Putin is so good at exploiting our obsessions and weak spots: it’s a tactic he’s long perfected to deflect attention from his own record.
Clear the fog a bit, and what is there, really? Russia’s sense of its impunity – I mean big time, murderous, war criminal-style impunity. Think about this: at the end of this year, Russia – whether in its Soviet or post-Soviet incarnations – will have been at war almost continuously for four decades. From the one million civilians killed in the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who’ve perished at the receiving end of Russia’s and Assad’s war machine, the chain of impunity is long. See the list of Russian wars: Transnistria (1992), Abkhazia (1992-93), Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (since 2014), Syria (since 2015). Putin first came to power on the back of a war – in Chechnya – whose atrocities I saw firsthand as a reporter. There is a continuum between the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools and populated areas by Russian aircraft in Syria and what happened in Chechnya. You cannot understand Putin’s regime, the man himself, his worldview, nor how he’s shaped Russian society, without having those connections in mind.
Just last week the Dutch-led investigation into the 2014 downing of flight MH17 brought an interesting detail to the fore: one of the Russian men charged, Igor Girkin, a former military intelligence officer, had been personally involved in several of the wars listed above. In Chechnya, Girkin took part in mass atrocities, according to the Russian human rights organisation, Memorial.
We tend to look at contemporary Russia in a piecemeal way: one crisis after the other, as if these weren’t linked. Yet they are. For too long we in the west turned a blind eye, or thought some of these wars would remain local issues. We didn’t realise they would come to define Russia’s power structure and how it relates to the outside world. War crimes have gone unpunished for decades, because no one cared internationally or no one was able to do anything, and because Russia has no independent judiciary to speak of. [Continue reading…]