When I see images of Mariupol’s devastation, watch footage of burnt-out Russian tanks or hear the increasingly frequent Ukrainian accounts of kidnappings and disappearances, an earlier fight with nebulous motives and vicious tactics comes to mind: Chechnya.
That’s probably because after a month of fighting, Russia’s approach in Ukraine suggests that it did not just misunderstand its neighbor and misread the West. It has also taken only the wrong lessons from its two wars in Chechnya, which deeply scarred both sides and killed many tens of thousands, mostly civilians — and that’s not good news.
As in Chechnya, Moscow dramatically underestimated the scale of resistance and the challenge of its assault. Rita Konaev of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology in Washington explains that urban combat is so difficult for attackers that defeating Islamic State in the Iraqi city of Mosul involved the U.S. forces’ muscle and still took nine months, cost thousands of lives and left little standing. Cities are also more commonly fought over one by one. And yet Russia, as Konaev points out, has fought multiple urban battles at once in Ukraine.
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