Why on earth do the Russians want to keep Chechnya? The answer to that question is behind both last weekend’s bloody shambles in Moscow and the gruesome war of the past three years.
It is not an attractive prize at first sight: mountainous, impoverished, lawless. Most of the Russian settlers planted there by tsarist and Soviet policies in the past 150 years have understandably fled, not just from war-torn Chechnya, but from miserable tinderbox republics such as Dagestan and North Ossetia.
But even without many Russians there, Chechnya and the north Caucasus matter dreadfully to Russia, for three reasons. One is location: the region is important for oil transit. The second is external security. The idea of multiple Chechnyas, lawless places, run by an unholy alliance of Islamic extremists and bandits is enough to keep any responsible Russian leader awake at night. The third reason is the fear of a precedent. If Chechnya goes, what will be next? Having seen the Soviet Union disintegrate, no patriotic Russian wants to risk the same with the Swiss cheese of the Russian ethnic map. In the middle of the country, there are a million or so Tartars. What happens if they want to regain the statehood that they had briefly in 1918?
As a result, many Russian nationalists inside the military, security and political elite believe that in Chechnya, their country has its back to the wall. No price is too high to stop its independence.
In today’s cowed, stagnant Russia, worrying about disintegration may seem odd. But the fear was all too real in the chaos of the post-communist years, which were the formative political education for many of the men now running the country. Vladimir Putin, like many others from the military and intelligence community, spent the 1990s feeling offended and humiliated by the weakness of the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin.
When Putin resigned from active service in the KGB, he, like other ambitious young servants of the old regime, did not join any restorationist communist group. He says publicly that he has no faith in communist theory, and that any attempt to try to restore the Soviet Union is futile. But, at the same time, he is a staunch gosudarstvennik – an untranslatable Russian term best rendered as statist – which in today’s multi-ethnic, multicultural Russia most often means being a Russian imperialist and nationalist at the same time.
That allergic reaction to any threat to the state is why most Russian “statists” supported the invasion of Chechnya in 1994. Aimed at crushing a puny separatist rebellion, this invasion in fact started a process that has proved deeply destructive of Russian statehood. It has shaken the multi-ethnic foundations of the country, corrupted the already weak and dishonest military, ingrained new levels of brutality into the already horrible Soviet habits of power, and been the cause of reams of disinformation and dirty tricks in the best traditions of agitprop and the old KGB.
An even greater paradox is that the same statists were disgusted with the conduct of the war. Not because it was brutal, but because they believed that, time and again, the ineffective Kremlin leadership under Yeltsin “stole victory” out of the hands of the military: by holding back, instead of pressing on the attacks; by declaring ceasefires and negotiating, instead of bombing.
Take, for example, the events of June 1995 in the Stavropol region town of Budennovsk, where a troop of rebels led by the notorious warlord Shamil Basayev captured a large hospital and took more than 1,000 hostages. They demanded a ceasefire, the end of the war and the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After some fighting in which more than 100 hostages were killed, Basayev and his men were allowed to retreat safely back to Chechnya, and Moscow began peace talks with the rebels. During the siege, the then Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was filmed talking on the phone to Basayev, pleading submissively: “Speak louder, I cannot hear you.”
In 1996, after the rebels successfully recaptured the Chechen capital, Grozny, the Yeltsin Kremlin signed a peace treaty in the nearby town of Khasavyurt that involved the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Budennovsk and Khasavyurt were (and still are) considered by many “statists” the most important examples of criminal weakness of the Moscow authorities.
That is why when, in October 1999, Russian troops marched on Grozny again, Putin – prime minister at the time and already acting president under the ailing and feeble Yeltsin – told the nation that this time it would all be done right. The enemy would be defeated, the casualties would be low and the war would be short.
Russian generals were told to bomb till victory without any restrictions and win without heavy casualties. The treaty of Khasavyurt was repudiated, and Putin publicly pledged that “there will be no new Khasavyurt, no new Budennovsk”.
Yet there was just more of the same. The strategy of “victory by high explosive” inevitably caused great loss of innocent life and destruction of property. The indiscriminate attacks did not even make the second Chechen war a “low casualty” engagement. The butcher’s bill since August 1999 is 4,500 dead and 12,000 wounded, according to government estimates. In the 1994-1996 war, according to Russian defence ministry sources, 5,555 Russian servicemen were dead and 65,000 wounded.
The Kremlin partly understands the problem. In July 2000, a series of spectacular Chechen suicide attacks using truck bombs left more than 100 Russian servicemen dead or wounded. Days after the truck-bomb attacks, Putin publicly scolded military commanders for negligence. “Many of the losses could have been avoided in Chechnya with better discipline, professionalism and responsibility,” he said.
That assessment is still accurate and valid today. Russian soldiers and their commanders in Chechnya are undisciplined, unprofessional, irresponsible and rampantly corrupt. Following their generals’ example, Russian soldiers have set up a regular racket of kidnapping Chechens as “terrorist suspects” for ransom; Russian military personnel also collect bribes from anyone passing a checkpoint, and take part in the illegal extraction and export of oil in Chechnya.
Today, there are some 80,000 Russian servicemen in Chechnya. They are spread out all over the country, there are hundreds of checkpoints, but they still cannot control the situation even with the help of several thousand local pro-Moscow Chechen militia. The rebels are actively supported by many in the civilian population and Russian generals acknowledge publicly that many of the pro-Moscow militiamen are rebels in disguise.
Too many civilians have been killed; too many homes have been destroyed; too many war crimes have been committed; there is too much hatred today in Chechnya – enough to recruit scores of suicide bombers and other genuine terrorists to continue the resistance indefinitely and all over Russia.
Now, at last, there seems to be a growing understanding within the Moscow military and political elite that the war in Chechnya is unwinnable. Recently, a venerable Russian “statist”, the former intelligence chief and prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, published an extended peace plan for Chechnya in the government-controlled Russian paper Rossiskaya Gazeta.
But Putin himself, having briefly flirted with negotiations two years ago, is now steadfastly against any talks. During the hostage-taking crisis in Moscow that began on 23 October, Putin refused even to phone Basayev, the hostage-takers’ chieftain, or the Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, to secure the release of the hostages; starting such negotiations was the main demand of the hostage-takers. It may be that Putin recalled the Basayev-Chernomyrdin phone talk of 1995 and vowed not to repeat it . If so, he paid a heavy price – in other people’s lives.
The Kremlin has now announced that negotiations with Chechen rebels are totally out of the question. The people of Chechnya are stranded between a marauding Russian army and a jihadist resistance that is an international outcast. There is zero possibility of any peace in Chechnya at the moment.
After three years of unending war in Chechnya, the Kremlin has managed to trap itself into the worst bloody deadlock imaginable.