20 years of Putin: Inside the brutal Chechen war that dealt a death blow to Russian democracy

About an hour before midnight on December 31, 1999, Akhmat looked up into the night sky and tried to pin-point the sound of a helicopter flying low and fast over the shattered city of Grozny.

But it was an overcast night, and he knew that engaging a helicopter with anything less than a rocket launcher was a waste of ammunition.

He shrugged, adjusted the heavy machine-gun on his shoulder, and trudged to the frontline trenches surrounding the Chechen capital.

Days later, he could have kicked himself. The helicopter, he realised, had been carrying Vladimir Putin, the newly installed acting president of Russia, en route to his first visit to troops at the front.

A lucky shot could have changed Chechen,…

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