December 11 marked the twentieth anniversary of the First Chechen War, which largely defined modern Russia’s path of development. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, that war was caused by the same factor that led to today’s Ukrainian conflict: the conviction of those raised by the Communist nomenklatura and the KGB that laws and legislation are nothing but toys for weaklings.
In people’s minds, the war in Ukraine is so closely associated with death and other disasters that it seems that the war itself is the reason why all the recent misfortunes have befallen Russia. Political demagogues have successfully used this misperception to simultaneously fan the flames of war and wave banners promoting world peace. Meanwhile, the war is not the cause but the outcome of a disaster.
The First Chechen War started exactly 20 years ago. That bloody orgy, which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties and refugees, thousands of missing people, summary executions, tortures, murders, kidnappings, and the elimination of a peaceful population, was based on the Kremlin’s unabashed desire to keep Chechnya a part of Russia, and to achieve this goal at any price—including deaths, retaliatory terror, the economic collapse, and the rapid radicalization of Islam in Chechnya. Boris Yeltsin, who saw himself as a democrat and the reformer of Russia, could not part with his vision of Russia as an empire.
Disregard of a people’s express wish for self-determination is inconsistent with basic democratic principles. For Russia, Chechnya—a volatile, cross-border, beneficiary region that was of no strategic or military interest to Russia—had never been a coveted prize. The only reason for the war was the fear that by seceding from the Russian Federation, Chechnya would set a precedent for other regions to break away. Despite his democratic eloquence, Yeltsin could not bear the thought of losing a territory because, in his opinion, this would belittle Russia’s greatness.
The mid-1990s was an era of liberal rhetoric and of frantic attempts to carry out democratic reforms or at least to imitate them. However, the true essence of those former Communist and Soviet officials who had hastily rebranded themselves as democrats occasionally revealed itself. The only things these people were good at were imposing bans and restrictions and using military force. This is exactly what they did, and they were rather successful at it.
Soviet-style Communists who dreamed of restoring Soviet practices were the government’s main political opponents at the time. Needless to say, their imperial ambitions were actually rather consistent with those of the government.
Even the democratic opposition at the time criticized the government not for its infringement on the independence of the Chechen people, but for its unjustified violence. And even human rights activists who castigated the government for its mass human rights violations in Chechnya tried to avoid the issue of self-determination. The Russian population was profoundly affected by the imperial virus.
The war in Chechnya benefited those who wanted to restore Soviet practices. They saw Chechnya as an enemy, with whom they were at war because order needed to be restored. Thus, there was no time left for reforms or the establishment of democracy, a free media, or fair elections.
Democrats and human rights activists both saw the war as an isolated evil that befell the country for no particular reason. They could not accept the fact that the war came as a result of their own poor choice that brought Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist official, to power. After staking everything on the former first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee, they refused to either acknowledge their mistake or try to rectify it. And indeed, at that point, there was no use crying over spilt milk.
The war in Chechnya benefited those who wanted to restore Soviet practices. They saw Chechnya as an enemy, with whom they were at war because order needed to be restored. Thus, there was no time left for reforms or the establishment of democracy, a free media, or fair elections. All these fancy innovations of Western civilization that Russia never really managed to assimilate began to slowly recede into the past.
The situation worsened as time passed, though. Imperial ambitions continued to grow, while civil freedoms slowly withered away. President Putin’s Russia began to claim the role of a world leader and to compete with the West. There was no other point to this competition besides an ideological one. Russia strove to be a global player that no one could ignore, and this mediocre political aim became the shining beacon of Putin’s political thinking. This idea obsessed the Russian president, and this obsession was further complicated by a superiority complex and an unwavering faith in his own infallibility and irresistibility.
Soon, all of Russia’s neighboring countries, the stability of which was to be determined by their loyalty to the Kremlin, were included in the sphere of its vital interests. The disloyal Georgia, which turned to the West under the guidance of Mikheil Saakashvili, was punished by Putin and Medvedev in 2008 with a war and the occupation of part of the country’s territory. The same thing happened to Ukraine after it opted for European integration in 2014.
The cause of the war with Ukraine is the same as the cause of the 1994 war in Chechnya: the conviction of those raised by the Communist nomenklatura and the KGB that laws and legislation are nothing but toys for weaklings. The only things these individuals consider to be important are force and their own vision of what life in Russia and around it should be like. They cannot think differently. They have been raised to feel contempt for other people, their rights, and their interests. Decades of Soviet life have destroyed everything in them except for their ability to obey and to force others to obey.
Consequently, they see the war in Ukraine not as an objective but as a means of self-assertion and a mechanism of retaining power. This is why the escalation of war is unavoidable under the current Russian regime. And this situation will persist until either the regime collapses from overpressure or some stronger power stops it.