Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Picking Fights Carefully

In the nearly deserted rubble of Grozny, a grizzled old man brandishes a slingshot and fires a stone at a nearby denuded tree. He is hunting for dinner, but, he says matter-of-factly, "Most of the sparrows and pigeons have gone." His pellet bounces ineffectually off a branch.

The man appears in a documentary film about the war in Chechnya, called "Dark Side of the World." The stark scenes of civilian suffering in the film undercut U.S. President Bill Clinton's blithe explanations of America's relative disinterest in the war, in contrast to its intervention to save the people of Kosovo last year.

"I don't think the situations are parallel," Clinton said during an interview with last week. In Kosovo, he explained, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic "basically ran the whole country out based on their ethnic origin." In Chechnya, anti-Russian paramilitary forces "bear their share of responsibility. ... I think some of them actually wanted the Chechen civilians attacked."

We could all feel more comfortable if Clinton were correct, if the moral questions were far muddier in Chechnya than Kosovo. Unfortunately, the facts do not support this view. Jaromir Stetina, one of two Czech journalists who made "Dark Side of the World," also covered Kosovo. "If I can compare [it] with Kosovo, the assault on human rights in Chechnya is much more massive," he said.

Both Serbia and Russia claimed to be defending their national integrity. The United States recognized Serbia's claim to Kosovo, just as it accepts that Chechnya is part of Russia.

In both cases, guerrillas fighting for independence committed terrorist acts. The Kosovo Liberation Army, like the most extreme Chechen fighters, sought to provoke conflict, and the Clinton administration for a long time acknowledged Serbia's right to go after the KLA.

The United States called for intervention in Kosovo, in fact, only after Serbia began attacking Kosovar civilians as well as the KLA - after its attacks became, in Clinton's judgment, inexcusably indiscriminate. Once NATO struck, Serbia accelerated its campaign against the Kosovar people. By the time NATO forced Milosevic's retreat, he had systematically forced more than 1 million of Kosovo's 1.8 million residents from their homes and had killed thousands of them.

The Russians have not gone from village to village rounding up civilians and forcing them to leave. They have instead bombed and shelled villages and cities from afar. The effect has been much the same.

Ten years ago, Chechnya's population approached 1 million. After Russia's first war against the province in 1994-96 - which Clinton also defended, casting Boris Yeltsin in the role of Abraham Lincoln preserving the union - the population is believed to have fallen to about 700,000, a loss that reflects both deaths and emigration due to destroyed factories and increased crime.

Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that some 350,000 of those remaining people have been forced to flee Russia's onslaught in the second war. Those refugees now have "inadequate shelter, food, clothing and medical care," the FAO said.

Many tens of thousands more are presumed homeless inside Chechnya. Thousands are dead, said Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Russian human rights group Memorial. The capital, Grozny, once home to hundreds of thousands, is essentially a tomb, sealed off by Russian soldiers.

"There is clear evidence the Russian military has systematically gunned every building and made it virtually uninhabitable," the Voice of America's Peter Heinlein reported from Grozny on Thursday. "It's going to be years before city services of any magnitude [are] restored here. Every tree is scorched. We didn't see a street where the destruction wasn't virtually complete. Some buildings are standing, of course, but it looked as if every floor of every building had been hit."

Beyond Grozny, no one knows the full extent of death and displacement. Russia has allowed neither foreign correspondents nor humanitarian workers to survey the damage. Stetina sneaked in and out in December with Chechen fighters. Andrei Babitsky, a Russian radio correspondent, managed to report from the scene, but Russia arrested him in mid-January and his whereabouts now are unknown. Although Babitsky worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Clinton did not see fit to mention his disappearance in his Monday discussions of Chechnya.

Unlike the situation in Kosovo, there have been no reports of Russians massacring Chechen prisoners. But Human Rights Watch has begun to collect credible accounts of torture and rape of Chechen prisoners. Sergei Kovalyov, a longtime Soviet dissident who continues to work for human rights in Russia, said last week what is going on in Chechnya is "close to genocide."

So Chechnya and Kosovo aren't all that different. That does not mean NATO should have intervened. Russia and Serbia are different; great powers get away with things - it's a fact of international life.

Clinton could have said as much, and thereby protected at least part of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention he proclaimed after Kosovo. Instead, he pretends that what is happening in Chechnya is not happening. That not only betrays the victims, it also bolsters those who claimed all along that NATO's intervention in Kosovo was a matter of convenience, not conviction.

Fred Hiatt is a member of The Washington Post's editorial staff.