The constant boom of artillery in the near distance is the defining feature of life in the Donbas today. As Russia presses its offensive to take the eastern part of Ukraine, the signs of conflict are everywhere: buildings smashed to ruins by cruise missiles, Ukrainian tanks and howitzers on the highway headed east. The Donbas region, encompassed by a front stretching hundreds of miles and currently the scene of the most extensive fighting in Europe since World War II, is in total war mode.
The Russian military machine, which has overwhelming superiority in artillery, is grinding forward slowly but surely, conquering an additional kilometer or two a day at immense cost to the defenders. Exhausted Ukrainian soldiers speak of weeks of fighting under relentless bombardment, heavily outgunned by an opposing force that has recovered from its initial blunders and is now fighting the sort of war it was designed for. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Moscow is pushing on eastern Ukraine a fate much like the one it imposed on another unruly former vassal at the start of Putin’s reign: Chechnya.
The Russian plan for Ukraine is grimly apparent from that earlier template. In a years-long conflict, which began more than two decades ago, Putin destroyed a sovereign state and subjugated its people, creating in its place a land of ruin, chaos, and fear. For that same plan to proceed in Ukraine, a country with a population 40 times the size of Chechnya’s, would be exponentially more ruinous.
The plan unfolds in a few set phases. The first is pacification. This comes quickly where it can, and slowly, via obliteration, where it cannot. In Chechnya, the rapid part took place in most of the outlying areas, the towns and villages that dot the once-picturesque Terek River plain, where Russian forces rolled through in late 1999. In the case of Ukraine, the south was easily overrun; the open terrain and insufficient defenses offered little resistance to the Russian advance that swept through cities such as Melitopol and Kherson in the offensive’s first week.
In other areas, the more lightly armed defenders hold out en masse, especially when they are able to utilize the cover of major urban areas. This necessitates the other main Russian tactic. In the Chechen capital, Grozny—whose very name, chosen by a czarist general, means “terrible” in Russian—the level of bombardment rained down upon the defenders from late 1999 to early 2000 was so great as to gut nearly every building in the city. Its vacant shell was assessed by the United Nations as the “most destroyed city on Earth.” In Ukraine, this fate has been visited upon Mariupol: once a handsome and vibrant city reduced under three months of siege to a smoking ruin.
Occasionally, of course, the defenders must be reminded that their failure to submit unconditionally entails the most severe consequences—not just for the fighters but for their families too. In Chechnya, Russian troops habitually lined up entire civilian populations of villages or neighborhoods for massacre; in the town of Novye Aldy, for example, at least 60 civilians were summarily executed in February 2000. In the suburbs of Kyiv, such as Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka, Russian soldiers similarly demonstrated the price to be exacted for resistance.
Once the Russian conquest is complete, a suitable satrap must be found and empowered to rule the natives. Even the Chechens, a people whose spirit of near-unbreakable resistance inspired Russian writers from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, offered up a few candidates. Chief among them was Akhmad Kadyrov, the former grand mufti of Ichkeria, as the independent republic was known. His rule was brief, ended by assassination in 2004, but his remarkably brutal son Ramzan, himself a former rebel, proved an effective substitute. In Ukraine, there have been candidates enough in the already occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and other, newly captured regions have put forward their own: a local thug who sees a chance for advancement under the new boss or a pliant councilwoman who is willing to provide an ersatz sense of normalcy while the occupiers go rooting out the holdouts.
Finally, the establishment of the new order. Of necessity for a time, the locals will be held down by occupation forces, but they must come to obey their own, to be self-sufficient in their repression. A new apparatus of domination will be constructed, one that sees the vanquished take responsibility for crushing the remaining indigenous resistance. Token incentives will be provided: some Potemkin redevelopment in the style of Grozny’s garish neon skyscrapers or its enormous mosque (for a time the largest in Europe).
The traumatized citizens will be taught a new version of their own history, one in which their absorption into Russian vassaldom was entirely voluntary and, in fact, a salvation from “radicals” and “terrorists” who had sought to destroy them. Eventually, the new generation will be brought up with the idea of service to the Russian motherland as a sacrosanct obligation, under the guidance of a leader who renames the capital’s main avenue after the Russian president and regularly declares himself Putin’s “foot soldier.” Military service in the next round of Russia’s imperial conquests will be not only expected but enforced, with conscription drives hauling off young men from these new territories for whatever the next war is.
Perhaps the most ominous aspect of this plan is the Russian willingness to wait years, if necessary, to enact it fully—even if a seemingly durable truce delays progress toward that goal with a prolonged pause in military operations. The First Chechen War, in the mid-1990s, did not end in Russian victory. That came later, and only after a debacle that saw Russian troops suffer a humiliating defeat in the second Battle of Grozny in August 1996, when groups of well-coordinated Chechen insurgents infiltrated the city and cut off Russian units trapped inside. The blunders of the first month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were strikingly similar to those of its initial two-year campaign in Chechnya. Back then, we saw the same absurd political expectations of no resistance—Russia’s then–defense minister, Pavel Grachev, famously claimed that he could take Grozny in two hours with a single airborne regiment—and the same phenomenon of confused, demoralized Russian soldiers deserting their vehicles.
The resulting cease-fire agreement, the Khasavyurt Accords, had Russian troops withdraw from most of the republic and even saw Moscow recognize Chechen sovereignty, in a seeming decisive victory for the separatist cause. But Moscow was patient, waiting and watching as the nascent but devastated Chechen state started to rend itself apart. With central authority destroyed by years of war, the republic’s president, Aslan Maskhadov, was unable to establish control over the various militias that had formed and grown in power throughout the war. In this atmosphere of chaos, poverty, and death, the secular nationalist forces that had provided the Ichkeria movement with its initial impetus were shoved aside by the growing influence of right-wing radicals—in this case, Salafist Islamist militants led by the infamous commander Shamil Basayev, as well as foreign ideologues such as the Saudi warlord Ibn al-Khattab.
In the meantime, Russia’s reconstituted army and government, under the direction of Prime Minister Putin, found a renewed casus belli: a series of bombings of Russian apartment buildings, atrocities widely suspected to have been conducted by Russia’s secret service, the FSB, in a cynical false-flag operation to justify a second invasion. This time, the Russian army used its overwhelming firepower to destroy any Chechen resistance before advancing into Grozny’s ruins.
In Chechnya today, the process is complete; the republic long ago reached the final stage of imperial integration. Behind this apparent settlement, a cosmetic, temporary peace reigns. Grozny’s seemingly prosperous streets and gaudy cafés front a republic of fear, in which militiamen and security officers, both plainclothes and uniformed, rule with impunity. The recent past can be discussed only in whispers: Even around a family dinner table, most Chechens will not risk the slightest criticism of Ramzan Kadyrov, for which they can be arrested, tortured, or worse.
Thirteen years after the declared end of the Second Chechen War and the insurgency that followed, the region continues to produce more refugees than anywhere else in Europe, as people flee the regime’s arbitrary repressions in numbers that have only lately been eclipsed by the movement of refugees from Ukraine. At the same time, a tangible anger bubbles beneath the surface everywhere, a burning hatred toward Kadyrov and his brutal ilk. Nearly all Chechens expect that a third war will one day erupt—with the implicit hope that, this time, Kadyrov will be dragged from his palace to meet a similar end to Muammar Gaddafi’s in Libya.
Russia’s plan for Ukraine, in the south and the east, is still at an early stage. In the Kherson oblast, captured by Russia in May, plans for a referendum that will either establish a sham independence or join the region to Russia outright are afoot. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have been conquered or carted off into Russia are now being fed the same revisionist history lessons that students in Chechnya have received for two decades already. In another parallel, an insurgency is taking root against the occupiers in the country’s south.
For now, Ukraine’s fate remains in the balance. The nation is much larger than Chechnya, and its people are committed to the struggle. The flow of military aid to Kyiv from the West far outstrips anything the beleaguered rebels of the North Caucasus could count on. Yet the logic of attritional conflict is now on Russia’s side, and Putin’s strategic patience is based on sound precedent. Moscow knows what it wants the outcome of the war in eastern Ukraine to look like, because it will look like Chechnya. Should the West abandon a ravaged Ukraine to a similar fate—a flawed cease-fire leading to a failing state that is prey to a refocused Russian assault—this will be the scenario.
Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated when the bombings of Russian apartment buildings occurred.