Russia's wars in Chechnya offer a grim warning of what could be in Ukraine Russia unleashes a heavy bombing campaign. Cities are reduced to rubble. Thousands of civilians are killed. Russia did that twice in Chechnya in the 1990s. Is a repeat likely in Ukraine today?

Russia's wars in Chechnya offer a grim warning of what could be in Ukraine

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Russia unleashes a heavy bombing campaign - cities and towns reduced to rubble, thousands of civilians killed. Russia did that twice against fellow Russian citizens in Chechnya nearly three decades ago. NPR's Greg Myre reported from Chechnya during the 1990s, and he's been thinking about that conflict as he watches what's unfolding in Ukraine today. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

FOLKENFLIK: It's been a few years. Remind us, how did that first Chechen war begin?

MYRE: So Chechnya is this tiny Muslim republic in southern Russia, just about a million and a half people. And it began agitating for independence after the Soviet Union broke up. So Russia then invades in 1994 with relentless airstrikes and artillery, tens of thousands of civilian deaths, completely flattening Chechnya's capital, Grozny.

Now, David, I've covered a dozen or so wars. This is the greatest devastation I've ever seen - just block after city block, every building completely destroyed. The only sort of point of comparison are those black-and-white photos of European cities leveled in World War II. So after two years of this in Chechnya, Russia actually lost. It pulled its army out of Chechnya, granted autonomy, and it was a huge humiliation for Russia's military.

FOLKENFLIK: We should note that this war and that infliction of damage was done before Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999. What happened when he took over?

MYRE: Right. So President Boris Yeltsin was still in charge of Russia, but he was about to leave office. And he named this largely unknown figure, Vladimir Putin, to be the prime minister on August 9, 1999. And then just 17 days later, on August 26, Russia re-invades Chechnya, unleashing another major bombing campaign. Now, it was equally brutal and ultimately more effective. Russia took control after a few months. And then Putin flew into Grozny in a Russian fighter jet wearing a full pilot outfit, and he climbed out of the cockpit in a symbol of triumph. Putin installed a friendly leader in Chechnya. Now, he was assassinated a few years later, but his son still leads Chechnya today. And Chechen troops are fighting with the Russian military in the war in Ukraine.

FOLKENFLIK: What, then, should we take from these Chechen wars as we think about Ukraine right now?

MYRE: So I called Thomas de Waal. He was a journalist covering Chechnya in the '90s. He's now in London with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He sees military parallels between Chechnya and Ukraine and also political parallels.

THOMAS DE WAAL: There was a project, which was to restore Chechnya to Russian control - nowadays, in 2022, to restore Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence. And there was no Plan B. Once the people started resisting, which came as a surprise in Chechnya and is coming as a surprise in Ukraine, there's no political Plan B about what to do with the resistance.

MYRE: Now, he says Putin was expecting or at least hoping to invade with little or no pushback. The model was that sort of bloodless Russian conquest in Crimea in 2014, but what he got was Chechnya 1994.

FOLKENFLIK: Crimea, of course, is part of Ukraine. Why was it such a cakewalk for the Russians?

MYRE: The Russians really just snuck in. Everybody was talking about these little green men. They didn't even know where they were from because they had no insignias on their uniform. And they quickly took over Crimea, where Russia already has a naval base. And there was really no shooting, no fighting. And that's what Putin was hoping for again.

FOLKENFLIK: What should we expect in coming days, then?

MYRE: All the signs are pointing toward heavy fighting for the cities, the likelihood of heavy indiscriminate attacks that will keep hitting in civilian areas most likely. The World Health Organization says at least two dozen attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities have taken place in just two weeks of fighting. The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told a Senate committee Putin is unlikely to be deterred by setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure.

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