War by Any Other Name: Patterns of Russian Colonialism



Let’s be honest, the mechanisms of Russian imperialism have been a blindspot of the magazine until now. Rather than adding to the noise produced amidst the shock of the military invasion of Ukraine, we commissioned this text by Anna Engelhardt that describes the recurrence of Russian strategy when its military is deployed in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. In the future, we will also concentrate on the Indigenous struggles at work within what is commonly called the “Russian Federation.”

“In Chechnya, the only place which is ours is where our troops stand; troops move—and this place immediately goes into insurgents’ hands,” reported a Russian journalist of Moscow Bulletin from the front of a Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 1840s. Going on for more of the 63 first years of the 19th century, it was one of the myriad Russian colonial wars that formed what we know today as the “Russian Federation.” Its “sovereignty” and “integrity,” the two most protected notions in Russian criminal law, is a highly volatile unity of colonized territories. The fragility of what is known as Russia is secured by endless wars of conquest waged over centuries. Their mechanic repetitiveness is daunting. What hope can one find today if Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula at least four times? What is it there in those four attempts at total elimination of Indigenous Crimean Tatars, with the first one dating to 1783 and the last one ongoing since 2014? No matter how successful such invasions are as a singular event, their horrific frequency reveals the inability to break down decolonial resistance and secure desired integrity.

To rephrase the quote I started with: the only place which is Russia is where its troops stand.

The recursive nature of conquest hints toward the predefined course of colonial wars. Indeed, the multitude of wars waged by Russia makes them as transparent as glass, putting their hardwired structure on display. One of the qualities of this structure is the overall precarity of control it grants. No matter how violent Russian invasions are, their power shatters under fierce decolonial pressure. The fragility of Russian colonialism, akin to the one of thin sharp glass, doesn’t make it less harmful. It inflicts wounds in line with the fragile nature of its structure. Its sharp shatters stick out from the layers of invasions, occupations, and mass murders inflicted upon the same nations and lands that have never been defeated. Hence Russian conquest is endless. Even an economic shock of the end of the USSR could not stop Russian attempts to fill newly formed holes in its ‘integrity’ with the bodies of those who dared to resist. From 1991 to 1993, although the government in Moscow was in disarray, it still dispatched forces to drop vacuum bombs on Georgian residential areas during the Georgian Civil War. From 1994 to 1996, barely having a structural conceptualization of a new capitalist state, Russia was already cleansing the civilians of Ichkeria, known today as Chechnya. Even though the Russian army was destroyed by Chechen resistance in 1996, in 1997, Russia gathered at least some troops to kill oppositional forces struggling for democracy in Tajikistan. The list goes on.

The structure of the Russian wars is clear, but what is it? As analyzed by an anti-colonial Chechen historian Abdurkhman Avtorkhanov in 1988: Russian and Soviet empires never fought “a colonial war.” They were “fulfilling an international duty,” “protecting themselves,” or “securing borders.” Reluctance to callwar by its name is also noted in the recent analysis by Chechen human rights activist Abubakar Yangulbaev. Comparing the Russian invasion of Chechnya and Ukraine, he also highlights the heightened resentment of Russian supremacy, mass killings of civilians, outdated warfare, lack of relevant skills, installment of a puppet government, and peace talks to distract attention. These components constitute a Russian colonial project, singular despite its complexity. As they are part of the same structure, these properties of colonial warfare are interconnected. Considering the relationship between the reluctance to call the war by its name and the technically disadvantageous weapons used by the Russian army, we can start dissecting the enormous harmful mechanism they make up.

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Last Soviet troop column crosses the border of Soviet Uzbekistan after leaving Afghanistan. The border largely took its current shape during the 19th-century Russian conquest of Central Asia. Banner reads: “Слава солдатам отечества! Слава сынам родины!” (“Glory to the soldiers of the fatherland! Glory to the sons of the motherland!”). 1989. / Photo by A. Solomonov (RIA Novosti).

The reasons for the Russian colonial wars to be called something else are numerous. As both Avtorkhanov and Yangulbaev have noted, not only does it allow ascribing positive connotations to practical bloodshed, “operations,” “activities,” and “duties” pretend to be immune to the laws of war. What is less rarely noted, according to post-colonial war historian Tarak Barkawi,is that the very concept of war is never used outside of inter-imperial conflicts.

It seems to be insulting for the imperial power to call invasions a colonial war, as it would mean accepting the enemy’s equal status. “War” is reserved for those perceived as equal in the colonial matrix.

Therefore, the terms usually bear diminutive collocation attached to “war”—small war, low-intensity conflict, or have a contained scale implicit in them—like “operation” or “activities.” Not only the terms are reserved for inter-imperial conflicts, but military capabilities themselves. At least since World War II, Russian and Soviet armies have constantly been preparing to fight a war, meaning war against the West. The entire military has been tirelessly working to advance the means of fighting another nuclear superpower. The derivative depictions of colonial wars determine the inadequacy of weapons developed and deployed to fight them. As Russian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan recall, their vehicles would be a cutting edge technology in the post-apocalyptic landscape of a nuclear war. These vehicles were practically useless in what was officially called “activities” the Soviet state undertook in Afghanistan.

The only enemy worth military preparation is another empire. As Russian coloniality sees those it aims to colonize as inferior, its military is constantly proved dysfunctional in combat, undergoing rapid restructuring while at war. The same “revolution in military affairs” happens over and over again following devastating troops’ losses. Ideas of Russian technological supremacy are as detached from reality as those of race, and those conceptions are indeed profoundly interconnected. The notion of superiority in warfare is implicated in a broader colonial mindset which consists of various concepts of superiority that overlap and inform one another. The Russian military employs the entirety of Russian media to ridicule the “exotic,” “ancient,” or “outlandish” warfare of the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian opposition. The Russian Empire has to uphold the understanding of the people it aims to colonize as technologically inferior despite their constant advances against its army. This means that a colonial paradigm never accepts that resistance defeated its force due to technological superiority. Kim Ati Wagner, a historian of the British colonial wars, analyses in his work how the destruction of colonial troops is explained through the “fanaticism” of “savage warriors” that compensates for their “inferior weapons.” The inadequacy of imperial military technologies is ascribed to the enemy’s racialized nature rather than the technologies themselves.

Resistance forces usually do have access to high-tech weapons that are more suited for the battlefield than Russian ones. Purchased from the Global North, donated by the sympathetic struggles or manufactured by the resistance, these have posed a severe issue for the Russian soldiers since Afghanistan. The most famous instances have been the drones swarming Russian military bases in Syria in 2018-2019. The killer drones launched from the opposition-controlled Idlib province shocked Russians. After the losses amongst personnel, the Russian deputy defense minister claimed that “only a technologically advanced country has access to such tools; they cannot be made in the Syrian desert.” Nevertheless, they were manufactured in Syria and used extensively for reconnaissance and bombing of Russian and Assad forces. Speculating on the involvement of the Global North, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that drones were made to look unimpressive, concealing their high-tech nature. The Russian answer to these drone attacks, therefore, is not to counter the lethal functionality of the technology but to uncover more of what is perceived to be concealed. It mirrors the more extensive pattern of Russian wars, where one of the most radically restructured in the military revolutions discussed earlier has always been the intelligence technologies, despite the least publicly announced. These are prioritized as the mystery of the imaginary Other backfires in the course of conquest. Making sense of the colonial stereotype Russians themselves created became a practically impossible task.

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A Russian Mi-8 helicopter shot down by Chechen fighters near the Chechen capital, Grozny, in December 1994. / Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev.

What prevents the Russian Defense minister from imagining the mere possibility of Syrian drones is the ignorance that makes the core principle of colonial campaigns. There have never been enough translators available, maps were outdated, and the knowledge of those to be pacified was fragmented bits of intelligence. Repurposed and recalibrated machines of information extraction are developed to overcome such ignorance. Resistance forces exploit such heavy dependence on the information weapons, strategically using “outdated” communication technologies outside their range, like wired connections or messengers. Guerilla fighters, highly aware that any technological surveillance system always relies on people with at least some idea of their language and culture, are right to assume that this military personnel is always scarce. Chechen people deliberately switched to Chechen from Russian in their radio communications when the Russians invaded, as this worked as a highly efficient practice of encoding information. Russian intelligence soldiers that took part in the invasion of Ichkeria confirmed that they made no progress in learning the Chechen language, as this was never posed as a task. Understanding well the Russian culture forcefully imposed upon them, the Chechen fighters had at times the knowledge as specific as the weak points of Russian tanks and other military vehicles.

As many drawn to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were from the colonized Soviet republics, a significant proportion of Chechen forces knew the bottlenecks of Russian military equipment from practice.

The known tactics of resistance still tend to weaponize the asymmetry of information. Substituting knowledge gathering with technical advancements did not convert into more efficient control. If anything, it strengthened Russian delusions rather than military capabilities. This has been an open secret for those resisting Russian invasions. As one account goes: “Chechen people had an indisputable advantage: they knew the Russian language and could use it to misinform us, but we could not do so against them using Chechen.” This ‘misinformation’ means that Chechen people, referred to as “aborigines” by Russian soldiers, were hacking into their radio communication to give false fire coordinates. Frequently directing Russian troops to shoot at each other, they remained unnoticed, shielded by the impossibility of a Russian soldier to imagine a Chechen hacker. Today, Russian troops are shelling their own positions in Ukraine, following the commands of those hacking into their networks. Constantly intercepted, they hear false commands, anthems, and haunting robotic children. Auto-generated kids’ voices, cracking and delaying the radio waves they are being broadcasted on, ask invaders in Russian on repeat: “Ruuussian soldiers … stand back… [cracking sounds] doooo you really believe… it all makes sense … This is not… your war.” ■