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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A War of Acquittals

Last week a jury acquitted four agents of the General Staff's Main Intelligence Directorate who killed six Chechen civilians in 2002. The four agents, led by Captain Eduard Ulman, had previously been acquitted by a jury in April 2004. A jury in Ingushetia last year acquitted a man named Mairbek Shaibekkhanov. A few months later Shaibekkhanov turned up among the terrorists in Beslan.

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Jury verdicts don't reflect the legal point of view; they reflect the people's point of view. A Russian jury in Rostov-on-Don acquitted Ulman for the same reason that an Ingush jury acquitted Shaibekkhanov.

Such a jury verdict would have been unthinkable in Russia during the first Chechen war, when people spoke of a "national liberation movement" in the "breakaway" republic. The democrats' position on Chechnya contributed greatly to the demise of democracy in Russia. Rather than talk about the idiocy of our generals, they preferred to talk about the heroism of the Chechen fighters.

Later it became clear that the Chechen fighters didn't exactly meet the democrats' standards, and that Chechen fighters quite reasonably viewed any Russian who sympathized with their cause as a half-wit.

Russian society split into two groups: patriots, who maintained that the Chechens were animals who should therefore be kept within Russia; and democrats, who maintained that the Chechens were freedom fighters who should therefore be allowed to go their own way. You'd think that if the Chechens were such animals, it might be advisable to let them go.

After all of the Chechen and non-Chechen blood spilled in the first war, Chechnya earned its independence.

But even neighboring Caucasus republics were horrified by independent Chechnya, circa 1999: Russian soldiers with slit throats were paraded on television; sharia courts and criminal gangs ruled the streets. Many of the criminals hadn't even fought in the war, but when peace arrived they stopped everyone who crossed their path and robbed them in the name of independent Chechnya.

The rampant poverty and anarchy horrified Dagestan and even kindred Ingushetia. It was President Vladimir Putin who turned a national war waged by field commanders into a religious war waged by jamaats.

First the Kremlin pretended that the war was actually a peace process. Then it began to fight, sending tanks to level multistory apartment blocks when terrorists had holed up in one of the apartments.

I once asked an acquaintance who served in the special forces, an honest and upstanding man, why they used tanks -- not exactly a commando's weapon of choice. "I'd take out 10 of their buildings to save my boys," he said.

A worthy reply, no doubt, but there's just one problem: If terrorists holed up in a Moscow apartment, do you think the authorities would cordon off and evacuate the building and send in the tanks? When you use tanks to level apartment buildings, you are acting, consciously or not, like an invading army on occupied territory.

Given the absence of serious political opposition to the Putin regime and the presence of a deadly opposition composed of men prepared to lay down their lives in the Caucasus, the disintegration of Russia seems almost inevitable. When one ethnic group justifies the killing of civilians by special forces troops, and another ethnic group justifies terrorism, it means the two cannot coexist for long.

Yulia Latynina hosts a talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.