Chechnya Déjà Vu

Russian troops. Chechnya, 1995.

The Russians are here. The echo chamber couldn’t be any larger. From Beirut to Washington, everyone has been repeating the same thing. Referring to Moscow’s military build-up in Syria, you can understand the surprise. For the first time in fifteen years, Russia had comitted military assets to the War on Terror. Or so it appears.

Referencing everything from the conflict in Ukraine, to renewed imperial ambitions, unfortunately, most analysts continue to miss the point.

Vladimir Putin isn’t trying to push the West aside, as much as finish the job that the US allegedly started: defeating Islamist rebels, once and for all, on its not so distant doorstep, in Syria.

Memory is short. The notion that the Russians won a conflict against jihadists, in Chechnya, in 2000, is often overshadowed by public discourse about Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan, a little over a decade before. Blame the US invasion of the country in 2001 for the error. After all, Uncle Sam was going to finish off what the Communists had started.

Let’s not forget the fact that the US have failed to pacify Afghanistan, too, whereas President Putin got to settle the score, in one of his own nearby republics, a decade later. Perhaps he could repeat the same feat in Syria, against ISIS. After all, Russia’s troops have been fighting a successful ‘hybrid war’ in the Ukraine, and have their bayonets duly sharpened.

Early YouTube favorites, these videos are taken from the Second Chechen War. Islamist as well as Russian propaganda clips, their violence and grittiness foreshadows the combat footage from Syria that has flooded online video channels since the beginning of the civil war. You won’t be wrong for feeling like they’re a rehearsal.

Perhaps Russia’s pride is misplaced, and it won’t end up prevailing over ISIS, and other Islamist groups, the way it did in Chechnya. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter, as the human cost, to Russian forces, will be as high as it was two decades ago, when thousands were killed, in the effort to hold on to the former Soviet republic.

Clearly, with videos like these, it’s worth problematizing the Russian deployment, in much the same way that it is criticizing the utility of America’s wars in the region. Certainly, it would be hard to imagine that the creation of ISIS was worth the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Middle East was better off before 9/11.

What will the Americans do when confronted with the same opportunities in the future? Will they have anything to show for their years fighting militant Islamists, abroad? Even if they do, its hard to imagine their victory will have been worthwhile. Especially if you consider how Russia turned out over the last fifteen years.

Russia, it appears, is the West’s future. That’s what Moscow’s troop build up in Syria means, and why everyone misunderstands it.

Photograph courtesy of Vladimir Varfolomeev. Published under a Creative Commons license.