[forward from Julio] LA Times article on Russian Forces' Behavior in Chechnya
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Mon Oct 9 14:40:04 MDT 2000
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War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Battling Chechen Rebels
Troops admit committing atrocities against guerrillas and civilians.
It's part of the military culture of impunity, they say. But many now
have troubled consciences.
By MAURA REYNOLDS, Times Staff Writer
"I remember a Chechen female sniper. We just tore her apart with two
armored personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel
cables. There was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it."
MOSCOW--They call it bespredel--literally, "no limits." It means
acting outside the rules, violently and with impunity. It translates
as "excesses" or "atrocities."
It's the term Russian soldiers use to describe their actions in
"Without bespredel, we'll get nowhere in Chechnya," a 21-year-old
conscript explained. "We have to be cruel to them. Otherwise, we'll
Since Russia launched a new war against separatist rebels in its
republic of Chechnya a year ago, Russian and Western human rights
organizations have collected thousands of pages of testimony from
victims about human rights abuses committed by Russian servicemen
against Chechen civilians and suspected rebel fighters. To hear the
other side of the story, a Times reporter traveled to more than half a
dozen regions around Russia and interviewed more than two dozen
Russian servicemen returning from the war front. What they recounted
largely matches the picture painted in the human rights reports: The
men freely acknowledge that acts considered war crimes under
international law not only take place but are also commonplace. In
fact, most admitted committing such acts themselves--everything from
looting to summary executions to torture.
"There was bespredel all the time," one 35-year-old soldier said. "You
can't let it get to you." The servicemen say atrocities aren't
directly ordered from above; instead, they result from a Russian
military culture that glorifies ardor in battle, portrays the enemy as
inhuman and has no effective system of accountability.
"Your army is based on professionalism," said a 27-year-old
paratrooper who served alongside U.S. troops as a peacekeeper in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Our army is based on fervor." Russian officials,
including the Kremlin's war spokesman, Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, have
criticized the human rights reports, saying they are riddled with
rumor and rebel propaganda. Officials have sometimes blamed reported
atrocities on what they describe as rebel fighters dressed as Russian
soldiers. But they acknowledge that some human rights violations do
occur and say they are taking steps to curb them.
"[Chechens] are Russian citizens, for whose sake the operation was
undertaken in the first place," Yastrzhembsky said in an
interview. "They should be treated according to the same laws as in
the rest of Russia. Any violation, regardless of who commits it, must
be reviewed by the procurator [investigating magistrate] and the
guilty parties should be punished."
That may be the Kremlin's official position, but servicemen say things
are different on the ground. In part because of media coverage of
Chechen slave-trading, torture and beheadings, the soldiers believe
that the enemy is guilty of far worse atrocities. Although they know
that executions and other human rights violations are wrong, they also
consider them an unavoidable--even necessary--part of waging war,
especially against such a foe. In their view, human rights workers
and other critics are simply squeamish about the real nature of war.
"What rules? What Geneva Conventions? What difference does it make if
Russia has signed them?" said a 25-year-old army officer. "I didn't
sign them, none of my friends signed them. . . . In Russia, these
rules don't work." Perhaps most important, the servicemen described a
pervasive and powerful culture of impunity in the Russian armed
forces. They believe that authorities say one thing in public but
deliberately turn a blind eye to many war crimes. A few even said
investigators helped cover up such atrocities. Right or wrong, the
soldiers are confident that authorities will make no serious effort to
investigate war zone misconduct.
"You don't make it obvious, and they don't look too hard," another
21-year-old conscript said. "Everyone understands that's the way it
Many of the servicemen admitted having troubled consciences. But like
a mantra, most repeated what they had been taught--that whether one
likes it or not, going to war means acting bespredel. "What kind of
human rights can there be in wartime?" said a 31-year-old police
commando. "It's fine to violate human rights within certain limits."
* * *
"The main thing is to have them die slowly. You don't want them to die
fast, because a fast death is an easy death."
Andrei's pale eyes glow against his tanned skin. He's been home only
10 days. He opens and closes kitchen cabinets, searching confusedly
for sugar for his tea. "I still haven't gotten used to domestic life,"
he apologizes. He has just turned 21. During basic training, he
recalls, Red Cross workers came to his base to teach about human
rights and the rules of war. "They tried to teach us all kinds of
nonsense, like that you should treat civilians 'politely,' " he
says. "If you behave 'politely' during wartime, I promise you, nothing
good will come of it. I don't know about other wars, but in Chechnya,
if they don't understand what you say, you have to beat it into
them. You need the civilians to fear you. There's no other way."
Andrei says the lesson that stuck was the one his commander taught
him: how to kill.
"We caught one guy--he had a fold-up [radio] antenna. He gave us a
name, but when we beat him he gave us a different name. We found maps
in his pockets, and hashish. He tried to tell us he was looking for
food for his mother. My commander said, 'Stick around and I'll teach
you how to deal with these guys.' He took the antenna and began to hit
him with it. You could tell by the look in [the Chechen's] eyes that
he knew we were going to kill him.
"We shot him. There were five of us who shot him. We dumped his body
in the river. The river was full of bodies. Ours, too. Three of our
guys washed up without heads."
Andrei says he knows that officially, Russian troops are supposed to
turn all suspected rebels over to military procurators. But in
practice, his unit literally took no prisoners. "Once they have a
bruise, they're already as good as dead," Andrei says. "They know they
won't make it to the procurator's office. You can see it in their
eyes. They never tell us anything, but then again, we never ask. We do
it out of spite, because if they can torture our soldiers, why
shouldn't we torture them?
"The easiest way is to heat your bayonet over charcoal, and when it's
red-hot, to put it on their bodies, or stab them slowly. You need to
make sure they feel as much pain as possible. The main thing is to
have them die slowly. You don't want them to die fast, because a fast
death is an easy death. They should get the full treatment. They
should get what they deserve. On one hand it looks like an atrocity,
but on the other hand, it's easy to get used to. "I killed about nine
people this way. I remember all of them."
* * *
Taking No Prisoners
Servicemen say the type and frequency of bespredel vary significantly
from one unit to another. A few said such things never happened in
their units. But even they knew of incidents involving other units.
Other than looting, the most common crime recounted to The Times was
the execution of suspected rebels.
"We called it 'taking them to the police station,' " said one police
commando. "The nearest police station was 300 kilometers [about 200
miles] away. In reality, they wouldn't make it farther than the next
corner." Nearly all of the servicemen interviewed said they didn't
bother taking prisoners--after all, for them it was the safest thing
to do. "We had a clear-cut policy with prisoners: We didn't take
any," said another police commando. "To be more precise, we did take
one prisoner once and tried to hand him over to the procurator's
office. But one of our men was wounded on the way, and then we
decided--no more prisoners. What's the point? We already risk our
lives greatly when we fight against them. Why risk them again to save
the lives of fighters and give them the chance to go to jail when what
they deserve is death? . . . You can carry out the sentence right on
The summary executions don't just take place against suspected
fighters. One 33-year-old army officer recounted how he drowned a
family of five--four women and a middle-aged man--in their own well.
"You should not believe people who say Chechens are not being
exterminated. In this Chechen war, it's done by everyone who can do
it," he said. "There are situations when it's not possible. But when
an opportunity presents itself, few people miss it. "I don't know
what it is, bespredel or not," he continued. "But it is a war. A war
is a very cruel thing, and matters of life and death should not be
judged by civilian standards."
Mutilation of corpses and torture were reported less frequently but
clearly were common in a number of units. Several servicemen
interviewed for this report confirmed that some members of Russian
special forces cut off the ears of their victims in a revenge ritual.
"Cutting ears may seem savage to some, but it has its explanations,"
said one commander. "It's an old tradition among the special
forces--you cut off the ears of the enemy in order to later lay them
on the tombstone of your friend who was killed in the war. . . . It's
not a manifestation of barbarism. It's just our way of telling our
deceased mate: Rest in peace. You have been avenged."
* * *
"I would kill all the men I met during mopping-up
operations. I didn't feel sorry for them one bit."
Boris' body was both built and broken by years of boxing. His face,
hands and torso have the strength and subtlety of cinder blocks. Since
he returned from the war zone, he has had trouble sleeping at night.
"Sometimes I fear I will not be able to control myself, especially
after a couple of drinks," the thirtysomething police commando
says. "I wake up in a cold sweat, all enraged, and all I can see is
dead bodies, blood and screams. At that moment, I'm ready to go as far
as it takes. I think if I were given weapons and grenades, I would
head out and start 'mopping up' my own hometown."
He says he can no longer remember all the people he killed.
"I killed a lot. I wouldn't touch women or children, as long as they
didn't fire at me. But I would kill all the men I met during
mopping-up operations. I didn't feel sorry for them one bit. They
deserved it," he says. "I wouldn't even listen to the pleas or see the
tears of their women when they asked me to spare their men. I simply
took them aside and killed them."
When he came home from Chechnya, he resigned from his unit. He says
he's happy to be in a regular job. And he's trying to forget the war.
But there are some things he can't forget.
"I remember a Chechen female sniper. She didn't have any chance of
making it to the authorities. We just tore her apart with two armored
personnel carriers, having tied her ankles with steel cables. There
was a lot of blood, but the boys needed it. After this, a lot of the
boys calmed down. Justice was done, and that was the most important
thing for them.
"We would also throw fighters off the helicopters before landing. The
trick was to pick the right altitude. We didn't want them to die right
away. We wanted them to suffer before they died. Maybe it's cruel, but
in a war, that's almost the only way to dull the fear and sorrow of
losing your friends."
* * *
Killing for Revenge
Notions of provocation and revenge are central to the servicemen's
mind-set. In Russian culture, a man not only has the right but is also
honor-bound to respond to a "provocation." When a Russian serviceman
is killed or mistreated by the enemy, his comrades must take revenge.
Nearly all of the servicemen who recounted incidents of bespredel--a
slang term that originated in Russia's prisons--described them as
revenge attacks for the deaths of their comrades.
"When you see your mates drop down on the ground, when you take your
dead and wounded to the hospital, this is when hatred rises within
you," said a 23-year-old army officer. "And the hatred is against all
Chechens, not just the individual enemies who killed your
friends. This is when bespredel starts."
These tendencies in Russian military culture have been intensified by
a virulent Russian hatred of the Chechens--a hatred running higher in
this conflict than in the 1994-96 war in the republic. A major reason
is the blood-curdling acts of the Chechen fighters themselves--while
enjoying de facto independence for three years, many ran brutal
kidnapping gangs that abducted Russian hostages, some of whom were
tortured and killed. Russian TV reports have repeatedly broadcast gory
footage of atrocities allegedly committed by the Chechens, including
mutilations and beheadings.
"Why should human rights be respected only from one direction?" a
police commando complained. "It's always from our side and never from
Russia's human rights critics don't dispute the monstrosity of the
crimes committed by Chechens. But Malcolm Hawkes, a researcher with
Human Rights Watch, points out that according to international law,
"Russia is obliged to respect human rights regardless of abuses
committed by the other side." Military analyst Alexander I. Zhilin, a
retired air force colonel, says that's a hard standard to live by in
the heat of war. "Russian soldiers ask themselves and their
commanders simple questions: 'Why can the Chechens do anything they
want, kill right and left, and get away with it? Why are our hands
tied?' " Zhilin said. "Sometimes commanders have to turn a blind eye
to these terrible things because this is the only way to prevent a
mutiny among soldiers, or often because they simply feel the same
way." Moreover, after a series of bomb attacks in Moscow and
elsewhere last year that killed more than 300 people, the Russian
public and Russian servicemen have accepted the official line that
this is not a war against unsavory separatists but a fight against
inhuman "bandits and terrorists."
The view has been enhanced by a barrage of news reports depicting the
fighters as mercenaries and religious fanatics, many of them from
other countries. While it's unclear what proportion of the fighters
come from outside Russia, many of the servicemen were convinced that
it was a majority--making it easier to consider them alien.
Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident who served as human rights
commissioner in Chechnya during the first war until he was fired for
his outspokenness, says the Kremlin fosters a culture of impunity that
makes it all but certain that some excesses might take place.
"As usual, it is the authorities who are to blame because they
deliberately refuse to do what they should do--monitor the situation,
suppress unlawful actions and severely punish the guilty. But they
deliberately do not do it," he said.
"If one were to make a list of those guilty of the cruel treatment of
peaceful civilians, one should start with President [Vladimir V.]
Putin," Kovalyov said. "He knows perfectly well what is happening."
And that, Kovalyov said, is "not too far from genocide."
* * *
"It's much easier to kill them all. It takes less time for them to die
than to grow."
Valery is a personnel officer, what in Soviet times would have been
called a commissar. He's a lieutenant colonel responsible for morale
and discipline. He shouldn't talk to reporters. But the night is
dark, the beer from the roadside kiosk outside his army base is cold,
and he has a lot on his mind. He checks documents, then launches into
"In this war, the attitude toward the Chechens is much harsher. All
of us are sick and tired of waging a war without results," he
says. "How long can you keep making a fuss over their national pride
and traditions? The military has realized that Chechens cannot be
re-educated. Fighting against Russians is in their blood. They have
robbed, killed and stolen our cattle for all their lives. They simply
don't know how to do anything else. . . .
"We shouldn't have given them time to prepare for the war," he
continues. "We should have slaughtered all Chechens over 5 years old
and sent all the children that could still be re-educated to
reservations with barbed wire and guards at the corners. . . . But
where would you find teachers willing to sacrifice their lives to
re-educate these wolf cubs? There are no such people. Therefore, it's
much easier to kill them all. It takes less time for them to die than
Valery was in Chechnya in the early phase of the war, when he says
there was little oversight from the high command and there were no
"Now the press sets up a howl after the death of every Chechen. It has
become impossible to work. We know very well that thousands of eyes
are watching us closely. How are we expected to fight the bandits in
such circumstances? "The solution, in fact, would have been very
easy--the old methods used by Russian troops in the Caucasus in the
19th century. For the death of every soldier, an entire village was
burned to ashes. For the death of every officer, two villages would be
wiped out. This is the only way this war can be brought to a
victorious end and this rogue nation conquered."
Valery acknowledges that atrocities occur but says that, in effect,
soldiers are carrying out a policy the government needs but is afraid
to declare. "For political reasons, it's impossible to murder the
entire adult population and send the children to reservations," he
says. "But sometimes, one can try to approximate the goal."
* * *
Doing the Job Right
Russia has deployed a motley force of 100,000 in Chechnya. The men
have different reasons for going, and they have different jobs when
they get there.
The job of seizing territory falls largely to federal forces, under
the Defense Ministry, which include elite paratrooper and special
forces units, as well as infantry and artillery regiments composed of
both conscript and contract soldiers. The job of holding territory
and weeding out rebels from the local population--so-called mopping-up
operations--falls largely to troops under the jurisdiction of the
Interior Ministry. Among them are elite police commandos, known as
OMON and SOBR, as well as enlisted Interior Ministry troops consisting
of both conscripts and contract soldiers. Russia's first war in
Chechnya was largely--and badly--fought by conscripts. By law, all
Russian men are supposed to serve for two years starting at age 18,
and in the previous war many found themselves in the war zone before
they knew how to fire their rifles. This war was supposed to be
different, to be fought mostly by second-year conscripts and
professional soldiers. But contract soldiers, while older, are not
really professional. They are largely men who sign up for the
money. All have served their time as conscripts, and some have served
several tours of duty--often because they find themselves unable to
hold down a civilian job. "I signed up because I have nothing else to
do," said one, who admitted that he had just split up with his wife
and has been unable to find a regular job. "If things were normal
here, I wouldn't go, but the way things are, what other choice do I
The elite police forces, while highly trained, also are not exactly
combat soldiers. The OMON is largely schooled in riot and crowd
control, SOBR in fighting organized crime. They are sent to Chechnya
on two- or three-month assignments.
The police special forces and career soldiers tend to be older, and
most have families at home. If they refuse an assignment in Chechnya,
they face discipline or dishonor before their comrades. So, many take
the assignments and, once in the war zone, do whatever it takes to
return home safely. To induce the contract soldiers and police troops
to sign up, the Russian government offers hefty combat pay--800 rubles
a day, about $28. At home, career soldiers and police earn only about
1,500 rubles, about $50, in an entire month. That's an average wage,
but even in Russia it doesn't go very far. Many said the money is a
powerful incentive. "Look out the window," said one army officer,
interviewed on his military base. "You'll see a whole line of new cars
While the career soldiers and elite police forces face professional
pressure to serve in Chechnya, contract soldiers are volunteers,
viewed with suspicion by many of the other branches as little more
"The worst thing is when a person goes to Chechnya to make money,"
said a 34-year-old OMON officer. "A person who does that should really
have his head examined by a psychiatrist, for this person clearly has
a propensity for sadism."
* * *
"So there will be one Chechen less on the planet, so
what? Who will cry for him?"
Gennady is a paratrooper and proud of it. He's wearing a telnyashka,
the paratroopers' trademark striped undershirt, and a robin's-egg-blue
beret studded with badges. It's Paratroopers' Day, and the 24-year-old
has come to a city park to meet his pals and trade war stories. He
spent a few months in Chechnya last winter and expects to return this
Gennady says his officers taught him to trust no one in Chechnya, not
even the children.
"There were cases when small kids would run to the middle of the road,
right in front of a moving convoy of trucks and APCs. And they were
shot dead right on the spot by soldiers who thought the kid could be
carrying a mine or a grenade. Hell knows, maybe they weren't. But it
is better to be safe than sorry."
Gennady says that although he's been home for a few months, his hatred
"I hated them when I fought in Chechnya, and I hate them now. I can't
even watch TV when it shows Chechens--I feel all my muscles start to
ache and I want to smash something."
Gennady says the most important lesson his commanders taught him was:
Shoot first. Think later.
"Our officers would always teach us: Be careful, do not feel ashamed
to be afraid of everything. Fear is your friend, not your enemy, in
Chechnya. It will help you stay alive and come back home to your
families. If you see someone who looks suspicious, even a child, do
not hesitate--shoot first and only then think. Your personal safety is
priority No. 1. All the rest does not matter. So there will be one
Chechen less on the planet, so what? Who will cry for him? Your task
is to complete the mission and return home unscathed."
* * *
Fearing Only Fear
Most of the interviewed servicemen describe a corrosive atmosphere of
fear and isolation in the war zone that was often relieved by acts of
violence against Chechens, both fighters and civilians.
Such fear was compounded by the difficulty of coordinating between so
many different kinds of Defense and Interior Ministry forces; soldiers
reported frequent misunderstandings, including an unnerving number of
casualties from "friendly fire."
"You can't imagine anything more horrible than the sight of your
buddy, who was at your side a few minutes ago, blown to pieces, bits
of his flesh steaming in the snow," said one 19-year-old
conscript. "Especially when it's your own side that did it." As a
result, many Russian units feel vulnerable and isolated on the
battlefield. They aren't sure that they can count on other units to
keep them supplied and safe, and tend to assume that they have to fend
One theme repeated by many of the servicemen is that in the war zone,
each unit's commander was left more or less to set his own standards.
"I was lucky I wound up in a good regiment that wasn't a madhouse,
with a normal commander," said the 35-year-old soldier. "Everything
depends on the commander." Moreover, most of the servicemen had been
told that the Chechens had a special animosity for their particular
unit--that they would suffer excruciating torture at Chechen hands if
they had the misfortune to be captured. True or not, those stories
induced many Russian servicemen to assume the worst about any Chechen
they met--man, woman, young, old.
"Our commander told us all the time, 'There's no such thing as a
Chechen civilian,' " a conscript said.
Finally, the servicemen said they resort to atrocities because the
authorities--both the political leadership and the judicial
system--leave them unprotected.
"Bespredel emerges when soldiers know that the state is too far away
or too little interested in supporting or controlling servicemen,"
said one 25-year-old police commando. "And then everyone starts acting
on his own, making his own decisions on the spot. Everyone is
responsible for his own life. How decently he does that depends on his
individual experiences, both good and bad, and on his level of
* * *
"War crimes have no expiration date. . . . When you die, you will have
to answer to God."
Denis is a major with the elite police forces. He is a training and
morale officer, and he accompanied a contingent of his men to Chechnya
He acknowledges that servicemen don't have much to fear from the
military procurator and other investigators.
"It's easy for a person to get away with almost everything," he
says. "You take this wretched Chechen down into a basement or a cellar
under the guise of checking his documents in a quiet place. And then
you just knock him off the way you want. There are no eyewitnesses,
and no one will say anything.
"Usually it happens like this: You walk along the street and see a
house with a basement. Why stupidly enter it? Why risk your life for
nothing if you can avoid it? At best you just spray gunfire around, at
worst you throw a couple of hand grenades into the basement. . . . In
a war, you have to do your job and stay alive. If I walked into every
single basement I had to check before securing the place by throwing
in grenades, you would not be talking to me now."
Denis took photos of one incident. His unit was preparing to lift off
in a helicopter when the troops were warned that a Chechen sniper was
in the area. They found him hiding in the bushes near the helicopter
pad, armed with an antitank grenade launcher.
"We did not talk much," he remembers. "The officers began to try to
convince the soldiers not to execute the guy without a trial, but the
soldiers said, 'No way.' . . . They took him to the side and unloaded
their clips right into his body--90 bullets altogether. "I took
photographs of him before the execution, and I also photographed his
dead body afterward. Boy, he looked terrible--the bullets broke his
fingers and disfigured his palms. They turned his face and head into a
bloody mess. He looked like a pile of fresh meat clothed in
blood-soaked rags." When he returned home, Denis printed the photos.
"Sometime later I took a look at them and thought to myself: 'Why on
earth do I need these pictures? Who am I going to show them to?' "
So he destroyed them.
Denis says he was troubled by that incident and others. But that's the
kind of thing that happens in a war.
"Any war is a legitimized right granted by the government to one
person to decide on the life and death of another person. . . . When
soldiers go to Chechnya for the first time, they are afraid of that
responsibility just as they are afraid to die. But as time goes by,
they look at other soldiers who are on their second or third trip and
they change. They come to understand that they have much broader
powers than back home. This power intoxicates them--in fact, they can
do whatever they want when no one is watching, and they will get away
"But war crimes have no expiration date," he concludes. "And every one
of us knows that if you do something bad, you will have to live with
it for the rest of your life. And when you die, you will have to
answer to God."
* * *
Fighting 'Total War'
The Soviet Union signed the Geneva Conventions after the end of World
War II. Officially, that means that Russia's armed forces are
obligated to abide by the principles of the accord: that civilians and
combatants who have surrendered should be treated humanely and that
violence of any sort or execution of war prisoners is forbidden.
But in a guerrilla war, experts say, it is nearly impossible to
separate combatants from noncombatants.
"In a partisan war, it's hard for even the best armies to maintain
standards of conduct," said Jacob Kipp, a professor at the University
of Kansas and an expert on the Russian army. All the same, Kipp and
other analysts say, the Russian armed forces have a few cultural
features that make wartime atrocities more likely than in Western
armies. First of all, public debate over the morality of a war
focuses on whether it was right to begin hostilities in the first
place; unlike in the West, there is no tradition of asking whether the
way the war is waged is also moral. "Russians come from a tradition
that all war is 'total war,' " Kipp said. "After you've made the
decision that it's right to start a war, there isn't any notion that
there can and should be limits on how you conduct the war." Second,
the Soviet army tolerated a higher level of casualties than Western
armies, a mind-set that continues. Some servicemen said they were
convinced that their commanders considered them expendable.
"In Russia, winning wars has always been a matter of quantity, not
quality," said one conscript. "They don't even count us as
losses. We're just meat. A conscript is nothing in the army. It's like
a chain--the generals don't value our lives, so we don't value the
lives of the Chechens."
Third, the Russian public has been overwhelmingly in favor of the
war. For most of the past year, polls reported that between 60% and
70% of Russians supported continuing the hostilities. In such a
climate, the subject of atrocities committed by the Russian side is
all but taboo in Russian society. However, not a single person
interviewed on or off the record for this story--not high-ranking
officials and not low-ranking servicemen--denied that Russian troops
in Chechnya have committed war crimes and violated human rights.
"It's a real problem, and you're right to bring it up," war spokesman
Yastrzhembsky said. "It's well known in the army. The command is
working on it. But it's a difficult issue that doesn't lend itself to
a quick solution."
Finally, a major difficulty Russia faces in addressing the issue of
atrocities is that the Russian armed forces--unlike Western
armies--have no effective system of accountability for wartime
Kremlin officials say they are doing all they can to find and punish
servicemen guilty of human rights abuses. "Neither I nor the
president has ever said there are no violations of human rights in
Chechnya. . . ," said Vladimir A. Kalamanov, President Putin's special
representative for human rights in Chechnya. "We are working as fast
as we can so that these violations of human rights will disappear from
the political map of the Chechen republic."
But the interviewed servicemen painted a different picture. Not only
do the authorities not make a serious effort to investigate war zone
misconduct, they said, but they also sometimes go further. The
23-year-old army officer recounted how investigators from the military
procurator's office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, helped
his unit cover up war crimes such as the summary execution of
"The FSB officers would always write in their reports: 'Killed in
cross-fire,' " he said. "They would never give away our soldiers.
There's always been mutual understanding. It's the same as if your son
kills a bandit--would you go and report him to the police? Of course
not. The same with the FSB. They were on our side. They understood us
and supported us."
The military procurator's office, which operates today much as it did
in Soviet times, tends to focus on misconduct within the
ranks--offenses such as hazing and selling service weapons--not the
treatment of civilians and enemy fighters. The military procurator's
headquarters in Moscow and its North Caucasus department in the
southern city of Rostov denied The Times' repeated requests for an
interview or written information.
Yastrzhembsky and Kalamanov acknowledged that only a fraction of
investigations of crimes involving servicemen has been completed. They
provided the following figures: Of 467 criminal investigations opened
by the military procurator since the start of the war, only 72 have
led to indictments. Only 14 are for crimes against civilians. None has
gone to trial.
Moreover, that's only half the story. The military procurator has
jurisdiction over only the federal forces. Misconduct by servicemen
under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry is handled by the
civilian general procurator's office.
For instance, according to documents obtained by The Times,
investigation of the largest massacre allegedly committed by Russian
troops--the killings of at least 62 civilians in the Grozny suburb of
Aldy on Feb. 5--was transferred from the military procurator to the
general procurator's office last spring because police troops
allegedly were involved.
It is unclear how actively the general procurator's office is pursuing
such investigations. In written responses to The Times, the general
procurator's office said that, since the start of the war, it has
indicted 179 servicemen for crimes of all sorts, from minor military
infractions such as mishandling weapons to murder.
The chief spokesman for the general procurator's office, Leonid
Troshin, said he couldn't say how many of the servicemen have been
charged with serious crimes or crimes against civilians, or whether
any of them had been convicted. And he declined to provide an update
on the progress of investigations into the Aldy massacre or other
incidents documented by human rights groups. "The number of crimes
committed by [rebel] fighters by far surpasses the number of crimes
committed by Russian servicemen," Troshin said when asked by telephone
to elaborate on his written statement. "This is exactly what we have
been trying to prove." One of the few people who have broached the
subject of Russian atrocities in public is Aslambek Aslakhanov, a
retired police general who was elected Chechnya's deputy in parliament
in an August ballot that many viewed as a Kremlin propaganda exercise.
But his descriptions of what he calls Russian troops' "arbitrary
violence and unlawfulness" have gone unreported in the state media and
were reported only cursorily in the independent media. Aslakhanov
says that's because it's hard for anyone--in either the government or
the public at large--to face the truth. "One's ears love to hear that
things are going well. It's hard to believe what is happening, that
this could be taking place at the end of the 20th century," he
said. "If Russian society knew the truth about what was happening in
Chechnya, they would completely change their minds about Chechens as a
people, and they would take steps to remove this pain, to right this
wrong." Aslakhanov said he fully supports the use of force to rid the
republic of the rebels, who he says have brought his people nothing
but ruin. But he also insisted that war zone misconduct and atrocities
are unworthy of Russia. And they risk undermining whatever victory is
eventually achieved in Chechnya--both by earning the enduring enmity
of the Chechens and by besmirching Russia's reputation around the
"There are many people even among the military who say this must end,"
Aslakhanov said. "But it is like dirty laundry that they don't want to
air in public.
"But you have to learn the truth before you can solve anything."
Russian servicemen warn that the large amount of bespredel on the
Russian side is not only harming Chechens, it's also creating a new
generation of troubled Russian men with deep psychological problems,
many of whom are violent. Many of the returning servicemen said they
were experiencing symptoms such as nightmares and an inability to
control their anger. Many said they or their comrades were drinking
One 40-year-old police officer warned: "There are not enough
psychologists in all of Russia to treat those who are returning."
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