February 17, 2017:
While the intensity and extent of the current outbreak of Islamic terrorism is new for Russians their methods for dealing with it in Chechnya, the Caucasus and elsewhere are not. The Russians continue to resort the ancient tactics of attacking the civilian population and threatening annihilation through starvation and constant acts of murder, rape and plunder. This sort of thing goes back to antiquity and the Romans coined a phrase for it; create a desert and call it peace (“ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant”, or they create desolation and call it peace). You still find these tactics being used in many current conflicts even though by the 17th century Western Europe had agreed to try and abandon this and by the 20th century most developed nations considered these older techniques a war crime. Yet Russia got away with it in Chechnya in the 1990s and again in Syria after 2015. What Russia did in Syria with artillery and air strikes the Syrian government had already been doing since 2012 and that included preventing supply trucks from reaching pro-rebel populations. There is talk of war crimes prosecutions over this, but as long as Russia and China back the Assad government this is unlikely to happen. The UN has always been opposed to the Assad’s “scorched earth” tactics which involve deliberate use of aircraft bombing and artillery attacks on residential neighborhoods. The civilian suffering is unprecedented and getting worse.
The Russians initially tried the “Western approach” when Chechnya tried to separate itself from Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia responded with a kinder and gentler military operation (1994-6) that killed over 35,000 people, and failed. Russia withdrew and left the Chechens to their own devices. In effect, the Chechens could pretend they were independent while the Russians pretended they weren't. Problem was, the Chechens could not agree on how to form a unified government, and stumbled into a perpetual civil war. Along the way, some factions adopted Islamic radicalism and tried to spread their "Islamic rule" into adjacent areas that were still very much under Russian control. Other, less religious, Chechen factions, used Chechnya as a safe haven for smuggling and kidnapping operations throughout southern Russia.
All this led to a new (and more old school) Russian government to try military force again. In 1999 the second pacification campaign made greater use of commandoes and better trained and led troops in general. But the 1999 campaign also included massive attacks on civilians. This was easier in 1999 than five years earlier because once free of Russia rule, even briefly, the ethnic Chechens sought to drive out most of the ethnic Russian civilians. This was common in most of the 14 nations created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union but was nowhere as violent as in Chechnya.
This 1999 campaign succeeded in pacifying the population and then another ancient technique was employed to keep the area quiet. Basically, the Russians sought out Chechens who would be willing to run Chechnya, under Russian supervision, as long as they could keep the crime and terrorism under control. The Russians didn't care how "their Chechens" did it, as long as there was not a return to the 1994-9 era of rampant criminal activity. And no Islamic terrorism either. That worked and the violence, and Islamic terrorism inside Chechnya, and Russia declined.
Russia has been periodically pacifying Chechnya for two centuries using these techniques and doing so in other parts of Russia even longer. While the mass media condemned Russia for its brutal tactics, the Russians didn't care. They didn't care in the past when criticized by foreign governments and media. They don't care now because they know they'll have to do it again in the future. Meanwhile with the Chechnya problem "solved," Russia sought to improve its relations with Moslem nations as a way to immunize itself from additional Islamic terrorism. Russia's new Moslem friends were less likely to support Islamic radicals trying to gain a foothold among Russia's growing Moslem population if Russia proved itself a useful foreign power. Russian diplomatic efforts were supported by offers to sell weapons and providing diplomatic support in the UN, and in other international venues. This has worked, and Russia is now much more popular in Moslem nations, despite the defeat of the Moslem people in Chechnya. This was a repeat of methods used by the communist and czarist governments.
When reminded of this, the Russians merely point out that, for the most part, it is Moslems killing Moslems in Chechnya and that sort of thing is accepted throughout the Moslem world. But bombs going off in Moscow kills non-Moslems, and the government responds savagely to that. The government has announced that the security forces have been ordered to use "more aggressive" tactics against the Islamic terrorist groups in the Caucasus. This will work. Russia will be criticized for using arbitrary arrest and torture of non-Slavs throughout the country. Russia won't care, and will do what it has long done when it felt threatened.
Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have long been troubled by corruption and crime. This breeds unrest among the population, and with the Internet, it's easier for the angry young men to get organized, and dangerous. But in Syria Russia is showing that it not only recognizes the effectiveness of older techniques but can still carry them out.