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Russia’s modern wars and imperialism: a history of blood, terror & propaganda

The attention of the international community has rarely been focused on this simple and horrifying truth: modern Russia has been waging wars since the very first years after the fall of the USSR. Most of its wars follow the same inhumane and repetitive patterns: political provocations, funding separatism & terrorism, heavy casualties among civilians due to widespread use of artillery and aviation, poverty and lawlessness in the invaded regions, and a backdrop of outlandish Kremlin propaganda.

To show that Russia has always kept up its brutal imperialist ambitions, we only have to list the wars from 1991 to 2015 with some short qualifying remarks:

  • Armed conflict in Transnistria (1990 — 1992). Russia created a lawless breakaway region in Moldova, supplying local criminals and separatists with weapons and armored vehicles. 
  • South Ossetian War (1991 — 1993). A war between Georgia and its breakaway region South Ossetia. Russia supplied weapons to both sides, funded separatists, and then froze the conflict, using its army as an oppressive “peacekeeping” force.
  • War in Abkhazia (1992 — 1993). The second breakaway region created by Russia within Georgia’s sovereign borders. The conflict was orchestrated by Russia via the same methods and for the same reason: to exert pressure on Georgia, blackmail and try to control its government.
  • First Chechen War (1994 — 1996). The first truly bloody and large-scale war conducted directly by Russia against the Chechen republic when it tried to attain independence. The war saw heavy use of artillery and aviation, the bombing of civilians, and the destruction of cities.
grozny eric bouvet
Women sell drinks and food in a bombed-out street in Grozny. May 1995.
Photo: Eric Bouvet
  • Second Chechen War (1999 2009). The second phase of the Chechen war, the “Empire strikes back” scenario, where Russia took revenge for its previous defeat. These two wars became a brutal “school” for Russian artillery officers and pilots on how to bomb cities into submission via mass killing of civilians. This experience would later be used in Syria and Ukraine to horrifying effect.
  • Russian-Georgian War (2008). The final (as of now) act of the conflict with Georgia, where Russia finally used the excuse of the breakaway republics it itself created to openly invade Georgia with its army. The war inclulded bombing of peaceful cities by Russian planes.
  • Occupation of Crimea (2014 present day). The Kremlin reaction to Ukraine’s move towards democracy and global integration. The annexation was done via military invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula by the Russian army and a staged fake referendum.
  • War in Donbas (2014 present day). The invasion and temporary occupation of parts of Donbas and Luhansk regions. Russia used covert army operatives for provocations and armed local criminals and separatists with heavy weapons.
  • Military operation in Syria (2015 present day). One of the most terrible modern acts of military brutality. Started by Russia for political reasons, it was notable to due to the bombing of civilian hospitals by Russian aviation, indiscriminate killing of civilians and the horrific (nearly complete) destruction of the city of Aleppo by Russian forces.

What were the goals of these armed conflicts, wars, and invasions?

Grozny russian military
“My country may be wrong. But it’s my homeland!” – reads the sign on the armored vehicle of the 101st special forces brigade of the Russian Army. Grozny, February 2000.
Photo by Yuri Kozyrev

Russia creates breakaway regions, using the “salami method” (or the creeping invasion). The salami method is a metaphor used by some political analysts: Russia expands its oppressive global influence by slicing off parts of neighboring countries with the eventual goal of full takeover. Before the 2022 war in Ukraine, it did so slowly, gradually, to minimize international sanctions. This ensures the global community gets tired of dealing with protracted conflicts and loses its focus and unity.  This has proven effective up to 2022, as Russia was never punished severely enough to stop.

International blackmail and imperialist influence abroad: by creating frozen conflicts throughout Eurasia, and stationing its troops there, Russia can exert influence on smaller countries, terrorizing countries like Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine (and indirectly their neighbors like Lithuania, Poland and the Baltic states). It can also blackmail and threaten larger global players like the EU and U.S. that are forced to enter into negotiations or deal with the fallout of Russian aggression. Essentially, this is geopolitical equivalent of a schoolyard bully or domestic abuser.

Popularity at home, distracting its own population using the myth of “imperial greatness”. Despite the trillions of roubles earned from energy exports, Russia’s population is in constant economic and societal crisis, with millions living in medieval conditions. The Kremlin regime robs its own country blind but retains its power by distracting the people from poverty and corruption using military conquest. This way, the people can focus on the “myth of imperial greatness”, on the idea of a “special Russian destiny” instead of rebelling against internal problems in Russia.

Methods of the Russian army and government, casualties

Russian bombing Georgia
A Georgian man cries over the body of his friend after the Russian bombing of Gori city, August 2008.
Photo: Gleb Garanich.

Bombing and shelling civilian cities and areas. Even back in 1991, the Chechen capital of Grozny was reduced to rubble by Russian bombs with no regard for civilian lives. When looking at photos of the leveled city from 1994, one can’t help drawing a horrible parallel to the brutallized Mariupol and Kharkiv in 2022. Nothing seems to have changed.

Civilian casualties and humanitarian disasters are a traditional attribute of Russian wars. Depending on the source, civilian deaths from Russian bombings in the First Chechen War are stated as anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country in 1994-1996. Russia’s war with Georgia resulted in 192,000 refugees; 224 civilians killed and 15 missing; 547 civilians injured.

The list goes on and on.

Arming separatists & criminals. This has also been a method copy-pasted by Russian imperalists, FSB operatives and Kremlin politicians over and over. The Transnistrian conflict started by Russian provocateurs taking Moldovan police officers hostage. Then the local criminals and separatists were armed with Russian weapons (firearms, tanks, artillery). The same exact methods were used in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine: the criminals in the occupied regions of Donbas and Luhansk, for example, were declared by the Kremlin to “have found the tanks abandoned in old coal mines”.

Covert operations of the Russian army. The armed aggression of Russia in Transnistria, Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine pre-2022 all included Russian special forces entering other sovereign countries to cause provocations, occupy cities and cause violence. Independent investigations indicate that many so-called “local rebels” were actually Russian soldiers out of uniform. 

How did Russian propaganda frame these conflicts?

Russian military
Russian honour guards in the rehearsal for the “Victory Day” parade in Moscow, 2022.
Photo: Reuters

Muddying the water (international propaganda). The goal of Russian propaganda abroad is based on the KGB playbook: sow chaos and confusion, spread so many outlandish and contradictory narratives that the civilized world doesn’t know what to believe. This is called upon to ensure there is no unity in the West. Examples of this are ridiculous claims about “repressions of Russian-speakers”, “Ukrainian nazis”, “nations” of Transnistria or Crimea (which are just administrative regions of sovereign countries) and many other examples of disinformation. The end result: Western freedom of speech is used to seed propaganda and confuse minds.

Xenophobia and machismo at home (internal propaganda). The Chechen wars were justified to regular Russians by painting the Chechens as islamic extremists. Russian society was mobilized based on the government fostering xenophobia and racism. Ukrainians also face an unprecdented level of hate from Russia in 2022, with state propaganda justifying “de-Ukrainization” in official publications (essentially – physical and cultural cleansing) with the rhetoric similar to Germany in 1939.

On the other end of the propaganda spectrum, the murderous Russian army is presented at home as “liberators” and “peacekeepers”, ignoring the facts of war crimes: killings, rape, bombing civilian homes, etc. Supposed Russian military might is presented as a point of pride to the regular Russian citizen.

Learn more about how Russia’s Victory Day is brainwashing young Russians and turning them into murderers and rapists

How have these invasions and wars affected the regions Russia supposedly “liberated”?

Transnistrian cities of Bendery, Tiraspol, and Dnestrovsk in 2017. Photos: Julia Autz, Mikhail Kalarasha

The long-term influence of Russia’s invasions and frozen conflicts on the occupied territories inevitably results in poverty and criminality. Transnistria is entirely dependent on Russian subsidies, it is a hotbed of smuggling and illegal weapon trade; many investigators claim it is a country controlled by the local mafia. Territories like Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in a terrible state as well: the locals survive on subsistence farming, and most of the industrial manufacturing has shut down.

The man who started the Russian invasion of Donbas in 2014 (the terrorist and FSB operative Girkin) himself admitted that the Russian occupation has turned the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk into a criminal wasteland. Since Ukraine temporarily lost control of these areas, the UN has reported growing lawlessness, cases of killings, torture, and abduction carried out by the Russian-backed forces.

Is there anything else besides the wars? Discover Russia’s real place in the world when it comes to economics and social development.

Why wasn’t there more international attention (and more punishment) for these Russian wars?

G8 summit in 2007
French president Nicola Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel meet with Putin during the G8 summit in 2007.
Photo: Associated Press

Energy exports. Any political confrontation with Russia is complicated by the energy dependency of many European countries on Russian oil and gas. Even though income from these exports is literally used to finance Russian wars, some European states have their economy (factories, industry) and population (ex: heating of homes) dangerously tied to Russian energy. This has led to closer political ties starting from the early 2000s.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has led to discussion of removing these dependencies, but the history of the last 20 years still remains.

Fostering international corruption. Russia not only has a deep culture of corruption at home that affects all areas of society (136th worst in the world out of 180 countries, with no improvements over 20 years), but it also “exports” corruption to compromise other countries. The FSB and Kremlin use Western democracy and free markets to “weaponize” corruption, buying influence in many companies, media institutions and political circles.  This ensures that when the time comes, the regime in Moscow can sow discord among civilized countries and push through harmful decisions and narratives.

Propaganda and the “salami method”. These methods already mentioned above work effectively to lower the reaction of the global community. Cutting off territories piece by piece and sowing confusion via propaganda previously stopped the civilized world from presenting a unified front.  The invaded countries are also often far away geographically and not well-known by the Western world culturally (once again – Russia uses the classic abuser tactic of isolating its victims).

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine of Ukraine has forced the international community to look deeper into the nature of Russia’s military aggression. However, to prevent more tragedies happening in the future, we must truly understand the past.

Ivan Shovkoplias, сommunications consultant, Ukrainian media volunteer