But this isn’t Putin’s first op-ed for the Times. Back in 1999, when he was still prime minister (Boris Yeltsin was still president at this point), Putin defended Russian military intervention in Chechnya.
In 1999, Prime Minister Putin argued that Russia has been forced into an “antiterrorism campaign” in the breakaway Russian republic after a series of apartment bombing attacks. Putin compared Russia’s “accurately targeted strikes” to U.S.-backed bombing of the former Yugoslavia. “Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population,” he writes.
The backstory is that Chechnya had broken away from Russia after the first Chechen war during the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s. Putin, then a rising star in Moscow, had made reclaiming the effectively independent Chechnya a priority. What began as military strikes in 1999 evolved into a notoriously bloody conflict that would become known as the Second Chechen War, with separatist insurgents fighting until 2009.
Official estimates suggest the death toll could have been as high as 160,000, with huge numbers of civilians left injured, displaced, or dead. It’s a very murky period of Russian history — there has been a long-running, and not completely incredible, rumour that the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB) engineered the apartment bombings as a “false flag” to garner support for Putin and a new war in Chechnya.
In 2013, the Russian leader’s opinion seems to have changed. “No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect,” he writes.
Despite the differences between the two op-eds, there’s also one telling similarity. Both 2013 and 1999 Putin are clearly very worried about Islamic terrorism. In Syria, “there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government,” Putin writes in 2013. In 1999, Putin was warning the readers of The New York Times that the Islamic terrorists he was fighting in Chechnya were financed by Osama bin Laden. If you remember this is two years before the September 11 attacks in the U.S., that does seem a little prescient.
There’s also another factor: While Putin’s 1999 op-ed may be framed in terms of military intervention, it may be better to think of it as Putin justifying a central government using extreme force to put down a rebellion. Think of it that way, and it’s easy to see why Putin sympathizes with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
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