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Johnson's Russia List
17 September 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
1. AFP: Will truth ever emerge about sinking of Kursk?
2. The Observer (UK): Amelia Gentleman, Nuclear disaster averted.
Russian power plant workers praised for 'heroic' operation to cool
3. Los Angeles Times: Maura Reynolds, War Has No Rules for Russian
Forces Fighting in Chechnya. 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.]
Will truth ever emerge about sinking of Kursk?
MOSCOW, Sept 17 (AFP) -
Will the truth about the catastrophe that sank the pride of Russia's fleet of
nuclear submarines, the Kursk, killing all 118 crew onboard, ever emerge?
More than a month since the August 12 explosion that sent the
state-of-the-art submarine plunging to the bottom of the Barents Sea, the
Russian authorities say they are no closer to penetrating the mystery.
But a sensational German newspaper report on September 8 that the craft was
hit by a misfired Russian missile during a war games blunder resurfaced in
recent days when a senior Russian lawmaker offered the same version of events.
Russia's navy, already humiliated by the loss of its prized craft and the
failed rescue efforts in the aftermath of the tragedy, moved quickly to stamp
out this troubling line of inquiry.
Resurrecting accusations that a US submarine collided with the ill-fated
Kursk, the Russian defence ministry said Saturday this theory had been
strengthened by Washington's refusal of a Russian inspection of two US
Pentagon chief William Cohen's rejection of the request from Defence Minister
Igor Sergeyev "only strengthened the case that the Kursk collided with
another underwater vessel", the defence ministry told Interfax.
An investigation by Russian military experts has concluded three possible
causes of the disaster: that the Kursk struck a World War II-era mine;
collided with an underwater object, possibly a British or US submarine or was
sunk by an explosion in one of its torpedo tubes.
Washington and London have repeatedly denied their vessels were involved in
any incident with the ill-fated Russian nuclear submarine, which sank during
This version "is very convenient for the naval command and the Kursk's
designers," said lawmaker Sergei Zhekov, a member of a parliamentary probe
investigating the accident.
The "Peter the Great" nuclear cruiser had launched five missiles in the wake
of a mock attack by the Kursk, but only four were found after the training
exercise, asserted Zhekov, a former submarine officer.
His claim came a week after Germany's Berliner Zeitung daily reported that
Russian security services had concluded the nuclear-powered submarine sank
after being hit by a torpedo from the Peter the Great.
Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who heads the government inquiry into
the loss of the Kursk, on Friday dismissed Zhekov's statement as "crazy."
He told parliament that the true reason for the accident would not be known
until the submarine was raised, an operation planned for autumn 2001.
But that is unlikely to ever take place, according to respected Moscow-based
commentator Andrei Piontkovsky, pointing out that both Klebanov and the
Russian atomic energy minister recently cast doubts on the risky operation.
"They never plan to raise the Kursk, because the reasons for the accident
will become evident and made public," he said.
"What is going on now is a political game, trying to introduce into public
consciousness that the Kursk was hit by an American submarine, but there is
nothing to back that up," added Piontkovsky.
According to US experts, the most likely explanation -- only slightly less
damaging to Russian naval pride than a friendly fire blunder -- was the
misfiring of a torpedo by the Kursk.
US officials speaking on condition of anonymity said data recorded by US
submarines in the area showed that two internal explosions -- the second much
larger than the first -- tore through the forward part of the submarine about
two minutes apart.
The Observer (UK)
September 17, 2000
Nuclear disaster averted
Russian power plant workers praised for 'heroic' operation to cool reactors
Amelia Gentleman in Moscow
A nuclear catastrophe - triggered by a fault in Russia's ageing electrical
grid - was averted last week thanks to a 'heroic' emergency operation by
power station workers.
Details of how one of Russia's main nuclear plants and the country's largest
plutonium-processing centre came close to disaster emerged slowly, prompting
new alarm in a country still reeling from a string of disasters.
Nuclear experts said 'courageous' workers at the Beloyarsk power station and
the Mayak reprocessing plant had managed to prevent a Chernobyl-style
accident. Environmental campaigners warned that the crumbling state of
Russia's infrastructure meant such close escapes could be expected with
Preliminary investigations showed that a short circuit in the regional
electricity system caused a sudden blackout in three nuclear reactors in the
Urals. Its cause remains unclear, although it has been widely attributed to a
fault in the poorly maintained network.
Unexpected power cuts at nuclear plants, which are designed to work
ceaselessly, pose a severe risk. There was controversy yesterday over whether
built-in emergency electricity systems took over as they should have done.
Minatom, Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, insisted that all back-up
systems at both sites began working in the seconds after the accident, but
environmental activists reported that the standby electricity generators of
at least one of the reactors had failed to start.
These sources say a technical hitch at the Beloyarsk plant, in the Sverdlovsk
region, meant that the diesel generators built into the reactor failed to
start automatically. Without a separate supply of electricity, the cooling
system at the heart of the plant allegedly stopped working - causing the
temperature in the core reactor to soar to dangerous levels, as workers lost
control over the chain reactions occurring within.
'The problem was that the diesel generators were in poor condition and so the
staff on the plant needed 36 minutes to repair them to get them started,'
said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Ecodefence organisation, which has
spent the past week gathering information about the mishap. 'It was up to the
personnel on the plant to avert a serious nuclear accident. They worked
Alexei Yablokov of the Centre for Ecological Problems of Russia endorsed this
view: 'We were just half an hour from another Chernobyl - had it not been for
the professionalism of the plant staff.'
At around lunchtime on Saturday last weekend, a crash echoed from within the
walls of the Beloyarsk compound. Local residents - many of whom were
celebrating the annual town festival - listened in horror. Most of the people
who live in Zarechny, the settlement which has grown up around the plant, are
either current or former employees - so were well equipped to judge the
gravity of the noise.
The precise cause of the sound remains unclear. Unconfirmed sources suggest
that while technicians struggled to get the diesel generators working, they
were forced to shut down the reactor manually. Residents may have heard steam
spurting suddenly from the cooling plant, as pressure in the system mounted.
One of the immediate results of the shutdown at Beloyarsk was a power failure
at the nearby Mayak processing plant in the Chelyabinsk region, where two
reactors were in operation.
The potential consequences of malfunction at the vast, high-security Mayak
plant are no less alarming. Scientists there take spent nuclear fuel from all
over the former Soviet Union and convert it into weapons-grade plutonium and
high-level waste. The site is estimated to contain 120 million curies of
radioactive waste - much of it held in liquid form in vast tanks - including
seven times the amount of strontium-90 and caesium-137 that was released in
Mayak was without power for 45 minutes and the reactors were automatically
shut down. The head of the plant, Vitaliy Sadovnikov, told a local newspaper
that this was the worst blackout the station had faced and it was only his
staff's 'near-military discipline' which prevented a serious accident.
He said the back-up electricity provider, designed to cool down the reactors
in the event of such an emergency, had only been started up 30 minutes after
the plant was brought to a halt.
But yesterday Bulat Nigmatulin, a Deputy Minister at Minatom, said these
reports were lies. 'This unpleasant situation came about because for the
first time there was a breakdown in the local energy system,' he said.
'The atomic installations at Beloyarsk and Mayak are protected against this
kind of accident, and on this occasion everything went exactly according to
plan, with on-site emergency electricity sources starting up immediately.'
He said 30-minute delays would have led to explosions in the reactors.
Officials at both plants report there was no radiation contamination as a
result of the emergency shutdowns. Environmental activists in the region
continue to test the site, but are so far satisfied that this is the case.
Although a crisis was averted, analysts agree that both mishaps are sobering
examples of the ease with which a disaster could be sparked.
'The fact that the grid was down for 45 minutes is extremely alarming,
because it means that control was temporarily lost in these crucial nuclear
installations,' said Tobias Muenchmeyer, atomic energy expert with
Some commentators linked the initial power cut to the campaign by Russia's
electricity monopoly to cut off those customers with outstanding debts. They
speculated that by suddenly switching off one area of the grid, Unified
Energy Systems might have precipitated the short circuit. UES officials deny
this, and a government commission has been set up to investigate.
State officials are eager to promote atomic energy as a means of heating and
powering their vast country. A strategy document published by Minatom in May
advocated that Russia should radically increase its nuclear capacity over the
next 20 years, building up to 24 new reactors.
Independent experts affirm that over the past five years the number of
emergency shutdowns in Russian reactors has dropped fourfold, and over the
past two years financing of safety monitoring has increased. But the memory
of the Chernobyl disaster 14 years ago remains uncomfortably fresh.
Los Angeles Times
September 17, 2000
COLUMN ONE: War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Fighting in Chechnya
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. "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."
By MAURA REYNOLDS, Times Staff Writer
MOSCOW--They call it bespredel--literally, "no limits." It means acting
outside the rules, violently and with impunity. It translates as "excesses"
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 achieve
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
"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
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
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
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 works."
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
"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
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 spot."
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
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
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
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
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 a diatribe.
"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 to grow."
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 pesky
"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
"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
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 have?"
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
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
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 parked outside."
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 than mercenaries.
"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
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 fall.
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 for
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
"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 cynicism."
"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 last
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
"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
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 with it.
"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
"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
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 conduct.
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 detainees.
"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
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
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 world.
"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
"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 heavily.
One 40-year-old police officer warned: "There are not enough
psychologists in all of Russia to treat those who are returning."
Tomorrow: The savage industry of Chechen kidnapping.
The Year Since It Began
Aug. 7: Chechan guerrillas seize villages in Dagestan, igniting
fighting with Russian forces. Sept. 4-16: A series of fur bomb explosions
in Moscow and other cities leaves 305 people dead; authorities blame
Sept. 23: Russia begins to shell Chechen cities using aircraft and
Sept. 30: Russian ground troops enter Chechnya.
Nov. 13: Aerial assaults on Grozny; the Chechen capital, begins.
Feb. 2: Russian troops take Grozny, rebels free into the mountains.
Feb. 29: 84 Russian paratroopers are killed when rebels trap them in a
mountain gorge, the highest single battle death toll for Russia.
July 2: Five suicide truck bombings kill at least 37 Russian servicemen.
Aug. 20: Russia holds elections in Chechnya to elect a parliament
deputy for the republic; Asiambek Aslakhanov, retired police general wins.
Source: Russian government, Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for
FIVE CENTURIES OF CONFLICT Russia first set its sights on conquering
the Chechens and the other peoples of the North Caucasus under the reign of
Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, but his forces met fierce resistance
and were forced to retreat. Peter the Great was the next Russian ruler to
take up the challenge of subduing the Chechens, in the 18th century, but he
didn't have much more luck.
In 1816, Alexander I tried again to conquer the mountain peoples,
unleashing the ruthless Gen. Alexei Yermolov, who destroyed entire villages
and slaughtered their residents, hundreds of families at a time. In 1834, a
charismatic leader known as Shamil united the Chechens and neighboring
Dagestanis and led them a fierce war of resistance that lasted nearly three
decades before Shamil finally surrendered.
In Soviet times, Chechnya was part of the Chechen-Ingush autonomous
republic. The region was occupied by the Nazis during World War II; Soviet
dictator Josef Stalin accused the Chechens of collaboration and in February
1944 loaded the entire nation onto train cars and sent them into exile in
the desert in Kazakhstan. They began to drift back to Chechnya after
Stalin's death in 1953.
The period of exile, which many living Chechens remember with
bitterness, strengthened the idea of Chechen nationhood, eventually leading
to the wars that have racked the republic in the last several years.
Excerpts From the Geneva Conventions
Excerpts from Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which relates to
internal armed conflicts:
1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members
of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de
combat (unable to fight) by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other
cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse
distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or
wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any
time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds,
mutilation, cruel treatments and torture;
b) Taking of hostages;
c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and
d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without
previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording
all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by
About This Report
The servicemen who discussed these issues with The Times did so on the
condition that they not be identified. As a result, this report has omitted
or changed their names and omitted their hometowns and the identity of
In addition, no servicemen interviewed for previous reports in The
Times--many of whom could be identified through information in those
stories--played a role in this report. All of the servicemen were
interviewed outside the republic of Chechnya.
A Russian version of this story is available on The Times' Web site: