with brutality. Yet on this first encounter with the enemy, it was they who suffered: within 24 hours, as many as 2,000 Russian troops were dead. Their assault on Grozny had led them directly into an ambush, with disastrous consequences for Russian morale.
The Russian response would become familiar. They carpet bombed Grozny from the air and by artillery, killing tens of thousands of civilians. Eventually they captured it in this manner, and subsequently established their control over nearly all of the republic. Russian army and police proceeded to wage a systematic campaign of rape, torture, ethnic cleansing and forced disappearance against the Chechen population. Nearly 100,000 civilians were killed by Russian forces, including 35,000 ethnic Russians. That their brutality was in part to compensate for their military ineffectiveness became clear when a small force of 1,500 rebels managed to defeat 12,000 federal forces in Grozny and bring the war to an unexpected end in 1996. Russian forces withdrew, and a political settlement was put off until 2001 at the earliest.
Vladimir Putin and the second war
Russia continued to be wracked by internal problems for the rest of the decade, and was deeply embarrassed by the failure of its massive military to conquer one restive republic. This only added to the country's inferiority complex that it had developed as a result of the end of the Cold War, and the security establishment itched to smash the resistance of the Chechens, who they considered savage bandits and racially inferior. Enter Vladimir Putin and his entourage. Putin came from the heart of the country's KGB-military apparatus, as did everyone in his inner circle. He and his entourage had a deep psychological need to reassert themselves and appeal to Russia's growing nationalism. And they were willing to invent the pretext for doing it.
In September 1999, a series of bombs ripped through apartment buildings throughout Russia. Moscow was quick to blame Chechen terrorists - who had indeed been responsible for a number of atrocities throughout Russia - but the plot thickened when agents from the KGB's successor organization, the FSB, were found planting a bomb themselves. Although they claimed it was a training exercise, many were sceptical; any prominent person inside Russia who led the charge for an investigation of the incident has died in mysterious or violent circumstances. The bombings, likely carried out by the KGB, were hence used by the KGB man Vladimir Putin as a pretext for re-invading Chechnya.
Another incident catalyzed the return of federal forces to Grozny. This was the invasion of Dagestan, a neighbouring part of Russia, by Chechen rebels in 1999. Shamil Basayev led the charge. Basayev, who I have noded at length, was a focal point for foreign, often Arab, jihadists who had come to see the war in Chechnya as an extension of the global jihad. Their brand of Islam was alien to the sufism of Chechnya, but their militancy gained them prominence; yet then their hubris in actually using Chechnya as a staging point of attacking Russia made Russian re-involvement inevitable. They were also responsible for the Beslan massacre and numerous other atrocities throughout Russia.
Russian central forces and Chechen paramilitaries loyal to Moscow - often driven into this camp by their fierce opposition to the fanatical jihadists - restablished control over Chechnya much more quickly and effectively than at the first attempt. Russia's security forces patted themselves on the back; they had subdued this irritant and proved themselves. However, as last time, they had little reason to congratulate themselves for humanity. Tens of thousands of civilians died and the pro-Moscow regime in Chechnya is now only kept in place by a brutal police state which does not shrink from torture, rape and forced disappearance to subdue the enemy.
What Chechnya tells us about Russia today
The most remarkable aspect of the wars in Chechnya is their sheer brutality and the complete lack of respect for human life shown by both sides. Russian security institutions, of which there are many operating in Chechnya (the army, the interior ministry, the OMON riot police, the FSB), are suffused with internal brutality, poor morale, and alcoholism. Chechens - who are technically Russian citizens - can be arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed; the families of the afflicted are too scared to talk about the incident. Chechnya has been transformed into a true police state where everyone watches everyone, and Russians do not even need to do the dirty work; they have set up Chechen proxies to do it for them. 'Chechenization' was the name of this explicit policy.
So, this is the society that Vladimir Putin and his men have created in the region where they have had the freest hand; this is their political dream, the brutal subjucation of an alien people. It is not without good cause that the people of the Caucasus look with fear towards Moscow, which has proven that the standards of law and morality that western nations feel bound by mean precious little to it. Chechnya has become the playground of the Russian security services, whose personnel treat their obligation in a similar manner to the guards at a Nazi concentration camp. Russia's rule here lies on brute force and injustice, and there have been few efforts to prove otherwise beyond the token. No wonder the Georgians look from over Chechnya's southern border with terror.