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In Chechnya and Syria, ominous signs for Ukraine

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

One word kept coming up when Maura Reynolds talked to survivors of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya.

MAURA REYNOLDS: The word they would use over and over again was cauchemar - you know, nightmare. But that's trivial compared to what they really experienced.

MCCAMMON: Two decades before this current war in Ukraine, Russia launched its second war in Chechnya, a majority-Muslim republic that's part of Russia. Reynolds was the LA Times Moscow correspondent back then, and she remembers then-President Boris Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin characterizing the mission as a campaign to stamp out, quote, "bandits and terrorists."

REYNOLDS: It was a chorus - bandits and terrorists - just like you hear Russian officials, including Putin now, talk about, you know, Nazis.

MCCAMMON: David Filipov was in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1999, when the Russian offensive began. He was reporting for the Boston Globe, and he says there was a pattern - first airstrikes; then a city would be surrounded.

DAVID FILIPOV: Then essentially everybody in the area is now part of the war. There is no safe zone, and then it's anything goes.

MCCAMMON: In both Chechen wars, he remembers indiscriminate, apparently targeted attacks on civilians.

FILIPOV: I've seen Russians bombard, you know, an outdoor auto parts market because that's where there were a lot of people or a fountain that has running water in a city that has no running water. And it just basically tells people in that area, there's no life here for you. You have to leave.

MCCAMMON: And for those who tried to leave, even humanitarian corridors held risks.

REYNOLDS: My colleagues and I interviewed people who were leaving through those corridors, and they all reported being fired upon. You know, it got to the point where the civilians who were left didn't know whether it was safer to stay in their basements or safer to try to leave. I mean, it was a catch-22 for them.

MCCAMMON: After the war ended, Reynolds says very little was left of Grozny.

REYNOLDS: The ground was literally charred. There were very few buildings in the center of Grozny still standing - the remains of a wall here and there and not much else. All the trees were burned, you know, had lost all their branches and leaves. Even though it was spring, there was no green. There was no sign of life.

MCCAMMON: Both reporters are following the news now out of Ukraine. And all of it - the visuals, the Russian rhetoric and the tactics - it feels grimly familiar.

REYNOLDS: I think anyone who visited Chechnya during or after either war is having flashbacks when we look at the pictures right now of what's happening. You know, and we know - those of us who were there - what it looked like in the end, and we fear the same thing could happen in Ukraine.

MCCAMMON: We wanted to learn more about the lessons of Russia's military campaigns in Chechnya and later in Georgia and Syria to understand what might unfold next in Ukraine. So we called up Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group think tank, an expert on Russia's combat strategies.

OLGA OLIKER: The Russian approach to warfare tends to emphasize what military analysts like to call fires, which is bombardment. It's artillery strikes. It's missile strikes. Russians have historically referred to artillery as the god of war. That tends to also involve civilian casualties.

You know, I think because of that, Russians have a reputation for not minding if civilians die fairly or unfairly. And I think you can make an argument in some cases looking at how they fight that it might be partially intentional. There might be targeting of civilian populations in order to try to convince an adversary to back down.

MCCAMMON: You sound uncertain about whether it's intentional. I mean, some of the reports we're seeing from Ukraine certainly appear intentional.

OLIKER: Yeah, but there are people in Afghanistan and Iraq who will tell you that when the United States hits civilian infrastructure, hits places where people live, that's intentional. So if it's intentional, it's a war crime. It is really hard to prove. That's why I'm careful with how I describe it.

MCCAMMON: What about the accusations of violating humanitarian corridors, firing on evacuation points that were supposed to be set up to allow civilians to get out?

OLIKER: So again, it sure looks bad. You've got an agreement to evacuate civilians. And then there's Russian shelling of the places where the civilians are being evacuated. And it is reminiscent also of things we saw in Syria. But, again, if you're going to try to prove that in a court, it's going to be hard to prove.

MCCAMMON: As you've mentioned, the U.S. certainly has its history of civilian casualties in countries where it operates. I mean, one of the last U.S. military actions in the war in Afghanistan, which I think you alluded to, was a drone strike that killed innocent children. The Pentagon said they were intending to hit the planners of an earlier attack at the Kabul airport. Do you see a fundamental difference, though, between these approaches, the U.S. approach and the Russian approach?

OLIKER: So I think that overall, the United States takes greater pains, whether it's from a legalistic standpoint or through their own perception of morals, to avoid civilian casualties, though I don't think that's always successful. If you look at how Russians fight each, you know, historically, it certainly looks like civilian casualties aren't as big a worry to them. You know, they said you can also attribute some of it to not having as much in the way of precision munitions, etc., etc. But, you know, the effects of a Russian war do tend to involve a lot of dead civilians.

MCCAMMON: How does that history on the part of the U.S. undermine the ability of the U.S. to criticize Russia at this moment?

OLIKER: You know, I don't think it necessarily does. It does give the Russians something to push back on. And arguably, it gives the Russians a playbook and a script for what they say when they're accused of targeting civilian populations, right? The Americans said that they were targeting fighters. The Russians say they were targeting fighters. But I think in general, look. The international community exists to call states out for bad behavior even if other states are guilty of similar bad behavior.

MCCAMMON: Is there a cost to Russia if it kills a large number of civilians during this campaign? I mean, it brings international condemnation, but does Russia care about that?

OLIKER: We saw them really trying to avoid civilian casualties in the first days of the war, and I do think part of that was based on an expectation that the Ukrainian population was a friendly population. Once you've realized that the people aren't really with you, you might not have quite as many scruples. But if you're still planning on occupying the parts of Ukraine you're currently bombing, occupying them will be that much harder.

I do think what has happened is Plan A failed, and Plan B militarily is this reversion to very heavy artillery and missile approach. And the question of, OK, so what are we going to do with that next, what happens if we win, I'm not sure has been really unpacked.

MCCAMMON: Considering Russia's strategy in previous conflicts, what are you expecting to see next? And how concerned are you?

OLIKER: So I expect to see more and worse, honestly. You know, if you look at Syria, if you look at Chechnya, they could do a lot more damage. And my expectation is that they probably will. So, you know, this does worry me a great deal because it's going to kill a lot of people and do a lot of damage.

MCCAMMON: Olga Oliker is program director for Europe and Central Asia with the International Crisis Group, a think tank focused on conflict prevention. Thank you so much for your time.

OLIKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.