The Other Side of the Story

Scot Gall

© Copyright 2005 by Scot Gall


It is now a decade since hostilities broke out in Chechnya. But according to two former Russian intelligence agents, the west has long been woefully ignorant of the true nature of the conflict.

Speaking through a translator in their suburban Moscow office, Ivan and Sergei conveyed a common view that both America and mass media had fomented instability across the Caucasus.

Such was the firmness of this view that not even a would-be Australian freelancer was immune from initial suspicion.

“Before you ask any questions I want to ask you something,” began Sergei, sitting beside a computer.  “What exactly do you want from us?”

Upon being assured of sincere intentions Ivan explained from his armchair that they wouldn’t be providing their surnames. Furthermore, they would prefer that their first names not be used in print and that fake names be used instead: names like Ivan and Sergei.

It was also made clear from the outset that they were in possession of highly classified information, so there were some things they would not be willing to discuss.

The men began by outlining their time in the service. Ivan was in charge of a detachment of troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He entered Chechnya in December 1995 and was there for two years, staying on to evacuate ethnic Russians from Grozny and monitor Chechen rebels after military operations halted in August, 1996. He returned to the region in mid 1999 when Chechen forces invaded Daghestan, quitting the military later in the year.

Sergei was in the Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlene (GRU), the Main Intelligence Directorate. His unit was the crème de la crème of the Russian military, a collection of officers from various special forces. He entered Chechnya in mid-1995 and served along the Ingushetian border until the end of the first conflict, returning when the rebels invaded Daghestan. He quit the military in 2001.

The men never knew each other during their service but became friends after gaining employment at the same security firm under a boss they both knew and respected.

“(Our boss) was also in Chechnya,” explained Ivan. “And (with Soviet forces) in Afghanistan. He was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honour for a (Soviet) soldier.”

Following initial formalities the conversation moved on to what the men viewed as the media-peddled myth of a David versus Goliath style conflict.

“There was evidence of many foreign fighters (on the Chechen side), even in the first war,” said Ivan, his eye contact constant. “After combat the Chechen’s took bodies of (fellow) Chechen’s with them but left the bodies of foreign fighters behind. It was obviously very easy for us to distinguish them.”

Ivan detailed a number of occasions he had inspected such bodies, describing it as a routine means of gathering information before reporting to intelligence chiefs. But, as he explained, it was not the only evidence he encountered.

“The Chechen’s only needed foreigners to fight but they had no other interest in them. After the (first) war they handed scores of Baltic and Arab fighters over to our side. We also obtained a lot of video tapes, filmed evidence made by the Chechen’s in which they executed (foreign) fighters.”

On the question of how the Chechen’s were armed it was Sergei’s turn to speak, and he pointed the finger at a combination of Soviet negligence and foreign interference.

“The majority of their weapons were the same weapons left behind by Russian troops after the (fall of the) Soviet Union. The foreigners occasionally had their own weapons, but the Kalashnikov was the most common.”

With the exception of the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), Sergei was loathe to name those who may have provided directed assistance. But he went on to discuss the nature of the assistance.

“They received a lot of logistical support: trucks, cars full of supplies, communications systems, satellite systems, telephones, uniforms and huge amounts of money. They also received a lot of weapons- mainly Kalashnikovs, because it’s much easier to get bullets and parts for them.”

Regarding less direct interference Sergei was far more willing to name names, starting with the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

“There was evidence that fighters were allowed to organise bases and training camps there... After combat they would cross the border into the Pankisi Gorge and Argun (in order) to rest.”

Ivan and Sergei were unsure about how high up the assistance came from, but Sergei said there was ample evidence that Georgian border authorities had granted permission for fighters to enter. In addition, he said that fighters had official offices in the area and that the hidden hand of the USA was more than apparent.

“The US has helped the Chechen’s in a number of ways because they want to keep Chechnya unstable to justify their (military) presence in Georgia,” he said.

Although there was no hard evidence to support his claim, Sergei said that through their numerous attempts to mediate, by holding discussions with rebel leaders and letting brand new American equipment fall into rebel hands (albeit, through third parties), the US had made their intentions perfectly clear.

“It’s not in their interests to make Chechnya separate from Russia,” he said, as Ivan nodded along in agreement. “They want instability in Chechnya so the Russian Federation has to pour in extra forces and resources... Another reason they do this is so it (Russia) will remain pre-occupied and stay out of other issues.”

Sergei was also of the opinion that America had used media outlets to provide disproportionate coverage of human rights violations, systematically ignoring abuses committed by the Chechen’s.

He was more than happy to discuss some of these abuses.

“After the (temporary) truce many Russian POW’s were given back, but most of them were dead,” he said.

In response to the question of whether he had lost any friends, Sergei answered matter-of-factly.

“Three of my friends were POW’s. One was beheaded, his head sent in a pack to one of our bases. The other two escaped after more than six months and were found (by Russian forces) several days later. The doctors (who inspected them) were shocked that they had so many broken bones. They were both permanently disabled.”

After detailing the injuries, Sergei felt it necessary to point out that there was a major difference between the Chechen fighters and civilians, many of whom were “... pro-Moscow people, good people.”

This was a view that Ivan also shared.

“It’s necessary to understand that there are many civilised people in Chechnya. But the society is very divided, every tribe fights each other. Because of this internal fighting many people in the mountains are uncivilised,” said Ivan.

“It’s a medieval situation with no rules and it’s very easy to kill. These are the people that need civilisation, but the tribe members are very powerful and it’s a difficult situation for federal forces.”

Wishing to elaborate on his statement, Ivan paused briefly before continuing.

“The situation (in Chechnya) is not war. There is no official war. It is the reconstruction of the constitutional basis. No extraordinary measures are permitted against detainees and the Chechen fighters always have access to lawyers.”

“All Chechen’s, whether peaceful or otherwise, are subject to the rules of the Russian Federation so no-one is allowed to be tortured or killed.”

Ivan began to discuss what he viewed as media efforts to portray the situation as a clash of cultures, a Christian-Muslim conflict. However, he said that the Chechen invasion of Daghestan, an Islamic republic closely related to Chechnya, was evidence that nothing could be further from the truth.

To illustrate the point, he asked Sergei to recall a personal experience from 1999.

“I saw lots of Daghestani’s from across Russia come together to attain firearms and fight the Chechen’s,” said Sergei. “They had their own militia within the federal structure. This is proof that the fight is not against Islam, but terrorism and banditry.”

The last topic we discussed was that of the mass media itself, especially in Russia.

Both men were of that view that the media during the first war was anti-Russian, unobjective and often untruthful. Sergei even went as far as to describe NTV Russia, an independent station, as “… aggressively pro-Chechen” and accused it and others of gutter journalism.

“There were many foreign media personnel in Chechnya with no permission and their presentation was very anti-Russian. But there was also evidence that Russian reporters received money from overseas to give unobjective reports... Some Moscow sources were also paid by the rebels.”

Without discussing the evidence, Sergei allowed Ivan to voice his own opinion.

“The first stage of the process was initiated and incited from abroad, but then journalist tendencies toward sensationalism became clear. Reporters began to compete against each other;” said Ivan.

Both men were pleased with recent changes in the Russian media which, in early 2001, saw NTV become the last major independent media outlet to fall under state control. Furthermore, both disagreed with the idea that freedom of the press in Russia was under threat.

“The (Russian) media is more balanced, more objective then it was back then,” said Sergei. “Year by year, the mass media began to understand the situation. There is no censorship, there are no special rules, but it is now accepted that reporters should not be able to deteriorate morale of troops. They should really not be able to do that.”

Ivan repeated the sentiments of Sergei, taking us to the question of how they viewed their time in Chechnya.

“War is never a happy thing,” said Ivan, actually using the word war. “Any military clash leads to death and killing. We have a saying that it’s normal when children bury parents but it’s unusual when children are buried by parents... The best and worst of people were apparent but I was happy to be there with many nice friends and good people. Moreover, I am glad that I received combat experience.”

“I agree with Ivan’s position,” began Sergei. “I enjoyed the friendly relations with the Chechen people. I still keep in touch with many people there, and that’s a good thing... I knew that the Motherland asked me for my service so, like the other offices, I was ready. This is an entirely different situation to the young drafted soldiers who died easily. Mine was a professional decision.”

There were handshakes all around at the end of the interview before Ivan and Sergei headed outside for a smoke.

They had said almost nothing critical of their own side and plenty against those they considered the enemy, but it was still refreshing.

Few would argue that such bias was rare when it came to Chechnya. And few would argue, whether one viewed it as justified or not, that media coverage had been overwhelmingly anti-Russian. So, to hear a little bit from the other side of the story was, as mentioned, refreshing.

On the train back into the city my translator Igor (his real name), himself a veteran of Afghanistan and a military historian, made the point that it was far too simplistic to say one side was evil and one side was righteous.

“Truth can be a very subjective thing,” he said. “And would be impossible to find regarding this war.”

He was right. There are two sides to every story and they should both be heard. To think otherwise is to be unashamedly biased.

My story is based on an interview I conducted with two Russian men in June, 2004. I thought with such material I could easily sell a freelance article, but have since found out that no matter what material one has, it is tough for a no-name to send unsolicited stuff to a publication and get it published. Thank you for taking this submission.

 I am a 27 year old Australian citizen currently living in Oranienburg, Germany--a qualified journalist and teacher married to a German. Teaching is my bread winning profession but I would like to see if I could have some success with writing.

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