At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, photos of the wars in Chechnya circulated on social media, with some observers drawing parallels between the two conflicts. As reports of Chechen troops being deployed by Moscow to the battleground emerged, the historical links between what was happening in the post-Soviet space in the 1990s and what is going on today seemed even more apparent.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a Chechen dissident and survivor of the two Chechen wars, about the conflict in Ukraine and the accuracy of historical parallels. Abdurakhmanov is a prominent blogger and critic of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. He left his country in 2016 after he faced threats from Kadyrov’s cousin, Chechen politician Islam Kadyrov.
Did you expect a Russian invasion of Ukraine of this scale?
Up until the end, there was the hope that [President Vladimir Putin] would not start a war in the centre of Europe, that there would not be a full-scale invasion, that he is only trying to intimidate. When on the morning of February 24, he announced the invasion, for me, like for many others, it was unexpected.
What is the reason for this war in your opinion?
Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union. And he doesn’t hide it. He considers the dissolution of the USSR a catastrophe. This is a person who lives with the desire for revenge. He is a Russian imperialist and he perceives all former Soviet countries as part of his domain.
The talk about NATO’s expansion [being a reason for the war], that if Ukraine joins, rockets will be deployed closer to Russia, this is such nonsense. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are already in NATO. If rockets are deployed there and fired [at Moscow], they would not arrive that much later than if they were deployed in Ukraine. Saying that, Russia started this war out of security concerns – this is just a made-up reason for aggression.
Do you think this Russian imperialism that you talk about is popular in Russian society?
Yes, this idea is quite popular in Russia. The idea of greatness, that we have manifest destiny, that all are afraid of us, we are the strongest, that we’ve won all wars, we were first to fly into space … It is not so much an idea of the intelligentsia but it is popular among the less educated parts of society. There is even this new term: Ruscism, a derivative of fascism. It is a very good term [to describe what] the Russian society is suffering from.
My opinion is that this is the result of propaganda. If they were not brainwashing people on TV, I don’t think they would think this way. If you look at the youth, who have access to knowledge, to travelling, they think differently.
Since the start of the invasion, some observers have been saying Ukraine will be a second Chechnya, Kyiv – a second Grozny. What do you think about these parallels?
I don’t know about Kyiv yet, but Mariupol and Kharkiv certainly look like Grozny during the war. This is inevitable because Putin has adopted Plan B after the blitzkrieg to take over Ukraine did not work out. So now he is burning methodically the Ukrainian land, destroying cities and killing peaceful civilians in order to exhaust Ukrainians and make them surrender.
Were you in Grozny during the two Chechen wars?
Yes, both of them. For the first one, I was just a child. I was nine in 1994. On November 26, days before the war officially started, I saw the first destroyed Russian tanks and the first bodies of Russian soldiers. People gathered their body parts at a square – it was a horrible sight. It had a powerful psychological effect on me as a child and I started feeling that the war was coming. Then the start of the “operation to restore constitutional order” was announced on December 11 – of course, Russia never calls a war, a war. They are always operations.
If in the first war I didn’t understand what was going on, in the second, I did and I was afraid. I remember when they bombed the central market in Grozny [in which 150 people died], I went there the day after and it was a shocking scene. By then, people had taken away the bodies, but there was blood, empty streets, broken windows and a deadly silence.
Does seeing images and footage of the war in Ukraine bring back memories of the Chechen wars?
When I see these Russian soldiers, including those from Chechnya, sitting on armoured vehicles going [through Ukrainian streets], I remember the Russian tanks and vehicles in Grozny we saw as kids, when the city was occupied. We, kids, would run to them and show them a middle finger, this was a form of protest, our way of expressing our hatred for them.
And now I find it incomprehensible when I see again Russian soldiers in Ukraine, and among them Chechens, who either saw similar scenes in Chechnya, or their parents did, and now they are in Ukraine participating in the killing of Ukrainians. This is disgusting.
[In the coverage of Ukraine] in the beginning, there was a lot of emphasis on Chechnya, almost creating the impression that it’s not Russia fighting with Ukraine, but Chechnya. It was very unpleasant to see how the Chechen people began to be associated with Putin’s aggression. The Western viewer does not understand our politics, does not know we also had a war, that right now we are under occupation, that Kadyrov is not a Chechen president but a bureaucrat appointed by the Kremlin, that the Chechen people continue to fight for freedom. But this coverage began to change and it’s good to see that.
Do you feel there are differences between the Chechen wars and the war in Ukraine?
The picture coming out of Ukraine is different, maybe even positive. The Ukrainian army is powerful and is putting up strong resistance. We didn’t have anything to defend ourselves with from air strikes, so we just had to hide. Ukrainians are not hiding, they are able to take down fighter jets.
We faced a monster without any resources to fight it. The arms we had were either taken or bought from the Russians. We did not have artillery or armoured vehicles.
There is also a colossal difference in support. No one in the world supported us.
Do you think this had to do with Islamophobia?
I would not say so because there was no support from the West or from [Muslim countries in] the Middle East. There was no support from anyone. The issue was how Russia was perceived at that time. Putin was seen as a good guy, who was fighting terrorism in the Caucasus.
We also made some mistakes. But the world would not hear us, they perceived us as extremists, terrorists. There were Russian propagandists who were saying this and no one listened to our leaders, who were calling for negotiations, for peace.
Today the world understands Putin is not a nice guy, that he should have been stopped in Chechnya. If they had done so, there wouldn’t have been [the conflict in] Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and today Ukraine. They didn’t, so now we have this monster which threatens the whole world.
Do you think the Chechen conflict continues, but it just plays out in other geographies, like in Ukraine where Chechens are fighting on both sides?
The conflict has not ended and will not end until we either set ourselves free or we give up [the dream of] freedom and independence. But I don’t think we will give up. For a people to join another state, this has to be done voluntarily, through a referendum. But you can’t have a referendum when you are under occupation.
Of course, we will continue to fight. Right now, we are not doing this through military means, because our strength has been diminished. The people need time to recover. And whenever we have a chance, we will rebel again. If some reasonable people take power [in Moscow] and understand they need to let go and establish normal friendly relations with us, then this could go without war. But if they continue to be the same imperialists, it’s difficult to imagine winning our freedom without paying a heavy price.
How will the war in Ukraine end, in your opinion?
Now that Russia has fully invaded Ukraine, they would either win or have to withdraw and admit defeat, which they would do everything they can to avoid. But if Ukrainians continue the way they are fighting now and continue to have the same international support, I think they would successfully resist and even go into counter-offensive.
But it is difficult to know the overall outcome. The Ukrainians may be able to take all their territory back. Or tomorrow the third world war may start with the use of nuclear weapons. Or we may wake up and hear that Putin has died of a heart attack. We wouldn’t know how that happened but we’d understand that some people within his inner circle had decided that the old man had lost it and needed to be taken care of. Even the breakup of Russia is a possible outcome.
How would the war affect Russia? Some have talked about the “Chechenisation” of the country, meaning repression would increase. Would you agree?
First, I would not use this term, ‘Chechenisation’. Second, Putin did not become a butcher now, he has always been one. He killed 30 percent of my people. Kadyrov is his project, Putin created him. Although some Russian experts claim that Chechens chose him, we didn’t. Withdraw your army and see who we would choose freely.
Putin has long deceived the world and the Russian people, but now he no longer has to. He has prepared the Russians for this. If tomorrow he proclaims himself a tsar or an emperor, the majority would support him.
You can follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter @mkpetkova