Seated in the modest office of the commander of Russia’s forces stationed in Transnistria, Moldova’s small breakaway region that has been hit by several mysterious explosions recently, I asked about the overall poor performance of the Russian army. “The soldiers don't know what they are fighting for,” the commander replied. They were confronted by troops who are “fighting like wolves for their homeland.” Their president, he added, has been turned into “a national hero” by Moscow's bungling.
The commander was General Aleksandr Lebed, a hero of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who then helped former Russian president Boris Yeltsin foil a coup by Kremlin hardliners in August 1991, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of that year. Since my interview with Lebed took place in 1995, he was discussing Russia’s setbacks in its first war against Chechen separatists, not Ukraine or its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But the fact that his remarks could easily be applied to today’s war is a reminder of the extent to which Russia is repeating its own history with the current unbridled brutality and often counterproductive tactics seen in Ukraine.
In an era when elections were actually contested in Russia, Lebed went on to run against Yeltsin for the presidency in 1996, promising to wage a relentless war on corruption and disorder. Despite his misgivings about Yeltsin, who won a second term in those elections, he subsequently served him as national security adviser and envoy to Chechnya, where he negotiated a fragile peace deal that allowed for de facto independence. After winning election as governor of Krasnoyarsk province, Lebed died in a helicopter crash in 2002.
By then, there was a new president of Russia: Vladimir Putin. A product of the KGB, he had catapulted to the presidency by blaming the 1999 bombings of four apartment buildings in Russian cities, which killed more than 300 people, on Chechen terrorists. As journalist David Satter convincingly argued in his 2017 book The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dicatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, those bombs were in all likelihood planted by Russian agents of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, as part of a “false flag” operation. This also served as the pretext to launch a new war in Chechnya, which resulted in massive death and destruction, including the scenes of its devastated capital of Grozny that are eerily similar to the images of Mariupol and Kharkiv today.
All of which could lead to the conclusion that Putin will ultimately prevail in the current war, since once again he will not hesitate to employ any covert or overt means to achieve his goals, no matter how many people are killed on both sides in the process.
So what conclusions should be drawn from such comparisons? For all the similarities in Putin’s methods and atrocities, there are major differences in the two wartime situations.
First, Ukraine is much larger than Chechnya, with defenders who are more united and far better armed, thanks to growing infusions of Western aid, than the Chechens ever were. There is also no sign of any Ukrainian leader willing to play the role of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman who most recently demonstrated his fealty to Putin by sending his fighters into action alongside Russian forces in Ukraine. If there are would-be quislings in Kyiv, they are lying low at this point.
Second, for all of Yeltsin’s failures as a leader who enabled massive corruption and engaged in highly devious political maneuvers, Russia in the 1990s was a much more freewheeling society than Russia under Putin’s dictatorship. Lebed proved to be a weak campaigner once he entered the political fray, but he was able to voice his strong dissenting views in interviews like the one he had with me— and later compete in a genuine election.
While some retired Russian Army officers objected to the plans to invade Ukraine, no active-duty generals have dared to dissent openly from the Kremlin’s web of lies about its “special military operation,” the euphemism for its war of aggression. And there’s not a shred of hope any real opposition candidate would be allowed to run against Putin so long as he remains in power. Two major opponents tried to challenge Putin in recent times: the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin, and the popular anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who barely survived poisoning by a nerve agent and then was sent to prison, where he remains today.
There may be those in Moscow’s higher echelons who are privately alarmed by Putin’s reckless actions and the cascading damage not only to Ukraine but to Russia itself, dooming it to an increasingly bleak isolated existence with dwindling economic opportunities for its citizens. If so, they need to embark on a different path than those who openly challenged Kremlin rulers before. The curtailment of all democratic institutions means that only the abrupt removal of Putin, by whatever means necessary, would allow Russia to change course.
In fact, rather than look to the Chechnya analogies, Russia’s military and civilian leaders should ponder what happened in Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. After the war, some top generals claimed that in 1938, when Hitler began threatening Czechoslovakia, they were planning to oust him if it looked like he was about to plunge Germany into a war with the West that it was not prepared for at that point. Whatever the accuracy of their accounts, any resolve they may have had evaporated when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier acquiesced to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia by signing the infamous Munich agreement that September.
For the West today, the lesson of Munich should come through loud and clear: it must remain firmly committed to helping the Ukrainians in their fight against the invaders, providing them with every piece of weaponry that can be turned against them. That is the only way to save Ukraine, and to prevent Putin from targeting his next victims. A new Munich-like agreement, which would allow Putin to cement his gains, would signal another colossal failure of nerve.
There is an equally important lesson for those Russians, especially in high circles, who can still think for themselves. It is also up to them to take action to stop a broader war, which will be the inevitable outcome if Putin is allowed to succeed in his current venture. Such a success would be a disaster not only for Ukraine and the West; it would be a disaster for Russia. They cannot afford to repeat the mistake of Hitler’s generals of letting an increasingly desperate leader stampede his army and his people over a cliff.