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Johnson's Russia List
17 January 2000
[Note from David Johnson;
1. The Guardian (UK) editorial: The new nationalism. Russia's heir
apparent is on the offensive.
2. The Electronic Telegraph (UK): Marcus Warren, Afghan spectre over
3. The Times (UK): Giles Whittell, Chechens buy off Russians to end
4. Irish Times: Seamus Martin, Chechen rebels accused of war crimes.
5. Jerry F. Hough: Yeltsin and Belarus-Russia union.
6. Stratfor.com GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE UPDATE: The Putin Doctrine: Nuclear Threats and Russia's Place in the World.
7. World Socialist Web Site editorial board: The political and historical
issues in Russia's assault on Chechnya.]
The Guardian (UK)
17 January 2000
The new nationalism
Russia's heir apparent is on the offensive
The apparent intention of Yevgeny Primakov to pull out of Russia's
presidential election in March is a blow to those who had hoped to see a
genuinely democratic contest. Only a few months ago, Mr Primakov, a former
prime minister backed by the Fatherland-All Russia alliance, looked like a
good bet. Then came setbacks in last month's parliamentary elections and
Boris Yeltsin's sudden decision to resign. In doing so, he brought forward
the election, which had been expected to take place in June, and designated
Mr Primakov's main rival, the 46-year-old prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as
acting president. Mr Primakov, while not formally quitting the race, has
indicated that he will now seek election as speaker of the Duma. A campaign
by pro-Kremlin media portraying him as too old, at 70, to take on the top job
may have influenced his decision. But with opinion polls showing Mr Putin
likely to win 55% of the vote (and beating Mr Primakov by 71% to 15%), and
with powerful national and regional politicians defecting to Mr Putin's Unity
alliance almost by the day, his cause looks hopeless. Mr Putin's drive for
power appears unstoppable at present. His other opponents - the marginalised
communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, Grigory Yavlinsky of the small, liberal
Yabloko party, and the absurdly rightwing extremist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky -
are not seen as challengers who, realistically, can deny him the victory he
Despite the appearance for the first time in Russian newspapers of criticism
of the conduct of the war in Chechnya, Mr Putin continues to enjoy
overwhelming public support for his ruthless line there. There are signs that
Russians are also warming to his central campaign theme. This is the need to
recreate a strong, centralised state which looks after its people at home and
stands up for national interests against the west; which will crack down
ruthlessly on terrorism, crime and corruption; and which will bring back
Russia's sense of pride and self-worth after a post-communist decade of
economic dislocation and political drift. In this, Mr Putin draws adroitly on
Russia's centuries-old belief in the necessity of a powerful leader, an idea
rooted not only in the years of Lenin and Stalin but in the tsarist era. His
recently announced plans to enhance the security apparatus, to which he once
belonged as a KGB spy chief, to increase defence spending by 57%, and to
raise state sector pay and pensions all underpin his unashamedly nationalist
message. In a country where approximately one-third of the population lives
below the poverty line, Mr Putin is also portraying himself as the candidate
of economic as well as political renewal. That Russia remains financially
beholden to the west, that he has given no clear idea how he will fund his
policies, and that he claims to remain committed to market reforms are issues
which are likely to be fudged, at least until after the election.
Perhaps more worrying even than the prospective absence of a genuine
electoral contest is Mr Putin's revamped "national security concept",
unveiled last week. This appears to broaden the circumstances in which Russia
might resort to nuclear weapons; it rejects the idea of a strategic
partnership with the US; and it takes a geopolitical world view which
postulates growing tension between a hegemonistic America and its European
allies and Russia, China, India and other emerging nations. This paranoid
document detects a conspiracy to weaken Russia. We hope this, too, is merely
electioneering. For if it reflects Mr Putin's true opinions, there is trouble
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
17 January 2000
[for personal use only]
Afghan spectre over Chechnya
By Marcus Warren in Zamai-Yurt
THE battle for Grozny and the struggle for control of Chechnya are far from
over, with the Russian army now faced with guerrilla warfare waged by the
The military may occupy the snow-capped ridges in the Caucasus but some
officers are disturbed by the terrain's resemblance to Afghanistan, where the
Mujahideen humbled the Soviet army in the Eighties. Adding to their worries,
the Chechen rebels are deploying the same tactics as the victorious Afghans,
launching small raiding parties of no more than 10 men to harry the Russians.
Some Chechen fighters are believed to have trained in Afghanistan and one of
their most feared warlords, Khattab, began his military career fighting
Soviet troops there. Col Vladimir Kruglov, a paratroop officer and Afghan
veteran, said: "They use the same methods; they are financed by the same
people and some of their leaders are the same as well."
The Chechen Defence Minister, Magomed Khambiyev, was quoted by Russia's
Interfax news agency yesterday as saying that rebel commanders had decided at
a meeting to declare a hit-and-run war on Russia.
"The period of battles for strategic positions is coming to an end," the
agency quoted Mr Khambiyev as saying. "From now on the tactic of a guerrilla
war will mainly be used. We do not set ourselves the aim of entering
populated areas and holding them. Our aim is to smash separate units and to
retire to repeat the operation in a new place."
Gen Gennady Troshev, one of Russia's best known military chiefs, relieved of
his command a week ago but now apparently back in charge, said: "They
approach, open fire and then hide. And the next morning they smile at you in
To combat the guerrillas he advocated even stricter policing of the territory
under Russian control, with special emphasis on thorough house-to-house
searches. He said that until now the searches have been perfunctory. "Every
house without exception will be checked," he said. "And they will be searched
a second time without warning and at random."
Small-scale raids on Russian positions were a problem in the hills near
Zamai-Yurt, but they were clearly not the main reason that Gen Troshev had
flown by helicopter to the Russian base there. His main preoccupations are
Grozny, the Chechen capital, which is obstinately refusing to surrender, and
the counter-attack by the rebels early last week.
After weeks in which the Russian army admitted losing only a handful of men,
if that, every day, the latest official casualty figures have jumped much
higher to as many as 26 in one ambush and even more every day. "Aviation and
the artillery will do their work and only then will the troops go in," Gen
Troshev said. "The weather today is good," he said, pointing at a blue sky.
What are we going to do? We are going to kill more bandits."
European Union foreign ministers are to meet next Monday to debate possible
sanctions against Moscow over its intervention in Chechnya.
The Times (UK)
17 January 2000
[for personal use only]
Chechens buy off Russians to end bombings
FROM GILES WHITTELL IN MOSCOW
RUSSIAN military commanders have accepted large cash bribes in return for not
bombarding certain Chechen villages suspected of hiding Islamist fighters,
according to accounts by witnesses published at the weekend. They will only
strengthen the impression of mounting chaos in a war that Vladimir Putin, the
acting President, has admitted has no quick end in sight.
Elders and businessmen in Katyr-Yurt, 20 miles south-west of Grozny, are said
to have collected about £3,500 and a big-screen television to buy off a
senior officer preparing to pummel their village with artillery. A similar
communal offering was the price of an end to shelling in Achkoi Martan,
Elsewhere, locals claimed that underpaid officers had stopped attacks in
return for food. The claims were reported in the Moscow Times and dismissed
by the Russian Defence Ministry as "not worth talking about", but they recall
all too clearly a notorious protection racket that operated in Chechnya in
the 1994-96 war.
They also echo allegations made to The Times by several refugees from Grozny
that a southeastern district of the city favoured by local mafia figures has
successfully bribed the Russian military not to target it with bombs and
missiles during the present campaign.
The selling of ad hoc ceasefires, although hard to prove, seems to be merely
one of several ways in which well-placed figures in the underfunded Russian
Army have been able to use both Chechen conflicts to enrich themselves.
Reports are rife of the looting and resale of household goods by soldiers, of
hefty bribes being demanded to pass through checkpoints and of men in uniform
lining up to change roubles into dollars in Nazran, the capital of
Human rights workers there have heard claims of Chechen villagers being
forced to buy guns simply in order to surrender them and last week the
Georgian government accused troops on a Russian base near Tbilisi of selling
weapons to the rebel fighters themselves.
The latest allegations cast a new light on Russia's swift progress into
lowland Chechnya before Christmas, much of it gained through deals with
Chechen elders in towns such as Achkoi Martan and Gudermes. Since then,
Russian Interior Ministry troops sent in to enforce peace have been
humiliated, especially by lightning raids by small and highly mobile rebel
groups last week. A Russian military commandant gunned down in one such raid
on Argun was buried yesterday in a televised funeral in St Petersburg.
Young, inexperienced units thrown into the battle for Grozny are faring even
worse. One conscript told a Western news agency at the weekend that his
115-man unit had shrunk to 58 since reaching the front line in mid-December.
Frontier guards are talking openly of seeing lorry-loads of bodies heading
out of the combat zone each day.
In an interview on Saturday, Mr Putin sought to lower Russians' expectations
of the war that still looks set to sweep him to power in March. Like Boris
Yeltsin before him, he was forced to admit mistakes have been made. Unlike Mr
Yeltsin, he offered no deadline for victory, in effect urging voters to brace
themselves for an open-ended conflict. The war will go on "step by step", he
said. When it ends "will depend on military expediency".
January 17, 2000
[for personal use only]
Chechen rebels accused of war crimes
By Seamus Martin
Chechen rebels have been accused of executing prisoners of war and using
civilians as "human shields" in a report issued by the Human Rights Watch
HRW has in the past evenhandedly documented allegations of atrocities by
Russian forces in Chechnya and by Serb forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army
(KLA) in Kosovo.
Interviews carried out by HRW workers in the northern Caucasus indicate that
entire villages which do not want to be involved in the current hostilities
have been used by rebels as cover for their attacks on Russian soldiers and
aircraft. There have also been accounts of captured Russian soldiers having
their throats cut.
"Chechen fighters are endangering civilians by trying to hide in their midst,
but they are bound by the laws of war as much as any combatants. We call upon
the fighters to take all necessary precautions to minimise civilian
casualties," Ms Holly Cartner of HRW said.
HRW also pointed out that the execution of prisoners of war runs contrary to
the Geneva Convention and constitutes a war crime.
According to the organisation, rebel fighters in Dyshne-Vedeno in southern
Chechnya subjected the head of the village elders and his 16-year-old son to
severe beatings after they had tried to engage in peace talks with Federal
According to a village resident, the two men were detained by the rebels on
December 17th, 1999. The elder's son was found badly beaten near the village
cemetery the following morning. The elder was released a week later.
The same village resident told HRW that earlier this month he had found the
body of a Russian soldier whose throat had been slit. He questioned rebels
about this and was told that it was their standard practice to slit the
throats of Russian soldiers they had captured.
Although this account was not independently confirmed by other witnesses, HRW
described it as "consistent with accounts received about similar abuses
committed by Chechen fighters elsewhere".
HRW accused Chechen insurgents of refusing to leave the village of
Alkhan-Yurt before it was seized by Russian forces. It has been alleged that
Russian troops then went on a rampage, summarily executing at least 19 and
perhaps up to 40 civilians in the village.
Mr Waha Muradov, a respected elder and the Mullah of Alkhan-Yurt, told HRW
that during the last two weeks of November he repeatedly tried to persuade
the rebels to leave the village. "I begged them on behalf of the village:
`Please leave, this is no place for you to fight.' "
The rebel commander replied that he would not retreat, and when the mullah
insisted, the insurgents started firing into the air, threatening to shoot
him and the other village elders if they did not leave immediately.
Human Rights Watch stressed that the abuses by Chechen fighters could not
justify Russia's "widespread indiscriminate shelling and bombing campaign".
According to Ms Cartner civilians often found themselves caught between
Chechen fighters who refused to leave their towns and Russian forces who were
bombing and shelling their homes.
"Both sides need to take the necessary steps to limit the impact of their
fighting on the civilian population, as required by the laws of war," she
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2000
From: "Jerry F. Hough" <email@example.com>
Subject: Yeltsin and Belarus-Russia union
I had an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on December 21. It did not get
picked up in JRL in the rush. I didn't raise the question when I noticed it
because of the flood of other articles, but it seems to me that it is
perhaps worth considering. It argued that Yeltsin was preparing to become
head of the Russian-Belarus Federation and follow the example of Milosevic
in avoiding the term limit on president. Whether that occurs or not, I am
deeply convinced that the argument correctly indicated what Yeltsin thought
was happening. The timing of the ratification of the Union Treaty was just
too neat. That it may not work out as he hoped is possible, but if so, we
should speak of a quiet coup rather than a resignation. But the transfer of
Borodin to the Russian-Belarus Council makes it seem quite possible.
Indeed, the article implicitly explains why it was necessary to move up the
presidential election by three months and why at one level this is better
than postponing the election until the summer.
If Yeltsin does become chairman of the Council, both Belarus and Russia
will likely continue to be ruled in the past. We should not forget the
Chinese experience when Deng ruled until the end of his life from many
posts, none of them the top ones.
Yeltsin's biggest mistake in the past was not to use the defeat of Gaidar
in 1992, the 1993 elections, or the collapse of the ruble in 1998 to
change policy. We can pray that this time he might let Putin change policy
and that that change is in the direction of an industrial policy. But
premiers in the past have promised changes in policy only to be prevented
from doing so by Yeltsin. Certainly no words mean anything more now than
they did in June 1991, April 1993 at the time of the referendum, December
1993, or the spring of 1996.
Los Angeles Times
That old orchestra leader, Russian President, Boris N. Yeltsin, seems to
be building to one more grand finale. In this latest composition, his
purpose--as before-is to try to maintain himself in power after June 2000
when he constitutionally has to step aside.
In recent months and even years, Yeltsin has been following a
little-noticed policy of unification of Russia and Belarus that has seemed
to be more posturing than reality.
However, just before the Dec. 19 Duma elections, the treaty of unification
suddenly moved forward. The great advantage for him of a Russia-Belarus
confederation is that new political institutions will be required. The
confederation or federation will need a president, and Yeltsin surely has a
candidate for that post in mind.
The old maestro has played such tunes before.
In 1993, Yeltsin imposed a constitution stipulating that legislative
elections be held six months before presidential elections. He used the
1993 and 1995 Duma elections to weaken or discredit opponents, and he held
on to power himself.
The most significant event in the just-completed Duma election clearly is
the strong vote achieved by the Unity Party of Prime Minister Vladimir V.
Putin. Many Westerners are calling Unity a centrist policy, but this is
misleading. It has no real policies except support of the war in Chechnya.
Yeltsin surely initiated that war-and has conducted it ferociously-in order
to distract attention from economic failures and consolidate nationalist
feelings behind the government in last weekend's election.
If no Russian election were to be held for four years, we could relax.
The war in Chechnya would no doubt wind down, and Russian politicians could
return to economic issues. If the West stopped bribing them to follow the
old, failed policies of the International Monetary Fund, Russian
politicians might be driven to an industrial policy that would actually work.
Alas, a presidential election is scheduled in six months. The war in
Chechnya will not be a plus for the government if it drags on. Yet, at
the same time, a victory before the presidential election will not unite
people behind a party headed by a colorless candidate, Putin, with no
program other than the war.
The main lesson of the Duma's election is that nationalist appeals work,
and Putin will need some other nationalist appeal in June 2000.
It is often assumed that Yeltsin is too sick to cling to power. Yet
Yeltsin has seemingly had regular-and convenient-medical relapses whenever
an awkward political crisis arises. It would be a mistake to make
assumptions about Yeltsin now.
Yeltsin seems relaxed about a popular prime minister for the first time
because he believes that Putin, as Russia's president, will be subordinate
to himself as head of the larger unit. (Former Serbian President Slobodan
Milosevic employed the same tactic to remain in power by assuming the
presidency of Yugoslavia.)
The problem is that Putin cannot win a fair presidential election, all the
more so if Yeltsin is still in power and if the war in Chechnya is over.
So the question is whether the planned scenario involves an intention to
intensify nationalism-anti-American rhetoric and, say, a battle over
unification with Ukraine-or simply to cancel or control the presidential
election. The Belarus leader has intensified his authoritarian rule;
Yeltsin may try to follow his lead.
The West must strongly oppose any such policy, but Yeltsin is not likely to
respond to persuasion. The West's best option is to try to organize unity
among a broad range of political forces and to even indicate that it would
favor a military coup to them in control if Yeltsin attempts to hold onto
We need to enter the new millennium by breaking with Yeltsin and helping
Russia, including the Communists, complete the difficult process of
integration into the West. This means reconciling ourselves to a Russia
that does not correspond to our cliches about economic development.
GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE UPDATE
The Putin Doctrine: Nuclear Threats and Russia's Place in the World
17 January 2000
Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, last week reversed his country's
vow never to use nuclear weapons first. The announcement sent shock waves
around the world. And it should have. Russian nuclear warheads are not about
to rain down on the United States but Putin is doing more than rattling
sabers. A new Russian national security doctrine has emerged over the last
few months and Putin's announcement is intended to round out that doctrine,
affecting the war in Chechnya, and re-ordering relations both with Russia's
neighbors and the United States.
Until a few months ago, Russia had no clear-cut national security policy.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russian security doctrine had devolved into
Russian economic policy. Russian economic policy consisted of intensifying
relations with the advanced industrial, capitalist world in order to create
the financial structures and relationships needed to jump-start the economy.
Russian national security doctrine consisted primarily of doing nothing to
disrupt those economic relationships while, within the framework of the first
imperative, maintaining the territorial and institutional integrity of the
Thus, the most important aspect of the new Russian national security doctrine
is that it exists at all. Putin's announcement on first strike has as its
primary purpose the elevation of national security issues to the same level
as national economic issues. In other words, Putin's announcement on nuclear
weapons represents the death of the preceding national strategy, which
relegated national security issues to a distant second place behind national
economic concerns. It was intended to stun a number of audiences into
realizing that the post-Cold War world is gone.
The choice of the nuclear issue served a number of purposes and spoke to a
number of audiences. The first audience was the United States and its allies.
As our readers know, it has been our view that the West's decision to bomb
Iraq in December of 1998 followed by the war in Kosovo, both in direct
opposition to Russian wishes generated a revolution in Russian policy.
Those two actions convinced the Russians that the United States intended to
reduce Russia to the status of a tertiary power. Washington's systematic
indifference to Russian wishes convinced the Russian national security
community that without leverage against the United States, Russia would have
no traction whatsoever. Economic relations with the West had effectively
collapsed in the financial crisis of August 1998, so the Russians felt they
had little to lose.
Putin's announcement is perfectly designed to drive home the price and risks
of U.S. economic and strategic policy. It systematically accomplishes what
Yeltsin tried spasmodically when he reminded Washington that Russia had
nuclear weapons and was prepared to use them. First, the Putin doctrine
reminds the United States that Russia is the only nation in the world with
sufficient nuclear weapons of sufficient range to conduct an annihilating
attack on the United States. To put it bluntly, Russia could choose to kill a
large percentage of the American public if it is prepared to endure the same.
Second, Moscow's new stance poses a practical problem for the United States,
which must now at least consider Russian responses. No matter how unlikely a
Russian first strike is, there is a huge difference between a negligible
threat and a non-existent one, particularly at the orders of magnitude
involved. During the Cold War, the threat of a Soviet nuclear response was in
the back of every policy maker's mind when dealing with issues from Nicaragua
to Angola to India. That threat disappeared with Glasnost. Putin intends to
Third, this is a meaningful threat because of the relative weakness of
Russia's conventional forces. Consider Western nuclear strategy, particularly
during the Cold War. The United States and NATO never renounced a possible
first strike; indeed, it was explicitly understood that a massive Soviet
attack on Western Europe would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons
and, if necessary, higher levels of nuclear response. Russia, on the other
hand, had long called for a no-first-strike commitment by the West and in
fact adopted that stance in 1997. Russia, with a conventional weapons
advantage, was always more interested in exploiting that advantage and saw
the use of nuclear weapons as undermining it. Nuclear weapons were the
critical equalizer to the superior numbers of Russian conventional forces.
But to create strategic parity beyond the battlefield, doctrine had to be
married to unpredictability. It was never clear to anyone that the United
States would in fact launch a first strike against the Soviet Union upon the
invasion of Germany. No one knew what the U.S. president would order at the
critical moment. That was precisely the advantage. The very uncertainty of
the American response limited the Soviets' room for maneuver and imposed
severe limits on Moscow's willingness to take risks. Putin is now trying to
reverse the equation. Russia now has a substantial disadvantage in
conventional forces. By renouncing the no-first strike rule, Putin has placed
Russia in the position of the United States during the Cold War.
In turn, the threat will force the United States and Europe to reconsider the
risk of adventures like Kosovo. Obviously, the Russians are unlikely to use
nuclear weapons. but the term "unlikely" does not mean impossible. It means
low probability, or possibility. The mere possibility that another Kosovo
could trigger a nuclear response changes the calculus of Western
intervention. Since the direct benefit to the intervening powers is minimal,
the corollary must be equally low cost and low risk. Since no nation is
entirely predictable, the risk of a nuclear response can easily shift the
decision from "go" to "no-go."
This is particularly true for European members of NATO and for Japan, whose
proximity to Russia and appetite for risk-taking is substantially less than
that of the United States. At the very least, the mere threat of a nuclear
reaction makes it impossible to treat Russia with the contemptuous
indifference shown during the Iraq and Kosovo affairs. With this
announcement, Putin has bought himself not only a seat at the table, but, in
all likelihood, the demand by U.S. allies that Russia buy into future
There is a second audience: the other members of the former Soviet Union,
many of whom are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),
which, not coincidentally, is holding a summit one week from today. One of
the outcomes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that, with intense U.S.
urging, all nations other than Russia gave up their nuclear weapons. Whatever
the wisdom of that policy, the result was that Russia is the only former
Soviet republic with nuclear weapons.
Russia has always been first among equals in the CIS, but Putin's
announcement will immediately help Moscow re-order its relationships closer
to home. First, the war in Chechnya will be affected. With some reason,
Russians are convinced that outside forces backed by the United States
are supplying Chechen rebels through neighboring Georgia. The situation in
Chechnya reminds many Russian military men of Afghanistan, where a great
power created logistical support systems and sanctuaries in a neighboring
country, bleeding Moscow's forces. Putin is now reminding the United States
that the survival of the Russian Federation intact is a fundamental
national interest. Therefore, any aid to the Chechens threatens an interest
so profound that the use of nuclear weapons might be rational. This must
trigger a re-evaluation of U.S. policy.
Second, the Georgians themselves, who have felt relatively secure as an
American partner, are being reminded that forces are at play beyond their
control. If the Georgians' entire calculus has been that the war would be one
of conventional force on conventional force, the Georgians should guess
again. The willingness of the Russians to use tactical nuclear weapons to
disrupt lines of supply into Chechnya cannot be discounted. By doing this,
the Russians are transforming the war, putting Georgia's security instead
of Russia's territorial integrity in jeopardy.
Third, the Russians are delivering a message to the Chechens. The Chechens
are seeing this conflict just as they did during the 1994-1996 war. They are
fighting on their terrain and are prepared to take serious losses for
national independence. Russian conventional forces cannot seal off the lines
of supply from Georgia, nor can they occupy the mountainous terrain south of
Grozny. Indeed, given the costs of urban warfare, they cannot easily take
Grozny itself. Therefore, the theory goes, extended warfare favors the
insurgent nationalist group. Time is on the side of the Chechens. Putin just
indicated, however, that he has the means to sharply increase Chechen
casualties without increasing Russian ones. That is a sobering thought, to
say the least.
This is a matter of general concern for all the countries surrounding Russia.
So long as the security equation is stated in purely conventional terms, the
West can help neighboring nations, from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia, pose
a serious problem to the Russians. Once nuclear weapons are introduced into
the equation, a very different outcome occurs. First, the conventional
supplies provided become unimportant. Second, the risks involved in providing
or accepting conventional weapons soar.
The final audience for this announcement is perhaps the most important: the
Russian public. Putin has been enormously popular for taking vigorous action
to end his country's declining world status. The announcement intrinsically
satisfies Russians and helps boost Putin's popularity on the verge of his
campaign for the presidency. As winter grips Chechnya and large-scale
military operations, particularly air operations, become more difficult, the
emergence of the nuclear threat suggests an end to the war even if
conventional forces fail.
Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons is therefore an attempt to re-order
Russia's relationship with the United States, the rest of the West, the
former republics of the Soviet Union and ultimately, to reconcile Russia's
own self-image. It is a clever move similar to the U.S. strategy of using
nuclear threats to limit the maneuvering room of other players. But it must
be remembered that the United States was primarily fighting for the global
balance of power. The Russians today are fighting for the very survival of
their federation. That means that the threat to use nuclear weapons, an
element of war games in the United States, has some very serious
possibilities when used by the Russians.
It is not inconceivable that the Russians, frustrated by their inability to
seal their frontier with Georgia and by Georgia's inability or unwillingness
to work with them, would use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin remembers
Afghanistan well. He is not going to be drawn into another Afghanistan, nor
is he going to withdraw from Chechnya. In the extreme case, anything is
possible. And that is precisely the ambiguous situation Putin wants to
create. He wants Russia's antagonists to peer into the abyss and see the
worst. He is calculating, quite rightly we think, that this will dramatically
increase the caution and respect with which Russia is treated. That will
yield an international payoff for Russia and a massive domestic payoff for
World Socialist Web Site
The political and historical issues in Russia's assault on Chechnya
By the Editorial Board
17 January 2000
For more than three months, Russian troops have been waging war against the
Caucasian republic of Chechnya. Estimates of those killed run as high as
10,000. A third of the Chechen population have been made homeless and a
quarter of a million are now refugees. An estimated 30,000-50,000 people
are trapped in the besieged capital, Grozny, suffering Russian shelling and
sporadic troop incursions.
The World Socialist Web Site calls on all workers, students and
intellectuals to demand the immediate cessation of the war and the
withdrawal of Russian troops. The self-serving claims by the Kremlin that
it is acting in the interests of the Russian people must be rejected. The
assault on Chechnya is a predatory war carried out in the interests of the
ruling elite in Russia.
Former President Yeltsin and his newly appointed successor, Vladimir Putin,
claim the attack on Chechnya is directed solely against terrorist bandits.
But their attempt to present the war as a mere police action is refuted by
the very methods through which it is being waged-the bombing of civilian
populations in Chechen towns and cities.
The immediate pretext for the war was the claim that Chechen separatists
were responsible for bombs that exploded in Moscow and other cities in
September of last year, killing over 200 people. To date no convincing
evidence has been presented to support allegations of Chechen involvement
in the bombings. Based on the record of violent crime and political
assassinations on the part of Mafia elements that compete for influence
within Russian government circles, it cannot be ruled out that they were,
in fact, responsible for these criminal acts.
In any event, the bombings and the Chechen war have served a useful
political purpose for Russia's rulers. Coverage of the mounting social
crisis within the country has been almost entirely dropped by the media,
while the repressive powers of the police have been strengthened. The war
has provided the main vehicle for Yeltsin's inner circle to ensure Putin's
succession to the presidential office, portraying him as the strongman
needed to bring order to Russia's chaos.
The key justification advanced by the Putin government for the war is that
it is acting in the interests of the Russian people by defending the
territorial integrity of the Russian Federation against the political
puppets of hostile powers. For the Kremlin to portray itself as the saviour
of the masses and the guardian of Russia's national interests is, however,
ludicrous. The capitalist market policies pursued for nearly a decade by
Yeltsin and now Putin have been responsible for the greatest social and
economic disaster suffered by any people outside of wartime. A handful of
semi-criminal elements at the apex of the new order have enriched
themselves by condemning the vast majority of Russian workers to mass
unemployment, poverty and the destruction of vital social services.
Moreover, ever since it first emerged a decade ago out of the former
Stalinist bureaucracy, the Kremlin's ruling clique has relied on the
support of the Western governments, banks and corporations for its
existence. It functions essentially as a client regime of the US and Europe
in liquidating formerly state-owned industry and providing international
capital with access to Russia's natural resources and markets.
The war against Chechnya is being fought to defend the interests of the new
class of Russian compradors. Following the NATO bombardment of Russia's
long-time ally Serbia, this ruling elite has become increasingly concerned
about a Western challenge to its hegemony over the Caucasus—a region that
serves as a strategic bridge between the immensely rich Caspian oil fields
and Europe. Though official government pronouncements have generally
identified Islamic regimes in the Middle East as the hidden sponsors of the
Chechen separatists, some leading politicians have hinted at direct US
At a recent meeting of military leaders, Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev
declared, "The United States' national interests require that the military
conflict in the north Caucasus, fanned from the outside, keeps constantly
smouldering... The West's policy is a challenge to Russia with the aim of
weakening its international position and ousting it from strategically
Such statements are, in part, aimed at winning popular support within
Russia for the Chechen campaign, on the basis of widespread anti-American
sentiment in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. But the threat posed by the
growth of US militarism cannot be combated on the basis of the Great
Russian chauvinism being whipped up by Putin and his allies in the
military. Any support for the war by working people will only strengthen
the hand of their own oppressors and the very government through which the
international banks and industrial conglomerates seek to dominate Russia.
The aim of the Kremlin in Chechnya is to reassert Russia's Great Power
status, strengthening their bargaining position with the imperialist
governments and Western banks and thereby maintaining their right to share
in the exploitation of the Russian and Caucasian peoples.
Imperialism's role in Chechnya
It would be a serious mistake to look to the Western powers, NATO or the
United Nations as a counterweight to Russian aggression in Chechnya. The
imperialist governments, and the United States in particular, bear a major
responsibility for the present tragedy.
None of the media commentary on the war makes the obvious point that it is
being carried out by the very regime which was sponsored by the US and
Europe, who proclaimed it to be the first flowering of a new democratic
order arising from the breakup of the USSR and the restoration of
capitalist market relations. They attributed the highest humanitarian and
democratic ideals to former Stalinist apparatchiks like Yeltsin at the very
time that his government was overseeing the dismantling of state-owned
enterprises, impoverishing millions and enriching themselves in the process.
Condemnation of Russia's war by the US and Europe is entirely hypocritical.
Their military offensive against Iraq and the imposition of sanctions are
responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women
and children. During the conflict with Serbia, NATO bombed civilian
populations in Belgrade and cities and towns throughout the country, and
asserted its right to trample on the national sovereignty of smaller
nations. The US has long maintained its right to carry out acts of
aggression, such as last year's bombing of Sudan's largest pharmaceutical
factory, on the pretext of “fighting terrorism”.
The NATO assault on Serbia was only the latest in a series of measures
taken by the US that challenge longstanding geo-political interests of
Russia. In the past few years NATO has been expanded to embrace Russia's
former allies in the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact, while many have been offered
the possibility of membership of the European Union. The US is also
pressing ahead with renewed plans to create a national shield against
nuclear missile attack, in contravention of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile
treaty. This brings with it the danger for Russia that the US could strike
its territory with relative impunity. At the same time, the US is
continuing to pursue its policy of marginalising Russian control over oil
routes from the Caspian basin and through the Caucasus. Under these
conditions, it was inevitable that the most chauvinist forces within Russia
would be strengthened.
There is no indication, however, that either the US or Europe is willing to
sacrifice their economic and political ties to Russia over its actions in
Chechnya. Their concerns are not with the fate of the Chechen people, but
the danger of a complete breach in relations with a regime that has served
their interests well. Official pronouncements by the Western governments
routinely combine calls for moderation on Russia's part with recognition of
Moscow's right to stem “terrorist activities” on its own territory. This
should serve as a lesson to all those who have been bamboozled by the human
rights propaganda of Washington into supporting US imperialism's own war
drives—in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Lessons from history
The World Socialist Web Site advances an independent perspective for the
working class—Russian, Chechen and international—based on the fundamental
political lessons of the 20th century.
The war in Chechnya is rooted in the decades-long betrayal by the former
Stalinist regime of the social and democratic aspirations of the October
1917 revolution. Stalinism must be held to account for the continued
national and democratic grievances of the Chechen people, due to its
flagrant breach of the principles of internationalism and equality that
guided the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.
The working class was only able to take power in 1917 by winning the
support of the majority of the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities
throughout the Russian Empire. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
(USSR) was formed in 1922 and encompassed 140 million people, including 65
million drawn from hundreds of different national minorities.
In order to secure the leadership of the working class over these oppressed
masses, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the equality and sovereignty of all the
Soviet peoples, the right to separate and form independent states, the
abolition of national-religious privileges, and the free development of
national minorities and ethnic groups. In this way, they allayed any
suspicion of a continuation of Great Russian chauvinism, while combating
the political influence of the imperialist powers and the White forces of
the national bourgeoisie. Clearly establishing that the unification of the
Soviet peoples was voluntary helped prevent the break-up of the old Tsarist
Empire into a plethora of small, backward and essentially impotent national
units that would remain politically subordinate to the major Western powers.
This policy gave a tremendous impulse to the movement of the oppressed
masses all over the world. The October Revolution provided the essential
answer to the question: through what methods and on what programme could
the colonial masses attain liberation from imperialism and ensure their
path towards economic and social progress? It proved by example that the
real basis for overcoming national oppression is the conquest of power by
the working class, laying the foundations for the development of a
socialist economy. Stalinism's greatest crime was to discredit and
undermine the confidence of the world's workers and peasants in such a
The Bolsheviks understood that the task of socialist construction could
only be completed on a world scale. So long as the USSR remained isolated,
it was only possible to take the first steps towards overcoming the legacy
of Russia's economic backwardness. The necessary material and economic
foundations for the construction of a truly egalitarian and prosperous
society could only be found through the extension of the revolution to the
more advanced countries of Europe and the eventual establishment of a world
Under conditions of the defeat of revolutionary struggles in Europe,
however, broad layers within the party and state bureaucracy came to reject
this perspective as “unrealistic”. They began to place the defence of their
own privileges above the historic interests of the working class, finding
their leader in Stalin and their theoretical justification in the
reactionary utopia of building “socialism in a single country”.
Leon Trotsky formed the Left Opposition within the Bolshevik party in order
to oppose Stalinism's nationalist perspective and the re-emergence of what
Trotsky termed “Great-Power jingoism”. The growing bureaucracy, headed by
Stalin, increasingly dealt with its Marxist opponents through terror,
repression and murder, and its crimes against the Soviet workers and
national minorities intensified.
One of the worst atrocities committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy was the
mass deportation of 400,000 Chechens and Ingush to Soviet Central Asia in
1944 during the Second World War, which resulted in the death of an
estimated 30 percent of the deportees.
The dead-end of separatism
Opposition to the war does not connote support for either the perspective
or methods of the separatist groups and nationalist leaders in Chechnya.
The claim that the only alternative to the repression of the Kremlin is an
independent Chechen state is false. Such a perspective cannot constitute a
viable foundation for the progressive economic development of the Caucasus,
or meet the social and democratic needs of the mass of its people.
It is not a question of harking back to the conditions of either the
Chechen or Russian masses under the old Stalinist regime. All the peoples
of the USSR suffered the suppression of their democratic and social rights
for decades under the bureaucratic police state set up by Stalin and his
Nevertheless, the formation of the USSR under Lenin's Bolshevik Party
represented an enormous step forward in the collective political, economic
and cultural development of the peoples of the Eurasian landmass. From that
standpoint, the emergence today of various separatist movements in the
Caucasus and elsewhere is not an opposition to the social counterrevolution
that culminated in the liquidation of the USSR, but is part of it.
The Islamic separatist forces in Chechnya have been able to exploit
historic and contemporary grievances against Russia, but their methods,
outlook and perspectives do not fundamentally differ from those of Yeltsin
and Putin. Ever since the liquidation of the USSR, the Caucasus has been
torn by national disputes that have claimed tens of thousands of lives.
These conflicts have been promoted and led in large part by former
Communist Party bureaucrats, such as the first leader of the
post-perestroika Chechen independence movement, Jokhar Dudaev.
These are not legitimate movements of national liberation. They have
nothing to do with a struggle against imperialism, nor do they in any sense
embody the democratic aspirations of the oppressed masses. They express,
rather, the social interests of various cliques of aspiring native
capitalists, who seek to establish their own direct links with world
capitalism by carving out ethnically homogeneous territories and dividing
the working class along ethno-communal lines.
National independence, as far as this social layer is concerned, is seen as
a means to appropriate the profits from oil distribution and refining,
coupled with drug dealing, gun running and prostitution. The armed struggle
against Russia is the method by which they seek to translate their
proximity to substantial oil reserves into a lucrative client relationship
with Washington, Berlin and London.
This was highlighted by a December 27 Wall Street Journal article by
Khoz-Ahmed Noukhaev, the president of the Caucasus Common Market (CCM).
Noukhaev is a typical representative of the leading circles of Chechen
separatists. He began his career as the leader of the notorious Chechen
mafia in Moscow, describing his criminal activity such as racketeering as
“a continuation of the fight for independence”.
In his Wall Street Journal column, Noukhavev boasts of the separatists'
ability to wage “endless guerrilla warfare” and warns that “both Europe and
the US have a vital strategic and economic interest in restoring peace to
the Caucasus as soon as possible—before the war in Chechnya spills over
into Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian oil fields.”
Such direct appeals to Western interests are by no means an exclusively
Chechen phenomenon. Their echo can be found in similar nationalist
movements around the world. In the first part of this century, the
bourgeois leaderships of national liberation struggles in the oppressed
countries sought to cast off imperialist domination and gain control of
their own national market. Today, however, the global integration of
capitalist production has led to the development of a new type of
national-separatist movement based on ethnic identity or communalism.
Rather than pursuing an end to imperialist control and the development of
national markets, these movements seek the dismemberment of existing states
and the establishment of direct relations with the imperialist powers and
In every case, this striving to attract inward investment is predicated on
the slashing of wages, the systematic increase in the level of exploitation
and the dismantling of vital social provisions such as health care and
pensions, which are considered an unpardonable drain on corporate profits.
Things will be no different in Chechnya. The ruling elite may grow fat on
oil revenues and their criminal activities, but the largely rural
population will remain condemned to poverty and squalor.
A socialist answer
The only progressive basis for opposing the Chechen war—and the ever
greater attacks on the social and democratic rights of the working class
throughout Russia—is the struggle to unify the hundreds of millions of
people who are the victims of capitalist restoration against their corrupt
rulers in the Kremlin as well as the imperialist powers.
At the dawn of the 20th century millions of workers were inspired by the
perspective of socialism and the struggle for the international unification
of the working class. Why then should critical-minded workers today accept
the demoralised, cynical and ignorant claim that such a perspective has no
relevance for the 21st century?
Already at the beginning of the last century, the limitations of bourgeois
national movements were apparent to the most advanced thinkers of their
age—such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. Why should the resurgence of
this phenomenon in an incomparably more debased form—advocating ethnic
identity as the basis of nation building—and in an era when the
globalisation of economic life far surpasses anything at that time, be
embraced by the working class today?
In order to combat the Great Russian chauvinism of the Putin regime, the
peoples of the former Soviet Union must renew their commitment to the
socialist and internationalist perspective on which the USSR was originally
established. The voluntary unification of the Russian and Caucasian peoples
in the early 1920s was only possible through the economic reorganisation of
Soviet society to meet the basic needs of the working masses.
Notwithstanding the subsequent Stalinist degeneration of the USSR, this
remains the only route to social progress and democracy. In pursuing this
goal, working people in Russia and Chechnya must turn to their fellow
workers in Europe and America as their natural allies in the struggle
against imperialist aggression and capitalist exploitation.
The central political task facing workers in Russia and throughout the
world is the development of a new Marxist leadership to resume the struggle
for world socialism. The World Socialist Web Site is the Internet site of
the Fourth International, founded by Leon Trotsky in the struggle to defend
socialist internationalism against the betrayals of Stalinism. It is the
forum around which the most politically advanced workers and intellectuals
will coalesce and build the world party of socialist revolution.
Web page for CDI Russia Weekly: