Aleksandr Cherkasov on post-Soviet wars: how to break the chain of impunity
Photo: Nikita Mouraviev

11 December 2022

by Aleksandr Cherkasov [a translation of an abbreviated version of Aleksandr Cherkasov’s presentation at the ‘Russian Realities‘ online conference]

Source: Facebook [original source: O strane i mire on Telegram]

Thirty years ago, Russia seemed to break with its Soviet past and leave behind the conflicts that had flared up in the last years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Russia was moving forward, dealing with new problems, and if it was drawn into the affairs of the near abroad, then only as a peacemaker compelled to take responsibility for stability in the post-Soviet space. So it seemed at the time.

At Memorial we were studying post-Soviet conflicts from the very first post-Soviet years. Now, looking back at 1992, I see it all completely differently than I did then. Now, the war in Ukraine has opened many people’s eyes to previous years as well. The last wave of rethinking was in 2011-12, when Putin and Medvedev stopped being “good.” How could we have been so deluded?

The 1990s also need rethinking. For number of victims, Grozny, destroyed in 1994, is comparable to the number of victims in Mariupol. And there was also Aleppo (Syria), where Russian troops behaved in a similar manner. There is a unity of methods, and sometimes even of actors appearing in all these conflicts. The commanders of Russian forces in Ukraine got their experience much earlier. Surovikin’s subordinates killed the White House’s defenders in 1993.

There had been many symbols of revenge before, too. The people who went through the various wars see their unity as their very destiny. But in the 1990s this did not seem a very significant aspect of life. Strelkov fought in Transnistria in 1992, was in Bosnia then, too, and from 1999 to 2005 he coordinated the system for abducting (disappearing) people in Chechnya. Memorial knows of at least 10 people he abducted. No one bore responsibility for this. In Chechnya, 3,000-5,000 people were abducted and killed, and 0.1% of those cases went to trial.

The chain of crimes has been unbroken, becoming a chain of impunity, as figures in the old crimes commit new ones. The heroization of past crimes encourages new criminals. This is an indulgence for them. In the 1992 Karabakh war, General Shamanov and his regiment broke through the Armenian defence, and he was a courageous commander in the Chechen wars. He figures in two cases that were heard by the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] (‘destruction of Chechen fighters’). The Russian organs of military justice decided this was all fine. Strasbourg didn’t agree. There were indiscriminate strikes against the civilian population there. Strasbourg recommended the military tactic be changed as well for officers studying at military academies so as not to allow this to happen. That was not done.

Virtually no one bore responsibility for the crimes of the Chechen wars. Later the ‘heroes’ of those wars took part in annexing Crimea and taught new generations of officers how to observe the law during war. In this context, what was done in Bucha, Izium, and so on cannot be considered accidental. They had their own commandant offices, prisons, and execution pits everywhere. This aspect of the war has yet to be revealed to the world. The new crimes were committed because the old ones had not been punished. The rape episode disappeared from Budanov’s file. Maybe this made the widespread rape in Ukraine possible, as Budanov became a symbol of the Russian officer.

In 1992, Russia took part in five hybrid wars (in the role of peacemaker or pretending it wasn’t there, using its proxies, its Wagners; Basaev fought in Abkhazia, Karabakh, and Tajikistan on Russia’s side). At the time, Russia already had its ‘dark side,’ secretly conducting a policy similar to the present day’s in the post-Soviet space. Thirty years ago there was already an alignment, a vector, which today has become catastrophic. Reevaluating the history of the 1990s is an important task if we want some other kind of future.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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