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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: War Criminals Bury Grudge




Less than a year after Western powers began a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, Russia and NATO decided to bury the hatchet and be friends again. NATO's secretary general, George Robertson, came to Moscow on Tuesday to meet Russian acting President Vladimir Putin, to palm press with top Russian generals and to "unfreeze" previously stalled relations.


NATO's military actions in the Balkans are still very much a bone of contention between NATO and Russia. But today Russia is itself fighting a war in Chechnya that is even more dirty than NATO's Balkans aggression. So the Kremlin needs any token gesture of support from the West it can get.


In the beginning of the war in Chechnya the going was relatively easy. Russian forces took over a number of Chechen towns without much fighting. But by the end of December Russian forces attacked Grozny with an onslaught of heavy shells and bombs.


Today Grozny is a ghost city of smoking rubble where several hundred thousand survivors of this and the last war still cower in cellars. They hide there terrified by the savage bombardments, harassed and often killed by marauding Russian troops.


After the rebels broke out of Grozny, they passed through several villages in southwest Chechnya. The Russian forces followed the rebels and attacked village after village. Chechen refugees say entire villages were razed in these revenge attacks and hundreds of civilians killed or wounded.


The Russian pro-government ORT television last week showed one of these reprisal attacks: the bombing of Gekhi-Chu, a large village southwest of Grozny. The footage displayed TOS-1 multiple missile launchers lobbing rockets into Gekhi-Chu. Several days later Reuters distributed footage showing the results of the attack on the town: houses destroyed, scores of civilians killed.


TOS-1 rockets are filled by a flammable liquid that causes aerosol explosions at impact, killing people, destroying property and causing fires. TOS means "heavy fire-throwing system." There is evidence that TOS-1 was used against Grozny and other Chechen regions. The third protocol of the 1980 Geneva Convention - signed and ratified by Russia - forbids the use of such "air-delivered incendiary weapons."


Reprisal attacks on villages and the use of TOS-1, to say nothing of the Tochka-U ballistic missiles, are war crimes. Tochka-U can fly 120 kilometers and can cover up to seven hectares with cluster shrapnel on impact. The Tochka-U was used against Grozny, Shali, Alkhan-Kala and other Chechen towns. During the first Chechen war in 1994-96 such weapons were not used. This time Putin authorized attacks that inflict mass destruction on civilians.


Today there seems enough evidence to indict Putin and his top general for war crimes. It is understandable that such conditions would lead Putin to make a friend in NATO and get tacit support from the West for his continued Caucasian bloodbath. But why was NATO Secretary General Robertson so eager to offer support? Maybe because Robertson is also a war criminal.


Recently the New York-based Human Rights Watch group published a report on the Balkans war confirming that NATO bombs killed hundreds of civilians in Yugoslavia and Kosovo and that some of NATO's attacks were deliberately directed against civilian targets.


The report also says the United States stopped using their internationally outlawed cluster bombs during the Balkans campaign because of civilian casualties, but that Britain continued to use them. Robertson was the British defense minister during the war. Of course, NATO itself did not conduct any official investigation of crimes against civilians during the bombing in former Yugoslavia and does not plan to do so.


NATO's aggression against Yugoslavia convinced the Russian government and Russian public that international law does not mean anything and that brute military force is the only true argument. It is no surprise that the Kremlin decided to invade Chechnya last March when NATO bombs began to fall, and that today Kremlin and the military have in essence scrapped the Geneva conventions on warfare.


On Wednesday war criminals from West and East met in Moscow. Most likely they represented figures from a new security order for Europe: We bomb the Balkans, you bomb the Caucasus and we'll all respect each others' right to bomb civilians in fringe regions when we wish.


Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.