- Developments in the Chechen Conflict
May 09, 2002
Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, and the consequent US "war against terrorism", have led to considerable changes in US approaches to the war in Chechnya, and indeed to general US policy towards Russia. The strong support given by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the US campaign, his acceptance of US military deployments on the territory of the former Soviet Union, and very useful Russian help in Afghanistan and in intelligence sharing have all created a new belief in the US that a co-operative relationship with Russia is possible and desirable. Both Russia and the US have a very strong interest in co-operating against Sunni islamist extremism and terrorism, and in preventing the kind of regional instability and upheaval in Central Asia and the Caucasus which tend to breed and harbour such pathologies.

However, considerable problems still remain, of which the Chechen War is one. The US administration has a new sympathy for the extremist threats that Russia has faced in this region. The presence of international islamist militant forces in Chechnya and Georgia is now fully recognized, whereas previously this was downplayed or even ignored altogether by wide sections of US officialdom, the media and public opinion. This was despite abundant evidence - notably from the militants' own English-language propaganda - both of the presence of these forces and of their links to international extremist networks, including Al Qaida.

The group of international Muslim radicals (so-called "Wahabis", though this term is highly inexact) in Chechnya were headed by the late Habib Abdurrahman Khattab, a Saudi Arab who like many of his men had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The international Mujahedin were drawn to Chechnya by the war of resistance against the Russian infidel, as they had previously been drawn to Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. The declared intention of this force and its Chechen allies was to drive Russia out of the rest of the north Caucasus and unite other regions with Chechnya in a new islamic republic. It was in the name of this program that the international militants and their local allies invaded the Russian republic of Daghestan in August 1999.

This force has received support from Al Qaida and other radical networks in the Middle East. This was confirmed by one of Osama's aides, Abu Daud, by the English-language website of the Chechen Mujahedin, Qoqaz.net, and by the Egyptian security forces, who in July 2001 carried out a major operation against Egyptian islamist radicals who were raising funds and recruits from Chechnya. Khattab and his allies also received support from the Taleban in Afghanistan, the only state to have recognised Chechnya's independence. Knowledge of the connections of parts of the Chechen separatist forces to terrorist groups in the wider Muslim world was therefore anything but a secret. It was known both to Western officials and to many Western journalists working both in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan, but for a variety of reasons it was not widely publicized in the West.

The prevention or elimination of lawless areas and quasi-states in the Muslim world - of which Chechnya between 1996 and 1999 was one - is now recognized as a vital US national interest, since such areas can all too easily become safe havens for Al Qaida or allied groups. If Chechnya had remained a quasi-independent state, as it was in those years, there is little doubt that today we would be speaking of this region, like Somalia, as an extremely likely place of refuge for Al Qaida elements fleeing Afghanistan. This recognition has created a new awareness of the importance of maintaining Russian sovereignty over the North Caucasus. Finally, the experience of war in Afghanistan, and other episodes like the recent fighting in Jenin, have reminded us that anti-partisan warfare is an ugly business in which some civilian casualties are inevitable.

That said, however, it must also be clearly stated that - as in Kashmir or Palestine - while extremists and terrorists have established a strong presence in Chechnya, they have been able to do so because of the legitimate grievances and the great suffering of the Chechen people. The initial appearance of these forces - as in Afghanistan - was due to the brutal Russian military intervention of 1994-96; and the way in which they were able to carve out a powerful position for themselves in 1996-99 owed an enormous amount to the destruction, brutalization, and radicalization left behind by that war.

Whatever Russian propaganda may argue, the war in Chechnya is therefore certainly by no means simply a war against "terrorists". Mass Chechen national resentment and aspirations play a critical role. Moreover, a line must be drawn between the Chechen and international radicals on the one hand and the much more moderate followers of General Aslan Maskhadov on the other, if only because these two elements have clashed bitterly in the past. Whatever his past faults and failures, Maskhadov was elected President of Chechnya in February 1997 with 65 per cent of the popular vote, in elections accepted by the then Russian government and recognized by Western observers as free and fair. It is difficult to imagine any stable peace settlement for Chechnya that does not involve his participation - whereas with the militants no compromise is possible.

Moreover, US and Western public opinion remains rightly repelled by certain aspects of the Russian campaign, and especially by the overwhelming evidence of very widespread abuses against Chechen civilians by Russian soldiers. These include kidnap for ransom under the guise of "arrest"; torture and beating - both to extract information and out of sheer sadism; numerous extra-judicial executions and "disappearances"; very extensive looting; and rape. Many of these abuses are the work of the soldiery themselves rather than of the Russian state; but there is also ample evidence that senior Russian officers have at the very least turned a blind eye to such behavior, which has claimed thousands of Chechen victims.

In recent months, there appear to have been moves by the Russian government and high command to limit such atrocities, which are especially common during "sweeps" by Russian troops searching for militants in Chechen villages, and at Russian checkpoints. An order by the Russian commander, General Moltenskoy, attempting to control military actions on these occasions has led to familiar complaints from officers in the field that their "hands are being tied" and successful operations prevented. In fact, however, so great is the demoralization and indiscipline of the Russian forces fighting in the region that it seems very likely that many orders to this effect will simply go on being ignored, and that severe abuses will continue.

These abuses are not only deeply evil in themselves, but also fatally damaging to Russia's own goals in Chechnya - as Russia's own Chechen allies have repeatedly and publicly argued. The leader of the pro-Russian administration, Ahmad Kadyrov, and his followers have denounced them in public and called for Russian tactics in the war to be changed. Tragically, however, Chechnya is trapped in a familiar vicious circle whereby as long as attacks by Chechen militants on Russian forces continue, those forces will continue searches and reprisals - and vice versa.

It is therefore very important that US condemnation of Russian military atrocities should continue. This condemnation, together with criticism from pro-Russian Chechens, and the objective evidence of the Russian military's failure to pacify and stabilize Chechnya, does seem to have had a real effect in pushing the Russian government and high command to try - at least to some extent - to diminish abuses.

But clearly very much more needs to be done in this regard, and it needs to be done not only for the sake of the Chechen people, for peace in Chechnya, and for the wider struggle against islamist terrorism and extremism. For getting a grip on military abuses is also an essential part of bringing discipline, reform and modernization to the Russian armed forces. It is closely tied to the need to crack down on corruption in the armed forces, which among other things ensures an indirect supply of Russian weapons and ammunition to the Chechen rebels themselves! Such changes are therefore extremely important to Russia's own vital state interests, and this is a point which the US and other Western states should be making very forcibly to the Russian government.

However, in formulating its criticisms of Russian behavior in Chechnya, the US needs to pay close attention to two related questions: the spirit in which this criticism is offered, and US goals and interests in this region. For it should be obvious that US approaches to human rights abuses and military atrocities by the forces of other states inevitably differ very greatly depending on whether these states are seen as enemies of the US or - like Turkey and to an increasing extent India - allies and partners. In the latter cases, US concerns are raised in a spirit of what might be called constructive criticism, and are accompanied by credible assurances that the US unconditionally supports the territorial integrity of these states and is committed to the protection of their vital interests. If the US wishes Russia to develop into a truly reliable partner in the struggle against terrorism, it obviously cannot afford to give the impression that it is indifferent to vital Russian concerns and interests in this region.

This must also involve a recognition that it is emphatically not in the interests of the USA, the West, or the Caucasus that the Russians should simply withdraw and Chechnya return to its condition of 1996-99. The banditry which flourished in those years was a threat to the region and to western visitors to it. The establishment of a new base for international Muslim radicalism (and perhaps terrorism) posed a threat not just to the region, but to Western interests across the world, and to US allies in the Middle East. This is a point which was fully recognized by the Israeli government long before September 11th, but which for a long time was not fully understood by the US foreign policy elite - to the genuine bewilderment and frustration of Russian officials. Before September 11th at least, few in the USA stopped to think what the US reaction would be to the establishment of a powerful group of heavily armed international Muslim radicals on America's borders - and yet the answer is not difficult to find.

This leads to the question of the prospects for peace in Chechnya, and what if anything the US can do to help in this regard. These prospects have increased in recent weeks with the death of the chief international radical leader in Chechnya, Khattab. Russian sources are also claiming that the most famous leader of the Chechen radicals, Shamil Basayev, has also died of his wounds, but this is unconfirmed. Supplies of international radical men and money to the Chechen struggle appear to have been badly affected by the US struggle against Al Qaida and its allies, and more immediately by the new willingness of neighboring Georgia (backed by US military aid and a military training mission) to crack down on international supply routes to Chechnya. These are positive developments, since it is impossible even to imagine a peace settlement between Russia and the radical forces in Chechnya.

At the same time, the fighting in Chechnya continues, and continues to claim numerous Russian and Chechen lives. And while Russia may be able to reduce and even to some extent contain this violence, it is also impossible to imagine any stable peace in Chechnya which depends in the end only on Russian military control. Indeed, the end of the large-scale guerrilla struggle in Chechnya might only encourage a shift towards terrorism, with terrible consequences. It is therefore extremely desirable that Russia should seek real negotiations with President Aslan Maskhadov. While the dreadful experience of Chechnya in 1996-99 means that full independence for Chechnya must now be excluded for the foreseeable future, these talks should have as their goal the creation of a democratically elected, legitimate Chechen administration and the restoration of full and genuine Chechen autonomy within the Russian Federation (something which Moscow has always offered in principle).

But as so often in these cases (Israel-Palestine being a classic example), a key problem in this regard is mutual lack of trust; and as so often, this lack of trust is entirely understandable and even justified. Leaving aside the question of formal independence, from the point of view both of Maskhadov and of most ordinary Chechens, they cannot feel secure while Russian soldiers remain heavily present in Chechnya and retain the right and ability to undertake raids and reprisals. Given the present condition of the Russian armed forces, such operations are bound to lead to abuses against the Chechen civilian population. From their point of view, therefore, even an interim settlement therefore has to involve Russian military withdrawal and Chechen responsibility for security in the republic.

From a Russian point of view, however, the experience of Chechnya under Maskhadov's presidency after the Russian military withdrawal of 1996 makes this unacceptable. His utter failure to control the criminals and radicals during these years (a failure which included the kidnap and murder of senior Russian officials who were under Maskhadov's personal protection at the time) has desperately compromised him in Russian eyes - although Maskahdov's followers may well reply that Moscow never gave him sufficient help in this regard. Moscow is absolutely determined not to go back to a situation in which Chechen kidnap gangs can raid neighboring Russian regions at will (a situation which between 1996 and 1999 produced something in the order of 1,600 kidnaps, including numerous Westerners); and in which Chechen and international radicals can use it as a base to spread islamic revolution. For the Russian government, the only guarantee against this is a continued and large-scale Russian military presence.

It is indeed true that as the years 1996-99 demonstrate, before it can become a stable independent state, Chechnya needs to develop the social, cultural and political foundations for such a state, including an organised political nationalist movement capable of mobilising the population behind a state-building programme. These foundations proved mainly lacking in 1991-94, and wholly lacking in 1996-99, with disastrous consequences. Even in optimal circumstances, they will take years to develop. To do so, they will also require great help from Russia - because for all its fine words, it is very unlikely that the West would ever give serious help in this regard, even if it were permitted to do so by Russia. As seen from 1996-99, the only other international financial help for Chechnya is likely to come from radical islamist groups, with terrible results.

The US should therefore do its best to help facilitate talks between Maskhadov's representatives and the Russian government. One possible starting-point are the tentative contacts between different Chechen and Russian figures being sponsored by Lord Judd and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which the US might well consider informally supporting. US goals should be the destruction or exclusion of the radicals followed by a sharp reduction of the Russian military presence, free elections for a Chechen administration, and the restoration of autonomy. However, before it can embark on any such path the US needs to think very seriously about the correct balance between sympathy for Chechen suffering, respect for Russian security and sovereignty, and America's own vital interests in this region, in the context of the wider war against terrorism.