It’s worth exploring this twisted logic. It explains why Russia continues to support and supply Assad even as he systematically uses artillery, Scud missiles and, most likely, deadly sarin gas against his own people, but it also shows why Russia and the United States should never become full partners in counterterrorism, as Putin proposed last week.
Let’s look first at the wars in Syria and Chechnya — which, in fact, have quite a lot in common. In both countries, decades of repression prompted a popular rebellion with democratic goals. In both, the old regime refused to accept a new order. Instead, the predominantly secular independence movement of Chechnya, like the predominantly secular democracy movement of Syria, was subject to a massive military onslaught that made no distinctions among peaceful protesters, militants and innocent bystanders.
Putin oversaw the second Russian invasion of Chechyna in 1999, after the failure of an earlier campaign. The Chechen capital of Grozny, like the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo, was targeted indiscriminately by tanks and artillery and reduced to rubble. Thousands of suspected Chechen militants were abducted, tortured and killed. Villages where rebels were suspected to be operating were sealed off and subjected to sweeps in which all men and many boys were taken away. Though an accurate death toll has never been established, tens of thousands were killed.
The first leader of independent Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev
, was so secularized that, according to the Economist magazine, he was not sure how many times a day Muslims pray. Another, Aslan Maskhadov, won a democratic election in 1997 with 59 percent of the vote, compared with 23 percent for an Islamist opponent. Both were assassinated by Russia. As the relentless offensive continued, the Chechen resistance, like that of Syria, radicalized. Islamic extremists filtered into the country from elsewhere and began building their own organizations.
Like Assad, Putin from the beginning of the war had claimed that the only resistance was terrorist. His brutality eventually made his propaganda mostly true; since 2002, attacks by extremist Chechens have haunted the North Caucasus as well as Moscow. Putin has responded to those with an equally heavy hand. When Chechens seized a Moscow theater in 2002, security forces killed 130 hostages by flooding the facility with gas. When a middle school in Beslan, North Ossetia, was taken over by another terrorist cell in 2004, security forces stormed it with heavy weapons; more than 330 hostages died, most of them children.