Russia's Quagmire: On ending the standoff in Chechnya
Jun 1, 2004
50 Min read time
I. Plehve’s Ghost
In 1904 the Romanov dynasty was in trouble. Russia’s industrialization had accelerated in the last decades of the 19th century but could not forestall the widening of the economic and military gap between Russia and Europe’s other powers. To save the regime, Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve reportedly recommended a “small victorious war.” But Russia’s rout in the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese war fueled a revolution. The Romanovs, who had reigned for almost 300 years, would soon fall. In 1904 Plehve himself was assassinated by a revolutionary.
Ninety years later, Oleg Lobov, the head of Russia’s Security Council, unwittingly resurrected Plehve’s prescription: this time, a triumphant war against the rebellious southern Russian republic of Chechnya would salvage Boris Yeltsin’s presidency—or so Lobov and others in Yeltsin’s circle believed.
Lobov’s concerns were understandable. For most Russians the promise of independence and hopes for a fresh post-Soviet beginning had quickly yielded to an inauspicious reality: a rapidly shrinking economy, rising unemployment, and near-poverty for pensioners. At the same time, a super-rich, ostentatious minority was emerging, the nucleus of the now-notorious oligarchs, owing to a corrupt privatization scheme. Rampant crime (with an alarming number of gangland assassinations) rose along with the growing gulf between the struggling majority and this small circle of tycoons and gangsters.
By 1994 Yeltsin’s popular support was running in single digits, and he bore much of the responsibility for his troubles: he had forcibly dispersed the obstreperous Russian parliament in 1993 and drafted a new constitution with a virtually unchecked presidency. When Yeltsin and his advisers feared that Gennadi Zyuganov, the colorless Communist Party candidate, would win the 1996 presidential elections, Lobov’s diversionary counsel had considerable appeal.1 But like Plehve’s, it proved misguided. The two subsequent wars with Chechnya (in 1994–96 and 1999) were neither small nor victorious, and Yeltsin’s successor remains trapped in the quagmire.
The Russian military campaign has been pitiless. At the peak of the bombardment during the first war, Grozny, which had almost half a million residents and was the largest city in the North Caucasus, was hit by, on average, 4,000 artillery shells and bombs an hour and became a latter-day Guernica. Much of Chechnya—which is about the size of Connecticut, with roughly a million people before the first war—was turned into a rubble-strewn graveyard, as thousands of survivors became orphans, widows, and grieving parents, and many more were left homeless refugees. The vast majority of those killed were civilians—Chechens and Russians who constituted about a quarter of Chechnya’s population and had the misfortune to live in Grozny.
The estimate of Chechen deaths ranges from 20,000 to 100,000 for the first war and 14,000 to 80,000 for the second; the lower figures are favored by Moscow, the higher ones by Western governments and Russian human-rights organizations. If the latter are right, roughly 15 percent of Chechnya’s civilian population has died since the first Russian invasion. More than 300,000 Chechens have become refugees in Chechnya’s interior. About as many have escaped Chechnya; most are in Ingushetia, which, by the end of 1999, hosted more than 200,000 Chechen refugees. Most have been taken in by Ingush families, while roughly 77,000 live in tent colonies and rail carriages. A generation of Chechens is growing into adulthood in these camps, where food and medicine are scarce and disease and despair rampant. Still, the refugees cling to these shabby havens despite efforts from Moscow to pressure them to return by threatening arrest and withholding basic necessities and humanitarian aid. They stay because at home, in addition to war and ruins, they would face insults, abduction, torture, rape, and extortion by Russian soldiers or the even crueler kontraktniki, mercenaries drawn to Chechnya by attractive wages.
Thousands of young, ill-trained, poorly supplied Russian conscripts have also died—between 4,500 and 14,000 in the first war and 14,000 and 20,000 in the second. And while Russians outside Chechnya have suffered little by comparison, the war has changed their lives as well. The war has brought Islamic fundamentalists and foreign Muslim fighters to Chechnya, a land where both are unfamiliar. Radical Chechen factions have shifted their focus from defeating the Russian army at the front to making Russian civilians feel the pain of war. Theaters, streets, hotels, subways, and trains are now targets for Chechen suicide bombers. Russia’s fragile democracy has been weakened by a political climate pervaded by the fear of terrorism; xenophobia is rising, with Chechens and other groups from the Caucasus its main targets and the police perpetrating, rather than preventing, abuse; civil liberties and press freedoms are being restricted.
With international coverage of Chechen terrorist actions against Russians, Russia’s official position on the war is all too familiar in the post-9/11 world: the government is fighting a terrorist insurgency led by Muslim extremists. On closer scrutiny, however, the story more resembles the 20th-century nationalist struggles for independence from imperial powers. Nonetheless, the Russian government has treated the conflict as a terrorist problem, and this approach promises to have a substantial and corrosive effect on Russia’s future as a democracy.
II. To War and Back Again
Chechnya is one of seven autonomous republics (the array from northwest to southeast consists of Adygea, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan) in Russia’s largely Muslim North Caucasus region, which is flanked by the Black Sea in the west, the Caspian Sea in the east, and the Caucasus mountains in the south. In 1994, when Yeltsin was preparing for the first war, Jokhar Dudayev dominated Chechen politics. A former Soviet air force general who had spent most of his life outside his native Chechnya, Dudayev climbed the ranks of the military, married a Russian woman, and eventually turned on the system.
Dudayev had returned to Chechnya in the fall of 1990 as the foundations of the Soviet order were crumbling and a wave of demonstrations in Chechnya threatened the authority of the local communist party. He had been a sympathetic observer of similar nationalist rumblings in the Soviet republic of Estonia, where he commanded a bomber fleet. He returned to Chechnya to attend the newly formed Chechen National Congress and was elected chairman the following spring. In 1991, he resigned his commission and plunged into Chechnya’s raucous, secessionist politics.
By the summer of 1991, the Chechen National Congress proclaimed that it would withdraw Chechnya from the USSR and its political subunit, the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR). Dudayev became the avatar of Chechen independence, and was elected president in October 1991 amid warnings and sabre-rattling by Moscow. The new Chechen legislature was dominated by nationalists, and in November, with the Soviet Union approaching dissolution, it proclaimed Chechnya’s independence.
Most Chechens were elated, but Yeltsin declared a state of emergency in Chechnya and sent a contingent of Interior Ministry troops to cow the Chechens. Chechen guardsmen surrounded the Russian troops, and Chechen hijackers commandeered a Russian passenger jet to Turkey in protest. By the end of the year the USSR imploded, and by the following summer, all Soviet troops were evicted from Chechnya. They left behind enormous stocks of weapons that would soon be turned against them.
As often happens when agitators become administrators, Dudayev’s popularity proved ephemeral. Like Yeltsin, he soon disbanded his parliament and started ruling by decree. As in Russia, economic misery and corruption reigned, and an anti-Dudayev opposition formed. Russia, seeking to bring down a vulnerable Dudayev, even sponsored a rival government in northern Chechnya, a region traditionally friendlier to Russia.
The Chechen leader similarly distrusted Yeltsin and denounced a series of efforts by Chechen leaders between December 1992 and May 1993 to negotiate with Russia without the promise of a sovereign Chechen state. Chechens who favored compromise were eventually driven into the anti-Dudayev camp. With war imminent in late 1994, Dudayev frantically sought to negotiate, but he had lost all credibility in the Kremlin, and his weakened position within Chechnya convinced Yeltsin that he could be removed.
Yeltsin’s inner circle agreed that a combination of force and support for an alternative center of power in Chechnya was the best way to end the attempted secession. An anti-Dudayev, pro-Moscow provisional council was formed in northern Chechnya, and in December of 1994 Yeltsin unleashed the Russian army against Chechen separatists. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev predicted a quick, decisive victory. Far from improving Yeltsin’s image, however, the war—secretively conceived and poorly planned—tarnished it further. In those days Russia had a free press, and television reports brought the military campaign’s failures and cruelties home to Russians daily. Many Russians came to see the war as a symptom of their government’s ineptitude. Dudayev, by contrast, became a warrior-chieftain in Chechnya, the emblem of popular resistance against Russia. Even Chechens repelled by his dictatorial bent and impulsiveness closed ranks.
Yet military power imposed its iron logic on the battlefield. After weathering relentless Russian aerial and artillery bombardment that reduced Grozny to a smoldering ruin and killed thousands of its residents, Chechen fighters were forced to surrender the city in February 1995. They escaped to take a stand in Chechnya’s southern plains. But the key towns and villages of the south—Argun, Shali, Novye Atagi, Starye Atagi, Alleroi—also fell to the Russians, and the Chechen guerillas retreated farther south into the Caucasus mountains, where they faced fierce Russian bombardment and appeared defeated.
Then, in June 1995, Chechen fighters led by Shamil Basayev, the most famous of the field commanders, infiltrated southern Russia. The Chechens took hundreds of hostages in the town of Budyonnovsk, barricaded themselves in the local hospital, and threatened to kill their captives. After botched rescue attempts by Russian commandos, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was forced to open discussions. He guaranteed the Chechens’ safe passage home and promised negotiations on troop withdrawals and a cease-fire. The deal was denounced by both Dudayev, who had been sidelined, and hard-liners in the Kremlin. The cease-fire crumbled, and the Russian bombing of Chechen strongholds in the Caucasus resumed in August.
But Basayev had shown that Russian claims to victory were hollow, and this point was driven home in August 1996, when Chechen guerillas, their ranks swollen by armed volunteers from all over Chechnya, swept through the southern plains and retook Grozny.
With his forces evicted from Grozny, Yeltsin was forced to seek peace. After Dudayev was killed in April by a Russian missile that homed in on the signal of his satellite telephone, a Chechen team led by the interim president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev arrived in Moscow in May for talks. Yeltsin tried to deflect attention from what was by any measure a Chechen triumph. With the Chechen delegation still in Moscow, he flew to a safe zone in northern Chechnya to tell the assembled Russian soldiers that they had won the war. But his antics fooled no one.
The agreement that emerged from Yandarbiyev’s visit codified Russia’s loss of control in Chechnya. In August, a follow-on accord was negotiated in the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt, with the former general Alexander Lebed serving as Russia’s chief negotiator. Lebed had fought in Afghanistan as a Soviet officer but had become an unsparing critic of the war in Chechnya.
Lebed had placed third in the first round of the 1996 presidential election, and his withdrawal in the second was critical to Yeltsin’s victory over Gennadi Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party. Lebed had served his purpose, and Yeltsin was now happy to have the general take the blame for a controversial peace agreement. (Yeltsin would sack Lebed two months later.) The Khasavyurt agreement, reviled by Russian nationalists, stipulated a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian forces. Its text did not refer to Chechnya as part of Russia; the republic’s final status was deferred until 2001.
After 20 months it seemed that a savage war had ended.
But following a hopeful start, Chechnya squandered the freedom it had sacrificed so much to win. The 1994–1996 war had left Chechnya a shattered land: 13,000 children orphaned, some 500,000 mines strewn across the country, an infrastructure in ruins, and basic social services nonexistent. In January 1997, in an election certified as free and fair by the OSCE, Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet army colonel who had been the commander of Dudayev’s forces, was elected president in a landslide victory. Maskhadov’s mandate was clear: he had campaigned on the issue of independence. Tragically, however, Maskhadov gained legitimacy but not power from the election, and under his governance Chechnya soon turned into a chaotic den of kidnappers, smugglers, thieves, and warlords.
While Russia and the major Western powers bemoaned Chechnya’s growing instability, they did little else. Chechnya’s turmoil soon spilled into Russia, setting the stage for the second war. On August 7, 1999, a force of Chechens and Dagestani fighters invaded Dagestan to support Muslim radicals, a small but determined political force there. The contingent was led by Basayev and his comrade-in-arms, Ibn ul-Khattab, an Arab Muslim fundamentalist who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and—after a stint in Tajikistan—joined what he saw as a new jihad in Chechnya.
According to the official Russian account, the incursion was an aggressive move by radical Chechen Muslims to create a shari’a-based state encompassing Chechnya and Dagestan. In fact, militant and puritanical Dagestani Islamists, who condemned both the corrupt leadership of Dagestan and the “official” Islamic leadership (holdovers from the Soviet era), had ensconced themselves in various villages, notably in the Buinaksk region. Although the Islamists had become part of Dagestan’s political scene as early as the late 1980s, their organizational strength increased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they became embroiled in confrontations with the Dagestani authorities. By 1998 they had created communities governed by purist interpretations of Islam. They had also forged ties with Islamists within Chechnya, including Basayev, who invaded Dagestan in August 1999 after clashes between the Dagestani Islamists and the local security forces near the border with Chechnya prompted the former to call for help.2
But these details proved of no account; nor did it matter that the combatants led by Basayev and Khattab withdrew on August 22 and that Maskhadov condemned their adventure. Five days after they crossed into Dagestan, Yeltsin fired yet another prime minister and appointed a new one: Vladimir Putin, a career KGB agent and political unknown who had been serving as head of the federal security service, the FSB. Putin ordered Russian troops into Dagestan to attack the positions of the Dagestani fundamentalists (including villages in the interior that were not implicated in the clashes) but denied any plans to invade Chechnya—even though Russian missiles had already struck there. Surprisingly, the forces of Basayev and Khattab were able to withdraw unharmed, a development that has led both Russian and Western analysts to speculate whether the foray into Dagestan was a stage-managed collusion between Basayev and Russian hard-liners, who, despite their differences, had an interest in undermining Maskhadov.
The attack on Dagestan by Basayev and Khattab created a crisis between Moscow and Chechnya, but the full-blown war that followed was triggered by a horrific and mysterious event. In September, several apartment buildings in southern Russia and Moscow were demolished by bombs. Hundreds were killed as they slept. Although the identity of the bombers still remains unknown (and, as we shall see, the Russian government’s role is a matter of controversy), Putin immediately blamed the Chechens, and on September 23, with Russian public outrage at fever pitch, he was able to abandon his pledge not to invade Chechnya. He launched the second invasion to retake by force the rebellious republic. The skirmish in Dagestan, the terrorist attacks, and the new war against Chechnya boosted Putin’s political stature. In December Yeltsin resigned and in effect anointed Putin his successor. And in the March 2000 presidential elections, Putin defeated Zyuganov, with 54 percent of the vote.
For most of its duration, a majority of Russians supported the second Chechen war, but that support has diminished substantially and been replaced by a yearning for a political settlement. Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to assure the public that the Chechen resistance—or “bandit formations,” as it prefers to refer to it—is on its last legs, that the pro-Russian Chechen government (headed until his assassination in May 2004 by Akhmad Kadyrov, a former chief mufti of Chechnya and a Dudayev loyalist in the first war) enjoys widespread support, and that normalcy is luring Chechen refugees home. But similar claims were made by Yeltsin’s Kremlin in the first war. Then as now, no military or political solution was in sight.
III. Empire and Nationalism
While the Chechen resistance remains unvanquished, its political position is weak. The rest of the world is loathe to alienate Russia. Surging oil prices give it far more wealth and power than the small and divided Chechen opposition. And with its embassies, information resources, and entrée to numerous international forums, Moscow can control the narrative of the war far more effectively than its ragtag opponents.
And parts of the Russian narrative have an element of truth. It is true that the most militant elements in Chechnya have used terrorism against innocent Russians; it is also certain that they will continue to do so. And there is no denying that the war has allowed Islamic extremists to infiltrate Chechnya (albeit on a much smaller scale than Russia insists) and that their religious and political ideas have been embraced by some Chechen guerilla groups. But to reduce Chechnya’s tragedy to an amalgam of fundamentalism and terrorism is to miss a large part of the story and to increase the likelihood that the war will continue, bringing even greater misfortune to Chechens and Russians alike.
The separatism that resurfaced under Dudayev has a long and bloody history, with roots in Chechnya’s encounter with the Romanov and Soviet empires. This variety of nationalism in search of statehood invariably emerges from the resistance to modern imperialism: consider the 18th-century rebellion against Britain’s North American empire; the 19th-century rebellion against Spain’s Central and South American empire; the rise of a constellation of states following revolts against the Ottoman empire in the 19th century and following its outright collapse after World War I; the emergence of Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia from the wreckage of the Romanov and Hapsburg empires; and the birth after World War II of the so-called Third World—in Asia and Africa—from the anti-colonial uprisings against the empires of Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States.
In the latter half of the 1980s this same process shook the Soviet empire. After the communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell in 1989, the nascent nationalist movements in the Soviet Union’s Baltic and trans-Caucasus republics and in Ukraine became bolder, and the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.
Fifteen states arose from the detritus. Each was a “union republic” that, under the scheme of Soviet constitutionalism, was created to represent a large national population that adjoined a foreign state. In theory, these union republics had the right to secede. Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, and the rest of the North Caucasus were designated “autonomous republics.” These units lacked even the right to secede because they did not adjoin a sovereign state or the sea and because most housed smaller national populations who—the Tatars aside—numbered fewer than a million.
By the late 1980s, robust nationalist movements had developed in some of the union republics (Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan). But apart from in Tajikistan, nationalism was anemic or absent in Central Asia, where Communist Party regimes remained intact and their leaders opposed independence. Chechnya, on the other hand, was in the grip of anti-Soviet nationalism, with its communist structures in tatters. Only according to the principles of the Soviet constitution—which the Chechens had no meaningful part in designing—could the Chechens’ claim to independence have been deemed “illegal” or less legitimate than that of the Uzbeks or Turkmen.3 No nationality has matched—in intensity or consistency—the centuries of Chechen resistance to the Romanov and Soviet empires.
Chechnya’s resistance began in earnest in the late 18th century when a series of Sufi warrior imams mobilized a ghazavat (holy war) based on the shari’a in the name of an Islamic state, just as other Sufi leaders would do in the Sudan and the Maghreb in resisting European colonialism.4 The Sufi leaders of the North Caucasus sought to unite the Chechens and the other Muslim peoples of the region. (In practice this meant everyone except the Ossetians, a pagan people who, in varying degrees, were gravitating toward Orthodox Christianity and, as a result, aligning with Russia.) The ghazavat originated under a Chechen, Shaykh Mansur, who led it from 1785 (when Russian encroachment into the North Caucasuswas already well advanced) until his capture in 1792. But its high point was reached under Imam Shamil, a Dagestani Avar (the Avars are the largest national group in Dagestan). Shamil’s battleground covered much of modern-day Chechnya and Dagestan, and he fought the tsar’s armies from 1834 until his surrender in 1859.
The Chechens and others under Shamil’s banner were eventually defeated and their lands—ultimately all of the North Caucasus—annexed to the Russian empire. But for this Russia spent 500,000 troops and a quarter of a century. In the end, Russia’s vastly greater firepower and Shamil’s lack of allies cost the Chechens their victory. (Neither the Ottoman empire, to which Shamil appealed based on religious principles, nor Britain, whose help he sought on the grounds of realpolitik, were willing to help the Imam)
Shamil’s campaign had other weaknesses. Clearing forests and building roads to aid their troops’ mobility, Russian commanders robbed the murids (literally, students, but more colloquially, followers) of another ally: the terrain. The North Caucasus mountaineers were also eventually exhausted by Russia’s relentless assaults on whole villages and its merciless killing of civilians. Under these conditions, Shamil’s draconian religious and military demands bred discontent and eroded support for theghazavat. The struggle against Russia was also weakened by ethnic and religious divisions. The North Caucasus houses Circassians, Turkic peoples, Ossetians, and Chechens; Dagestan alone contains dozens of nationalities. The North Ossetians proved to be Russia’s reliable allies, while Shamil failed to draw Circassian and Turkic peoples of the western North Caucasus into the ghazavat. As a result his support was largely limited to the east. The Chechens, in particular, wore Shamil’s theocracy, with its rigid laws, like ill-fitting garments. Their tribal society combined consensus with a high degree of individualism; Islam, which had penetrated Chechnya only in the 18th century, was mixed with preexisting customs and animism. The differences among the inhabitants of the North Caucasus and the uneasy marriage between the Chechen way of life and Shamil’s vision enabled Russia to employ the classic imperial strategy of divide and conquer. Moreover, the Russians did not lack for defectors, the most famous of them being Shamil’s lieutenant, Hadji Murad, immortalized in Tolstoy’s novel of the same name.
But the ghazavat lived on in the Chechens’ imagination. Shamil had organized his murids into a fearsome force and created an Islamic state that levied taxes, enforced shari’a law, conscripted and billeted troops, and was administered by his naibs(deputies). The Imam could be ruthlessly cruel even toward his own people when they deviated from his puritanical Islamic principles or disobeyed his decrees; he had his own mother flogged for encouraging negotiations with the Russians. But his generalship, spirit, piety, courage, and charisma were undeniable.5 Not surprisingly, the ghazavat continued to animate Chechen resistance to Russian rule even after Shamil’s surrender. There was an unsuccessful revolt in 1863 inspired by the Polish national rebellion of that year and another in 1877–1878 that sought to create an Islamic state at a time when Russia and the Ottoman Empire were locked in war.
The 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed between the Bolsheviks and the Whites revealed the enduring power of theghazavat. The Chechens and the other peoples of the North Caucasus were quick to seize the ensuing confusion as an opportunity for freedom. In the summer of 1918 the United Highlanders organization formed to unite the North Caucasus. A year later, with the civil war at full throttle, it was replaced by the Republic of the North Caucasus, whose separatist campaign was destroyed by an alliance between the Whites and the Cossacks. Then came a Sufi-led movement whose leaders included Said Bek, Shamil’s grandson. Their goal was an independent, shari’a-based North Caucasian Emirate centered in Chechnya and Dagestan.
Shamil’s project had been revived—but only briefly. The Bolsheviks, stoking the resentments of the empire’s non- Russians with promises of self-determination, joined forces with the Sufi troops to defeat the Whites. But in 1920 they turned their guns on the North Caucasus Islamic movement. Within five years the Bolsheviks had crushed this latest attempt to create an Islamic state and with ruthless efficiency consolidated Soviet power in the North Caucasus.
For two more decades the Chechens continued to defy Soviet power in a guerilla war. During the 1930s they resisted Stalin’s campaign to collectivize agriculture and destroy Islamic institutions. Sufi-led rebellions, which also gained adherents within the local Chechen Communist Party structure, were quelled by the Red Army and the GPU (a forerunner of the KGB). But the Soviets’ systematic and brutal offensive against Islam did not bring the Chechens to heel: their nationalism simply metamorphosed into a secular form. In late 1940 Hassan Israilov, a former journalist and Communist Party member, led a Chechen revolt inspired by the Finns’ Winter War against the USSR. And in early 1942, with German armies pushing into the North Caucasus, another ex-communist, Mairbek Sharipov, organized another uprising. The Soviets deployed the NKVD (the secret police at the time) to destroy it. All these campaigns failed, but they demonstrated the enduring appeal of Islam and the Chechens’ irrepressible nationalism.
In the post-Stalinist Soviet Union the Chechen-Ingush population clashed sporadically with the authorities and Sufi Islam remained a dogged and defiant, if clandestine, force. It is hardly surprising, then, that in the late 1980s, when the Soviet empire’s future was in doubt, the Chechens began to stir again. Whatever the verdict on Dudayev, Chechnya’s politics under his watch were propelled by the deep historical traditions of the warrior imams who came before him and those who led the uprisings of the 1930s and 1940s. For Chechens the war they are waging today is an anti-imperial struggle whose roots stretch back to the late 1700s.
IV. The Terrorism Ledger
If Russia’s narrative of the current war in Chechnya has obscured Chechen nationalism, it has also distorted the goals and methods of Chechen terrorism.
To be sure, terrorism has become a principal tool for hard-liners in the Chechen opposition, who see it as just and effective. There have by now been many episodes of gruesome violence inside Chechnya and in other parts of Russia, for which Chechen groups have claimed responsibility: the Moscow subway bombing in August 2000; the explosion in Dagestan during a military parade in May 2002; the taking of some 700 hostages in Moscow’s Dubrovka theater in October 2002; suicide bombings in Chechnya in December 2002 and May 2003; the suicide bombing at a rock concert at the Tushino airfield in Moscow in July 2003; the detonation of a car bomb at a military hospital in North Ossetia in August 2003; the bombing of a commuter train in Russia’s southern region of Stavropol and the suicide bombing outside Moscow’s National Hotel in December 2003; the Moscow subway bombing in February 2004; and the bombing in May 2004 that killed Akhmad Kadyrov.
Because Russia is telling the story, the terrorism associated with the war in Chechnya is portrayed as senseless violence perpetrated by bloody-minded Chechens against innocent Russians. But Russian innocence is less clear if we judge the conflict using a crude body count of noncombatants since the late 18th century. By any reasonable standard, the Russian state’s destruction of entire villages in the North Caucasus and its deliberate starvation of mass populations (through burning fields, confiscating livestock, and enacting economic blockades) were acts of terrorism. Indeed, General Alexei Yermolov, who served as commander in chief of the Caucasus from 1817 to 1827 and whose cruelties are etched in Chechen memory, trumpeted the value of unsparing force to control people he regarded as savages. One of the most notorious acts of violence against civilians that took place during Russia’s conquest of the North Caucasus occurred on his watch: in September 1819 he ordered his troops to encircle the village of Dadi Yurt and kill its entire population. (There were unusual methods of coercion as well: the Russians abducted Shamil’s young son, who was raised in the tsar’s court for 15 years until the imam forced an exchange by kidnapping a Georgian princess. The young man, who had served as an officer in the Russian army, returned home a stranger to his own culture and died two years later.)
Russia continued to intimidate and kill noncombatants even after the North Caucasus had been subdued. Some 460,000 of the region’s inhabitants—primarily the Circassians from the western parts but also Chechens (who accounted for over 20,000 of the deportees), Ingush, and various national groups from Dagestan—were expelled en masse by Russia to the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish and Arab zones, and thousands drowned or died of disease during perilous voyages in Russian ships and makeshift vessels.6 Cossacks, Armenians, and Slavs were settled on the vacated lands to solidify Russia’s grip in a policy now called “ethnic cleansing.”
The Soviet regime pushed the violence against the inhabitants of the North Caucasus to unprecedented levels. Thousands were killed in the region from the late 1920s as part of the drive to collectivize agriculture. Thousands more were slaughtered or sent to labor camps during the bloodletting of the Great Purge that followed in the 1930s.
The rest of the Soviet Union also suffered massively from this repression, but the experience that sets the Chechens apart and that most acutely defines their national identity (along with Shamil and the ghazavat) is their wholesale deportation along with other national groups from the North Caucasus and elsewhere. Between 1937 and 1949, Stalin expelled some two million people (Chinese, Koreans, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Kurds, Greeks, Meshketian Turks, and others) from their homelands to prevent them from being recruited by Japanese forces in the east and for alleged collaboration with German occupying forces in the west.
Disaster struck the Chechens on February 23, 1944, a date that has more macabre significance than any other in their history. One hundred thousand Soviet troops who had been dispatched to the North Caucasus in late 1943 began a ghastly operation of mass expulsion (the local population had been told that the troops were there to rest and train before rejoining the battle).
Chechens accounted for nearly 400,000 of the approximately 600,000 deportees from the North Caucasus. People had only hours, and in many cases mere minutes, to gather their belongings. Many were simply murdered—shot, burned alive in their homes, or pushed off cliffs into churning rivers. Deportees were moved to railheads and then stuffed into sealed railroad cars. When the trains reached their destinations in Central Asia and Siberia, the carriages were filled with rotting corpses, human excrement, and starving and diseased survivors.
Between 20 and 30 percent died during the journey or within a few years after, the overwhelming majority of them Chechens. A generation of Chechens was born or (like Jokhar Dudayev) grew up in exile. In 1957 Khrushchev revealed the magnitude of the crime and allowed the exiles to return, and the Chechens, in another display of their doggedness, went home, some carrying the remains of relatives. The event is as crucial to Chechen national consciousness as the Shoah is to Jews and the 1915 genocide to Armenians.
Stalin’s accusation that many Chechens collaborated with the Germans is without foundation. Given the brutality of Soviet rule in the North Caucasus, the German occupation was certainly greeted with hope—just as it was by Russians and Ukrainians in the occupied zones of western Russia. And it gained supporters, not least because, in contrast to German policies in east-central Europe and western Russia, the German military authorities showed a high degree of tolerance for Islam and local customs and sidelined the SS and the Nazi party ideologues.7 German military administrators gave collectivized land back to the local population; created governments staffed by the local population in regions inhabited by the Cherkess, Karachai, Kabarda, and Balkars; elicited the support of local notables; and formed North Caucasian military units. Chechens were among those who cooperated in these ways, as were local Russians and other Slavs.
But while Hitler’s tactical aim in the North Caucasus was to seize the oilfields of Grozny and Baku, the German army never reached what was then the Chechen-Ingush autonomous oblast(province); during the German occupation of the North Caucasus, from June 1942 to January 1943, it (and almost all of Dagestan) lay beyond German lines. Furthermore, even though both Israilov and Sharipov urged their supporters to welcome the Germans, their revolts preceded and were unrelated to the German offensive into the North Caucasus. Nor is there evidence of mass collaboration by Chechens. While Chechens did join the military units formed by the Nazi occupiers in other parts of the North Caucasus, thousands of them also served in the Red Army, and many were decorated for bravery in battle. Stalin’s motive in deporting the Chechens was imperial, not military. They had refused to bow to Soviet power, and many remained defiant even in the Gulag. Stalin, like the Russian tsars, found that the Chechens could only be subdued with extreme brutality.
Terrorism is also an appropriate word to describe some of Russia’s actions during its two most recent wars in Chechnya. The accounts of courageous reporters such as Carlotta Gall, Thomas De Waal, Anatol Lieven, Sebastian Smith, Anne Nivot, and Anna Politovskaya, and the personal testimony of Khassan Baiev, a remarkable Chechen doctor who tended to the wounded and witnessed the depravities of the war until he was forced to flee in 2000, show that the Russian military has consistently used weapons and tactics that put civilians in harm’s way.8
During both wars, Grozny was pulverized by relentless artillery and aerial barrage that far exceeded what Sarajevo absorbed from Serb gunners and pilots. Russia used cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, well known for widening the radius of death. The aged and infirm were particularly vulnerable in the ensuing hell, as were, in the first war, ethnic Russians (few Russians remain in Chechnya now), who lacked the extended rural family networks to which many Chechens fled. Eventually there was no place to hide: residential buildings, schools and libraries, hospitals, orphanages, mosques, and entire villages were bombarded.
Sweeps by Russian troops to corral young Chechen males are routine, as is the “processing” of detainees in “filtration camps.” The routine punishments in these camps include beatings, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, starvation, and confinement in deep, dank pits. They are torture centers, although the practice of trading detainees for bribes has also transformed them into money-making operations for corrupt Russian officers. Thousands of Chechen men who have been taken away to these camps remain missing, and the discovery of mass graves and mutilated bodies dumped in the open suggests that most will never be found.9
The Russian state’s unsparing and longstanding use of terrorism to subdue the Chechens does not make today’s Russians responsible for the sins of their fathers. But this historical stock-taking does reveal how the past colors the present, especially in the eyes of Chechens. It shows as well that the current phase of war in Chechnya has roots that extend far into the past; it is not a tidy morality play between the West and Muslim extremists.
V. Muddy Waters
Not only is the balance sheet of terror messier than is generally assumed, but two of the deadliest terrorist acts that the Kremlin has blamed on the Chechens—the September 1999 apartment bombings and the spectacular takeover in October 2002 of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow—raise questions about the Kremlin’s credibility.
The apartment bombings were preceded by the incursion into Dagestan, but the forces of Basayev and Khattab inexplicably withdrew within two weeks. That fueled longstanding suspicion about Basayev’s connection with Russian intelligence, which was increased by reports of a meeting in France in July 1999 between Basayev and a senior Russian official. Moreover, although Putin ordered Russian troops to attack the Dagestani fundamentalists on whose behalf Basayev and his men had launched their operation, Basayev and Khattab’s incursion was a limited, one-shot affair, and could not in itself have justified another full-scale war with Chechnya. Only the September apartment bombings made that possible.
The apartment bombings—in Buinaksk (in Dagestan), Moscow, and Volgodonsk (in southern Russia)—together killed 300 people. Putin was quick to accuse Chechen terrorists. The Russian public was enraged. It mattered little that Basayev and Maskhadov denied responsibility. Within days of the Volgodonsk incident, Putin, using crude and tough language, ordered the bombing of Grozny. Most of Russia was behind him. In the panic, politicians whipped up ethnic and religious hatred; residents of Moscow and other large cities who happened to be from the North Caucasus were rounded up, and thousands of them were expelled from Moscow; and those who urged calm and warned against war, most notably the leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, Grigory Yavlinsky, were attacked as traitors.
Yet despite a military campaign that killed thousands of Chechen civilians, no more terrorist bombings occurred until the attack on the Moscow subway in August 2000. This seems decidedly odd: Chechen fundamentalists allegedly leveled several buildings to retaliate for the Russian army’s limited attacks against their compatriots in Dagestan. Yet they did not act when Grozny and other major Chechen population centers were being flattened by the Russian military, which launched 14,000 air strikes in the first year of the war alone. Furthermore, the bombs used in Moscow and Volgodonsk were made with tons of hexogen, which is manufactured under tight security in very few locations in Russia; it would have been extraordinarily difficult to obtain it and transport it in such massive quantities.
What really churned controversy about the attacks was the discovery in late September of yet another bomb in an apartment building in the city of Ryazan. When residents became alarmed after noticing three unknown people lurking around their building, they alerted the police, who discovered a hexogen bomb and a triggering device. Two people were eventually arrested, and they turned out to be operatives of the FSB.10 The FSB claimed the bomb was a dud containing only sugar, and that it had been planted to test the building’s security arrangements. But the Ryazan police insist they found a real bomb that tested conclusively for hexagon. The FSB has yet to offer compelling evidence that the bomb was in fact a fake. Indeed, it has destroyed the device—a curious thing to do if in fact it contained sugar—and refused to release any documents or name the agents connected to this unusual test. Efforts by Russian parliamentarians to conduct an official inquiry have been outvoted by Putin’s party and by others aligned with it. In recent years, the Russian authorities have charged that ethnic Karachai, not Chechens, were responsible for the apartment bombings, and two Karachai men were tried in secret, with only the sentences being made public in 2004.
In the Dubrovka terrorist operation, 40 Chechen terrorists led by Movsar Barayev (19 of them women, attired in black and presumably the widows of men killed in the war or filtration camps) stormed a theater and took 700 hostages. They were incapacitated by a gas pumped into the building and shot after commandos stormed the theater (between 200 and 300 hostages died from the effects of the gas, a derivative of fentalyn). But both Russians and Westerners—most notably John Dunlop in a penetrating report on the incident—have raised important questions.11 How could so many Chechens have conducted the surveillances that would have preceded a daring hostage-taking in a capital where the mere fact of being from the North Caucasus draws suspicion? How were the terrorists able to rent a safe house and secretly traffic in operatives and material? Why did the FSB not take action when, as is now known, it had received information about these activities? Why did the bombs strapped to the female terrorists, and many of those planted in the theater, lack essential parts needed for detonation? Why did the terrorists not detonate even one of the bombs that were operational? Why were all of the hostage-takers killed in the raid even though they were unconscious and could later have been interrogated? Why did the Kremlin immediately and persistently link Maskhadov to the Dubrovka terrorist operation (despite his condemnation of it) even though at the very time the hostage-taking was unfolding, a conference that Maskhadov’s representatives helped to organize in Copenhagen, one that pointedly excluded the Chechen Islamists, was meeting and criticizing terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism?
The curious circumstances surrounding the 1999 apartment bombings do not prove that Chechens were innocent (although they do cast serious doubt on the Kremlin’s accusations), nor that the bomb attacks were the handiwork of Russian intelligence. Nor do the unanswered questions about those bombings and the Dubrovka hostage crisis mean that Chechen terrorism is a phantom conjured up by the Kremlin. (For one thing, in contrast to the 1999 bombings, for which he denied responsibility, Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the Dubrovka attack a week after it occurred.) Nor can it be denied that the scale and scope of Chechen terrorism has increased following Russia’s second war in Chechnya. Yet it is clear that official Russian narratives of a Manichaean struggle between good and evil must not be accepted uncritically.
VI. The Fundamentalism Factor
The Kremlin alleges that the Chechens are supported by Wahhabi Muslims, who want to create a radical Islamic state in Chechnya, and by al Qaeda, which hopes to establish a new branch there. These claims have found their way into western press commentaries and television-news programs, where journalists, academics, and officials have taken to repeating them uncritically.
First, a few words on terminology. Even a cursory look at Islam from the Maghreb to Mindanao reveals enormous variety; “fundamentalism” is but one of its variants and does not represent most of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. Moreover, the term is a loaded one and is, in fact, of Protestant provenance. I use it here to describe movements that arose after the late 18th century that sought to restore what its adherents consider the lost purity of Islam by returning to the ways of the Salafiyya, the earliest Muslims.12 Present-day fundamentalists reject modernization and regard Western influence generally—and, today, American influence in particular—as antithetical to Islam’s letter and spirit. The prominence of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm notwithstanding, fundamentalism is principally a battle for the soul of the ummah, the transnational community of believers, not a war against non-Muslims. Wahhabism, a particular manifestation of this credo, developed in 18th-century Arabia as both a movement within Islam and an anti-Turkish nationalist movement.
Islam, though not fundamentalism, has unquestionably been both central to Chechen identity and a source of unity and inspiration in the wars against Russia. The defeat of the ghazavat did not change the Islamic core of the region’s culture, but the entrenchment of Soviet power transformed the conditions under which Islam could function—and it crushed movements seeking an independent Islamic state. The Soviet regime allowed a docile, state-funded, establishment Islam to exist in the North Caucasus (and other Muslim regions of the USSR) but in keeping with its own doctrinaire Marxism, it condemned religion as a counterrevolutionary force and tried to destroy it. The Soviets shut down mosques and madrassahs, forbade many Islamic customs and observances, and curtailed the hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca); piety became a professional liability. Moreover, linguistic and cultural Russification, including the adoption of Cyrillic as the script for the languages of the USSR’s Muslim regions, restricted the study of Arabic (the language of Islam) to a small minority, and cut people off from their religious roots.
Despite these policies, Islam survived in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus, in part because of the regional prevalence of Sufism, a strain of Islam suffused with mysticism. The clandestine Sufi orders—chiefly the Naqshbandiya and Qadiriya—survived, as did itinerant mullahs, makeshift mosques, and the pilgrimages to the gravesites and shrines of saints that are so central to Sufism. So did the Sufi zikr (meditative invocations of God) which continued to be practiced and remained part of Chechen culture.
Only by appreciating how Islam survived the Soviet era can one account for the rapidity with which it reappeared, in various manifestations, in the Dudayev years. Mosques and Islamic schools sprouted, more people undertook the hajj, and books about Chechnya’s Islamic roots and commemorations of the warrior imams flowered. For Chechens, engaging the forbidden past was essential to constructing a post-Soviet identity. Islamic slogans and discourse emerged in politics as well, and a section of the Chechen political class pressed for an Islamic state. Its influence was strong enough to convince Maskhadov, a secularist, to agree in February 1999 to make the shari’a the source of law within three years. Political figures such as Basayev, Yandarbiyev, and Movladi Udugov (information minister from 1991 to 1996 and first deputy prime minister in Maskhadov’s government) all wanted an Islamic state, although there was no common conception of what that meant in practice.
Islam’s resurgence in post-Soviet Chechnya is hardly surprising. For 150 years the Russian conquest drew Chechnya into a Slavic, northern cultural orbit, away from the influences of the Islamic south that would naturally have prevailed. It would be odd if Chechens—and other Muslims of the former Soviet Union—did not reclaim their heritage in the post- Soviet era and reconnect with the wider Islamic world.
But the issue of Islamic resurgence in Chechnya is altogether separate from the question of whether Wahhabists and al Qaeda are installing themselves there. The Chechens’ need for resources in the wars against Russia certainly provided an opening for foreign fundamentalists: they were able to provide money, training, weapons, and manpower to Chechens fighting a much stronger army. Fundamentalist fighters arrived with a certain mystique. They had proved their mettle in Afghanistan—albeit with considerable American and Pakistani support—by helping the mujahedeen vanquish the mighty Soviet army before joining the cause of the Taliban. When Chechnya became a war zone, they brought their élan, resources, and experience to what they saw as the new front for jihad within the ummah. While their activities in Chechnya would have been impossible with sealed Soviet borders, Russia’s decision to open itself to the world eased their entry.
Fundamentalist Islam also appealed to young Chechens—and Dagestanis—who were uninterested in warfare but disoriented by the ideological vacuum created by the demise of the USSR and frustrated by the disorder, poverty, and corruption that followed. Many went to the Arab world, Pakistan, and Turkey after the first war; some returned convinced that the solution lay in puritanical Islam.
By the time of the second war, this particular variant of Islam—one that was divorced from Chechen history and tradition—had taken root in Chechnya. While it appealed only to a minority, it did offer simple, doctrinaire explanations for the chaos and confusion, explanations that resonated with people schooled in the sterile Marxism of the USSR. The fundamentalists also offered hope, a heady vision for a glorious future, and the material resources and manpower for the war that would create a better world.
But fundamentalism’s salience in Chechnya must be understood in context. Sufism, the dominant and indigenous form of Islam there, is anathema to fundamentalists. They regard as apostasy core Sufi beliefs and practices, including teachings and rituals that emphasize direct communion with God, the veneration of Sufi masters as mediums for communication with the almighty, the inducing of trance-like ecstatic states as a path to the divine, and the worship of saints. Chechen Islam also bears the imprint of the animism and cultural and intellectual influences of the Soviet era. In short, the theological basis for fundamentalism’s appeal in Chechnya is thin, and foreigners seeking to make it the dominant version of Islam will meet resistance from indigenous Islamic leaders. Chechens already mistrust “the Arabs,” as they call Middle Eastern fundamentalists, for their dogmatic, rigid attitudes and see their presence as prolonging a war that has destroyed their lives.
What animates the Chechen struggle against Russia is not an imported Wahhabi coterie but a homegrown nationalism that is a product of the centuries-long struggle with Russia. Putin’s war will only improve fundamentalist Islam’s prospects in Chechnya; its brutalities will favor hard men who do not fear death and who are moved by millenarianism and simple slogans. Such individuals will favor neither secularism nor negotiations with Russia; theirs is a war of the faithful, and compromise is tantamount to faithlessness.
The Kremlin also claims that the Chechen fighters are in cahoots with al Qaeda. Given the worldwide reach of Osama bin Laden’s organization, it is possible that it has infiltrated Chechnya, but Russia has produced no evidence of al Qaeda cells.
Russia has tried persistently to link the Chechen resistance with al Qaeda. It searched for Chechens in northern Afghanistan after the Taliban, which had received training and support from al Qaeda, was defeated. But the effort failed. There were no Chechens among the 3,500 prisoners of war taken by the Northern Alliance, although there were fighters from various parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Pakistan. Nor are there Chechens among the “enemy combatants” being held by the United States military in Guant<0x00E1>namo, Cuba.
The Kremlin’s efforts to paint the war in Chechnya as part of the struggle against al Qaeda is no more persuasive than its claim that what drives the Chechen resistance is Islamic fundamentalism.
VII. War and Peace
There are more than 80,000 Russian troops from the regular military and the Interior Ministry in Chechnya and some 20,000 from the FSB, or approximately one soldier for every eight men, women, and children who remain within its borders. Supported by armor, attack aircraft, helicopters, bombers, and artillery, Russian military units face fewer than 5,000 Chechen fighters. Yet four years into the second Chechen war, victory still eludes Russia, and there are signs that the upheaval is spilling into Ingushetia and Dagestan.
The Chechen guerrillas now operate in small groups, using hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, snipers, and mines, which make it nearly impossible for Russian soldiers to distinguish friend from foe. They cannot venture far without a cordon of air support and armor; even the security sweeps are conducted by men in ski masks. The Russian military’s use of search-and-seizure operations and torture are intended to gather intelligence and drain support from the fighters, but such practices merely guarantee a steady supply of young men who have come to hate Russians.
Russia’s brutal campaign against terrorism is a long-term danger to Russia for three principal reasons. First, it threatens to make Russian cities a battleground in which the most uncompromising, cold-eyed elements of the Chechen opposition make their central goal the killing of as many Russian civilians as possible to mobilize opposition to the war. Second, it increases the likelihood that the Russian government will continue a war that has been unsuccessful militarily and politically and that continues to violate basic requirements that just-war doctrine makes upon warring nations: to safeguard noncombatants when using military force; to employ force that is proportional to the threat; to avoid torture, rape, and arbitrary detention—particularly of civilians; to account for the whereabouts of people swept up in dragnets and to release those not charged with crimes. Third, draconian actions taken by the Russian state in the name of extirpating terrorism will ultimately create an illiberal political ethos—one that imperils democracy, civil liberties, and civil society. How Russia addresses the problem of Chechnya will, therefore, have considerable bearing on the kind of society Russia becomes.
As for the Chechen forces, they can tie down a large, modern army and corrode its morale by inflicting steady losses, but they cannot defeat it in the literal sense. Radical Chechens’ resort to terrorism may eventually destroy support for the war among Russian citizens, but that is an uncertain bet. If those determined to make terrorism a key weapon continue to sideline moderates who favor negotiations, they will only strengthen theforces in Russia that support using the military to retain all of Russia’s territories at any cost to Chechen civilians. They will alienate what little support the Chechens have in the outside world, and Chechnya will be sure to remain a land in which life is not just cheap, but also impossible. The Kremlin’s claim that negotiations are infeasible will be justified, and Chechens (and Russians) who seek alternatives to war will be silenced.
The Chechen war, in short, is a stalemate, no matter the bravado of those waging it. Russian and Chechen proponents of dialogue have been marginalized, and civilians, particularly Chechens, are caught in the middle of what is a clash of extremes.
The impasse can only be overcome if Russia opens negotiations with the Chechen leaders who are prepared to talk and offers a plan that they and the majority of Chechens can accept. The tepid and intermittent overtures that Putin has made to Maskhadov have been wholly inadequate. The March 2003 referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya and the presidential elections that followed in October have not changed the fundamentals. The elections were widely seen as unfair; the outcome, the victory of Akhmad Kadyrov, was entirely predictable, especially after all the candidates with a reasonable chance of a good showing withdrew. But Kadyrov was seen by Chechens as a Russian stooge; his government was incapable of surviving without Russian guns. In the wake of Kadyrov’s assassination, a new Chechen government is being formed, but it will have no greater legitimacy than its predecessor. The Kremlin’s claim that there is no one reliable to negotiate with, that there are no moderates, and that Maskhadov has no control over the hard-liners in the resistance forces is all too often accepted at face value. Maskhadov has, in fact, repeatedly expressed his readiness to conduct direct negotiations. His ability to make a deal stick can only be judged if Russia takes the first step to reciprocate and offers terms for a settlement.
There is no perfect, or even good, solution for Chechnya—only less lethal options. The essential challenge is to reconcile Russia’s concern for its territorial integrity with the Chechens’ desire for independence. That can be done only if both parties settle on a very loose confederation, a Tatarstan-plus. Under such an arrangement, Chechnya would remain within the Russian Federation in a formal, juridical sense; it would also continue to use the Russian ruble for a five-year period, after which a special plebiscite would settle the question of a separate currency. (This would give Moscow ample opportunity to demonstrate to Chechens that they stand to gain by retaining strong economic links to Russia.) Chechnya would assemble its own government, elected under international supervision after a cease-fire and the repatriation of refugees. The Chechen government’s authority would cover all domains of public policy except national security and foreign policy, where it would have a formal, institutionalized, consultative voice on a list of subjects that it deemed vital to its interests. A Chechen police force and national guard would be created and trained with international assistance and configured and equipped solely for maintaining internal order. Russian troops would withdraw from Chechnya after the cease-fire, but a certain agreed-upon number would be stationed on its southern border to allay Russian concerns about the infiltration of drugs, arms, and combatants. These troops would be restricted to specific zones, beyond which they could move only with the sanction of the Chechen government.
These ideas are not far removed from those adumbrated by Russians, Westerners, and Chechens in various informal discussions and conferences. Could this plan fail? Of course—during both the negotiation and the implementation, and for any number of reasons. It requires majorconcessions from both sides: Moscow must give up the goal of making Chechnya an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation; Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders who favor negotiations must not insist that the end result be a sovereign Chechen state.
Putin has emerged from the March presidential election with the political resources needed to persuade Russians that a settlement is needed. Maskhadov has a tougher task. His house is divided, and he will have to display stronger leadership than he did while serving as Chechnya’s president from 1997 to 1999. He and the leaders of the various Chechen political factions must demonstrate that they are prepared to break with the die-hards and that they have the power and legitimacy to stem terrorist violence. Russia, leading industrial powers, and the United Nations must commit time and money to rebuilding Chechnya so that its people can resume a minimally normal life. Walking away at the first sign of trouble will produce another cycle of upheaval and violence, which globalization will carry far beyond Chechnya.
Trying to bring peace to Chechnya will not be easy or cheap. But it is better than the alternative: the indefinite extension of a hellish war that has been neither small nor victorious.
1 For an insider’s account that confirms the appeal of a quick military victory to bolster Yeltsin’s position, see Emil A. Payin and Arkady Popov, “Chechnya,” in Jeremy R. Azrael and Emil A. Payin, eds., U.S. and Russian Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force, CF-129-CRES (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1996).
2 The invasion by forces commanded by Basayev and Khattab seems to have been the second; it was preceded by another, composed predominantly of Dagestani Islamists and foreign supporters. I owe this clarification to John Dunlop.
3 The charge of illegality is exemplified by Payin and Popov, “Chechnya.”
4 The best accounts of the wars are John F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1991), originally published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1908, and Moshe Gammer, Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Dagestan (London: Frank Cass, 1994).
5 The ethos and legacy of Shamil are captured vividly in Nicholas Griffin, Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001).
6 The precise number of deportees remains unknown. A careful estimate is provided by Austin Jersild, Orientalism and Empire(Montreal, Quebec, and Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press), 23–28.
7 On German occupation policies in the North Caucasus and the reaction of the local population, see Alexander Dallin, German Rule in Russia, 1941–1945 (London: MacMillan and Company, 1957), ch. XII, “The Crescent and the Swastika,” and John Erickson, The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s War with Germany,vol. 1 (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1975), 378–379.
8 See Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Wall, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War (London: Pan Books, 1997); Sebastian Smith, Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus (London: I.B. Taurus, 1998); Anne Nivot, Chien de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of War in Chechnya (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001); Anna Politovskaya, A Dirty War (London: Harvill Press, 2001); Anna Politovskaya, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); and Khassan Baiev with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire (New York: Walker and Company, 2003).
9 The cruelties of the war are described most vividly in the books of Politovskaya and Baiev cited above. See also “Human Rights Situation in Chechnya: Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights,” (April 7, 2003).
10 The Ryazan episode has elicited much skeptical commentary and analysis in Russia and the West. The best account in English is David Satter, Darkness and Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Also see John Sweeny, “Take Care Tony, That Man Has Blood on His Hands: Evidence Shows Secret Police Were Behind ‘Terrorist’ Bomb,” (London) Observer, March 12, 2000; Jonathan Steele, “The Ryazan Incident,” The Guardian, March 24, 2000; Jamie Dettmer, “Terrorism—Did Putin’s Agents Plant the Bombs?,” Insight on the News, April 17, 2000. For a critical Russian view, see Boris Kagarlitsky, Russia Under Putin and Yeltsin (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 230–235.
11 See John B. Dunlop, “The October 2002 Moscow Hostage-Taking Incident,” in three parts, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 18, 2003, January 8, 2004, and January 15, 2004. See Caroline McGregor, “Handling of Dubrovka Queried,”St. Petersburg Times, January 16, 2004, for a critical assessment of the official version of the incident by a prominent Russian politician, Irina Khakamada, who participated in the negotiations with the hostage-takers. Khakamada is a leader of the Union of Rightists Forces party and was a contender against Vladimir Putin in the March 2004 presidential election.
12 See Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 66–69, and Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, second edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 265–268, 299–322.
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.
June 01, 2004
50 Min read time