Vienna, October 10 – The cost of the Chechen war to Russia is only now becoming apparent, with officials this week reporting on the number of Russian combat deaths there and scholars reporting that many Russians who took part in the fighting now finding it difficult if not impossible to reintegrate into Russian society.
On Monday, Major General Aleksandr Kirilin, the chief of the Russian Military Memorial Center, announced that the Russian military and other security services had suffered 6,688 deaths in Chechnya so far since the start of the Russian campaign there in 1994 (http://www.kavkaz.memo.ru/printnews/news/id/11990001.html).
Other observers, however, insist that Kirilin’s figures are far too low. Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial Human Rights Center, for example, says that his group estimates that approximately 15,000 Russian service personnel had died in Chechen conflict, with an additional 75,000 civilians killed there as well.
One reason that many specialists on this conflict are suspicious of Russian statistics is that officials of the human rights office in Chechnya now say that they have found mass graves, where not only Chechen fighters but Russian soldiers and other security personnel have been interred.
And still others point out that the Russian side continues to lose people in this fighting on a daily basis in Chechnya and the neighboring republics of the North Caucasus, mean that it is too early to close the book on deaths from that conflict, however optimistic Moscow observers and the Western media may be.
But even if one accepts Kirilin’s number as reasonable, that means the Russian Federation has already lost approximately half as many men in Chechnya as the Soviet Union claimed it had lost in the course of its invasion of Afghanistan, a military disaster that many believe hastened the end of the USSR.
The true cost of the war to Russia, however, involves far more than that, of course, involving both the far larger number of wounded, the families of both, and the impact of the war on Russian veterans of the conflict and the reputation of the Russian state in the eyes of its own people and the world.
There is already a great deal of anecdotal evidence that the Chechen conflict has affected many of these veterans in the same way that the Afghan war produced a generation known as “Afgantsy” – returning soldiers who turned to crime or violence because they could not re-adjust to civilian life.
But there have been almost no comprehensive studies of this fall-out from the Chechen war. The Russian military and security services have been reluctant to allow any independent scholar to look into a situation that at the very least calls into question Moscow’s portrayal of heroic nature of the Russian side of this war.
Now, however, the Demos Center has released its findings of a major study entitled “The Militia Between Russia and Chechnya. Veterans of the Conflict in Russian Society.” (On the release, see http://www.demos-center.ru/events/20159.html; for selections from the book: http://www.polit.ru/research/2007/10/09/chechnya1.html.).
The Demos Center researchers conducted extensive interviews with OMON and MVD officers who served in Chechnya but who have since returned to their homes in the Adygei and Komi republics and Tver and Nizhniy Novgorod oblasts. The scholars also spoke with the wives of many of these men.
The researchers concluded that the existing Russian government programs intended to reintegrate these men into society were insufficient because they “do not correspond to the problems the veterans have.” As a result, the study said, the trauma many of them suffered in Chechnya has carried over into their lives at home.
While in Chechnya for six-month tours, the Demos interviewers found, the militia officers typically lived in heavily guarded bases in nearly complete isolation from the Chechen population. As a result, they became increasingly suspicious of all Chechens and were ever more willing to use force against any of them.
Given the violent nature of the conflict, the researchers continued, that made sense, but by “violating the taboo on the use of force” that they had accepted in civilian life, the veterans not only were more likely to use it against all and sundry but also to view force itself as the proper first response to any challenges.
And this in turn has meant, the Demos writers say, that the returning militiamen have acted in ways that “increase the zone of alienation” that has always existed between society and the militia in Russia, something that has highlighted their inability to reenter peaceful life.
Unfortunately, this study suggests, Moscow officials are only beginning to recognize the problems of the returning veterans as a policy challenge lest the violence of the Chechen campaign continue to undermine the possibility of peaceful progress in the Russian Federation.
The experience of the Soviet Union and Russia in the years since Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, not to mention that of other countries whose veterans have come home from particularly bloody conflicts, indicates that addressing this problem successfully will not be easy or quick.
And that reality is compounded in this case by the fact that the war in Chechnya is not over as the Kremlin claims and may even mow be metastasizing into other regions of the North Caucasus, where it is certain to destroy the lives not only of people there but also in the society whose government launched the war.