War Crimes, Reprisals, and International Law: The Chechen Experience: The War in Chechnya Has Been Long, Bloody, and Punishing for Both Soldiers and Civilians. in This Climate of Ongoing Violence, Bitterness, and Distrust, Is There Any Refuge to Be Found in International Law? (Insight)

By McGregor, Andrew | Behind the Headlines, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

War Crimes, Reprisals, and International Law: The Chechen Experience: The War in Chechnya Has Been Long, Bloody, and Punishing for Both Soldiers and Civilians. in This Climate of Ongoing Violence, Bitterness, and Distrust, Is There Any Refuge to Be Found in International Law? (Insight)


McGregor, Andrew, Behind the Headlines


In recent months, the warfare in Chechnya has entered into a bitter `no quarter' struggle, prompted in large part by what Chechens see as an unrelenting attack by Russian security forces on the dignity and well being of the civilian population. Rape, torture, murder, and hostage taking are all alleged by the Chechen resistance, who have brought their own Islamic perspective to the problem of what they see as Russian war-crimes. (1) There is, however, no single Chechen viewpoint. It is important to recognize that the Chechen resistance is not hierarchical in structure; it is a network of government forces, clans, bands of warlords, and foreign volunteers (from north Africa, Bosnia, Turkey, the Middle East, and central Asia) bound only by a common hatred of the Russians. For these fighters, the enemy is waging a genocidal crusade organized by Orthodox Christians and a criminal Kremlin regime, aided materially and financially by the `hypocritical Western states' and the Zionists of Israel. The rhetoric of the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is couched in the language of a crusade, as he urges Christians and Jews to unite against an international effort to restore the Islamic Caliphate.

The Russian forces are no less heterogeneous; the current war is being fought largely by a bewildering array of special forces units rather than the line regiments of the Russian army. The spetznaz units include marines, paratroopers (desantniki), SOBR (rapid reaction forces), and kontraktniki, as well as various para-military units, most notably the OMON forces who report to the Interior Ministry. There are, in addition, units of the GRU (Defence Ministry intelligence) and the FSB (heirs to the old KGB). The mujahidin response to this alphabet-soup of opponents is that the Russians `do not recognise that the Mujahideen do not care about the cool names and fancy titles of Russian forces - whatever units the enemy deploys in the field will eventually be annihilated by the soldiers of Allah.' Allied to this array of forces is Bislan Gantamirov's largely ineffective pro-Moscow militia. For its part, the Russian government claims to be engaged in a battle against `terrorists' and `bandits,' common criminals who fall outside the protection offered to legitimate combatants under international rules of war.

Imam Akhmed Kadyrov, Putin's choice as the new governor of Chechnya, opposed the Russians in the 1994-6 war. He represents the dominant mystical Sufi approach to Islam that has come under increasing pressure in Chechnya from more ascetic Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism. Kadyrov's reconciliation with the Russians is largely a reaction to the growth of conservative Islam, which has been adopted by many of the most militant field-commanders and their fighters. Though the Kremlin is interested in foisting responsibility for security onto Kadyrov's shoulders, the religious leader has no real armed force of his own and has to rely entirely on his former Russian enemies. Several of his aides have been assassinated, and the Chechen president, Asian Maskhadov, has publicly called for his death, as have a number of prominent warlords who accuse him of promoting Russian `atheism.'

Police and Martyrs

Certain elements of the Russian security forces have so antagonized the Chechen field commanders with their brutal approach to the civilian population that they have been especially targeted for reprisal attacks by the mujahidin. Among these are the kontraktniki, comparatively well paid volunteers who are generally older and more hardened than the youthful conscripts of the Russian army and can thus be counted on to do the dirty work of re-occupation. They have generally been shown little or no quarter at the hands of the mujahidin and have been much reduced in numbers through casualties, desertion, or failure to re-enlist at the end of their contracts. The OMON para-military has also been singled out for special treatment by the mujahidin.

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War Crimes, Reprisals, and International Law: The Chechen Experience: The War in Chechnya Has Been Long, Bloody, and Punishing for Both Soldiers and Civilians. in This Climate of Ongoing Violence, Bitterness, and Distrust, Is There Any Refuge to Be Found in International Law? (Insight)
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