Center for Defense Information
Research Topics
CDI Library
What's New
CDI Library > Johnson's Russia List

Johnson's Russia List


September 29, 2000    
This Date's Issues: 4546 4547


Johnson's Russia List
29 September 2000


Date: Thur, 28 Sep 2000 
From: Anatol Lieven <> 
Subject: Through a Distorted Lens: Chechnya and the Western Media

Dear David,

As a preface to this piece in the October issue of Current History (see
below), I'd like to add some more specific remarks directed to readers of
Johnson's Russia List, since we are all in the business of either reporting
or commenting on Russia.

The Soviet Union is very commonly described as a form of Russian empire,
based on the pre-1917 empire of the Tsars, and its disintegration is
therefore regarded as one of "decolonisation" and national liberation.
These are in many ways of course gross over-simplifications given the role
of the Communist Party and Soviet ideology, but they do also have a
considerable element of truth.

This being so, however, it should be clear that the only intellectually and
indeed morally legitimate way of analysing the whole process of Soviet
disintegration and subsequent Russian relations with its neighbours is with
some reference at least to the wider European and north American history of
imperialism, decolonisation, and neo-colonialism. Only then is it possible
to make any legitimate attempt at determining what has been specifically
Soviet about this process, what has been specifically Russian, and what on
the other hand reflects wider historical patterns and realities.

As you all know, in fact this only very rarely occurs - while references to
allegedly unique and unchanging historical patterns in Russian behaviour
are a continuous trope of much of Western journalistic and academic
comment. I take at random a quote from a recent editorial in the LA Times:
"Russians also fight brutally because that is part of the Russian military
ethos, a tradition of total war fought with every means and without moral
restraints". Unlike of course the exquisite care displayed by the British,
French and American airforces in most of their 20th century campaigns, the
strict adherence to legality in the treatment of prisoners in partisan
wars, and so on. This editorial read as if the memory of western wars had
simply been wiped from the historical record. (What was most depressing
about this editorial was that it followed two pieces of reporting on
Russian and Chechen atrocities by Maura Reynolds and Robyn Dixon in the LA
Times which were very models of careful, objective - and utterly harrowing
- journalistic research). 

Rejection of this sort of bigotry, and insistence on proper balance and use
of evidence in reporting on Russia, are what have led me to the extremely
unwelcome position of appearing to defend some aspects of Russian policy in
the Caucasus - not because I wish to defend Russian crimes (which have been
legion) but because I cannot accept that Russia should be judged by utterly
different standards than those applied to other countries, or that
chauvinist bigotry on the part of Western commentators should be allowed to
mislead their hapless audiences.

In part, of course, this "historicist" approach to Russia reflects the
decline of history as an area of study, the ignorance of history among
international relations scholars, and the unwillingness of too many
historians themselves to step outside their own narrow fields . It also
however has some every unpleasant things to say about the arrogance, wilful
ignorance and smug moral complacency of too much of our profession, and the
way in which this has allowed a minority of pathological Russophobes an
influence which goes far beyond their numbers, let alone their intellectual
or professional deserts. The members of this minority, for their part, have
in a manner common to chauvinists everywhere structured their entire
intellectual and perhaps even emotional lives around hatred of their chosen

There is still a widespread gut feeling that these attitudes to Russia are
somehow legitimised by the past western struggle against Communist
totalitarianism, which I myself strongly supported. Not so. With Communism
dead as a world ideology, dealing with Russia - or China for that matter -
becomes a much more familiar, historically common question of dealing with
nations and states, which we may on occasions have to oppose, but whose
behaviour is governed by the same interests and patterns which historically
influenced the behaviour of our own countries. I may add that by now, many
of the old hardline cold warriors-turned-Russophobes have in any case
rendered their pretensions to anti-communist morality ludicrous by the
warmth with which they have embraced the Chinese state, as well as their
wooing of hardline ex-Communist dictators in Central Asia and elsewhere.

Russophobia today is therefore rooted not in ideological but in national
hatred, of a kind which is of course sadly all too common elsewhere. In
such architectures of hatred, selected or invented historical "facts" about
the "enemy" nation, its culture, and its racial nature (as in the comment
by George Will, "Expansionism is in the Russians' DNA") are taken out of
context and slotted into pre-arranged intellectual structures to argue for
the unchanging and unchangeable wickedness of the other side. Meanwhile any
counter-arguments or memories of your own side's crimes are rigorously
suppressed. This is however no more legitimate when it is being directed by
Russophobes against Russia than when it is being directed by Serb, Greek or
Armenian chauvinists against Turkey, Arabs against Jews, or indeed Israelis
against Arabs.

Indeed, many of the russophobe references to Russian 19th century
expansionism are almost word-for-word repetitions of 19th century British
anti-Russian propaganda, which denounced Russia's supposedly insatiable
desire for conquest at precisely the time when the British themselves were
gobbling up a quarter of the globe using extremely similar methods. At the
start of the 21st Century, we really ought to be able to do a bit better
than this.

This is the most worrying aspect of Western Russophobia: that it
demonstrates yet again the capacity of too many Western journalists and
intellectuals to forget their supposed standards and behave like 19th
century jingoists or Balkan nationalist hacks when their own national
loyalties and hatreds are involved. And these tendencies in turn serve
wider needs. Taken overall, we are living at a quite exceptionally benign
period in human history, above all as far as our own interests are
concerned. Yet no-one can live in Washington without becoming aware of the
desperate need of certain sections of Western elites for new enemies or
warmed-up old ones. This is certainly not the wish of a majority of the
American or any other Western people, and it is profoundly dangerous. For
of one thing we can be sure: that a country which is seen to need enemies
will sooner or later find them everywhere.

To be more specific: I don't want to hear another word on the subjects of
the supposed historic roots and unique nature of Russian crimes of war and
until the writers concerned give some sign of reading and understanding a
few books like Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace (about the French war
in Algeria), Max Hastings' Korean War (especially the passages dealing with
the US capture of Seoul in 1950 and the US air campaign), any serious book
on the US war in Vietnam or French policies in Africa, or more general
works like V.G. Kiernan's Colonial Empires and Armies. With regard to
Russian crimes in Chechnya, they could also read some of the remarks on the
inherent cruelty of urban warfare by Western officers in journals like the
Marine Corps Gazette and Parameters.

Neither Horne nor Hastings (both deeply patriotic conservatives) were
exactly "soft on Communism" nor are authors like Major Kevin Brown (USMC)
trying to be "soft on Russia". They are simply true professionals, men who
feel a strong sense of duty to present the facts, however uncomfortable -
and have the moral courage to do so.

Concerning the pre-1917 Russian Empire, I could also recommend (by way of a
family advertisement and to reveal my own intellectual influences) my
brother DCB Lieven's recent book Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals,
highly praised by John Lloyd on Johnson's list a couple of weeks ago. 

To make these parallels does not justify Russian crimes in Chechnya or
elsewhere. The crimes of a General Massu do not justify the crimes of a
General Kvashnin, any more than the crimes of a General Kitchener justified
those of Massu. Nor do French sphere of influence policies in Africa in
themselves justify similar Russian policies in the "Near Abroad". In fact,
if the Frenchmen (for example) who harangue Russia on its sins would make
some reference at least to their country's own past crimes, it would
actually make their arguments even stronger: we went through this, we were
much happier when we got out of it. Then, one could have a rational
argument with a Russian about the historical, ethnic, political and
geographical similarities AND differences between Algeria (say) and
Chechnya, what are Russian crimes, what is truly in Russia's interest, and
how Russia should reasonably be expected to handle Chechnya. At present,
most Russians have a strong and natural tendency just to fling the French
criticism back in their patronising, hypocritical faces. 

What a comparative approach does is to eliminate the
chauvinist/historicist/racist element in critiques of Russia. This allows
an analysis based on common moral standards and equally more importantly,
common standards of evidence and logic in the reporting and analysis of
Chechnya and other issues involving Russia. These are the subject of the
attached article. This in turn allows a policy towards Russia (and any
other major state) based on reason and Western interest, not bigotry,
hysteria, and nationalist lobbying. Listen to Owen Harries, editor of the
National Interest, a true conservative who was a tough anti-communist, and
is also no "Russophile" and no geopolitical dove:

"During the Cold War, a struggle against what was truly an evil empire,
there was some justification in maintaining that similar behaviour by
Washington and Moscow should be judged differently, because the intrinsic
moral character of the two actors was so different. But that was due less
to the unique virtues of the United States than to the special vileness of
the Soviet Union, and even then applying double standards was a tricky
business, easily abused. In the more mundane world of today there is no
justification for applying one standard to the rest of the world and
another to America.
"Not only does insistence on double standards seem hypocritical to others,
thereby diminishing American credibility and prestige, but even more
seriously, it makes it impossible to think sensibly and coherently about
international affairs. And that is a fatal drawback for an indispensable
( America Should Practice the Foreign Policy It Preaches, International
Herald Tribune August 24th 1999.)

Hatred of Soviet Communism helped take me me to Afghanistan in 1988 and the
Baltic States and the Caucasus in 1990. In this cause, in the 1970s and 80s
I was prepared to justify some nasty Western crimes as a regrettable part
of the struggle against Communism (as well as lesser sins like the abuse of
the IMF and World Bank for the sake of anti-Soviet geopolitics). But I
never pretended these crimes did not occur, or that the reasons for them
did not include a good measure of crude traditional national power politics.

The Cold War was a profoundly necessary struggle, but it was also one in
which Western morality, as well as Western soldiers, on occasion suffered
very badly. The great majority of Western populations greeted our qualified
but peaceful victory with overwhelming joy and relief. Ten years after the
end of the Cold War, it is high time that some of our colleagues liberate
themselves from Cold War attitudes and remember that whether as journalists
or academics, our first duty today, and our best example to the world, is
not to spread propaganda but to maintain our professional standards.


Current History
October 2000
Through a Distorted Lens: Chechnya and the Western Media
ANATOL LIEVEN is a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Center of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He covered the 1994-1996
Chechen war as a correspondent for the London Times. His books include
Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University
Press, 1998).

The second Chechen war has not brought out the best in the Western
media-with the usual exception of the brave and dedicated correspondents
who have gone to report on it. All too much of the coverage and analysis
has been relentlessly one-sided and relentlessly anti-Russian. Most of the
media-and in particular, of course, television-were typically uninterested
in the signs of growing crisis, and turned their attention to the region
only when the Russians actually invaded. Equally typically, once the war
had begun, the media lost themselves in the reporting of the unfolding
events, rarely stepping back to analyze the background to the fighting.

As a result, the media missed the great majority of the attacks on and
threats to Russia from Chechnya in the two years leading up to the war.
Above all, the media overlooked the powerful forces in Chechnya and their
international radical Muslim allies, who had publicly committed themselves
to a jihad to drive Russia from the entire North Caucasus and establish an
Islamic state-whether the peoples of the region wanted it or not.

Moreover, the media, along with human rights groups and the great majority
of politicians and political commentators, have repeatedly called for a
"political solution" or a "peaceful solution" to the Chechen war without
ever detailing what that solution should be, or how it can be achieved, or
whether the anti-Russian fighters actually want a compromise, or whether
seeking it might not bring serious new dangers. This kind of approach may
make everyone feel good about themselves, but it is also profoundly


These are all common faults in today's media-political-NGO world. And in
the case of the nongovernmental organizations, perhaps one should not
criticize them too harshly, either regarding Chechnya or other conflicts
around the world where they may have been politically nave. After all,
their job is to expose abuses, not to draw up settlements-and terrible
abuses have indeed been committed by the Russian forces in Chechnya.

In the Chechen war, human rights groups may have been exploited as "useful
idiots" (to use Lenin's phrase) by hardnosed Russophobe politicians in the
United States who certainly do not share their basic ideals; in conflicts
of this kind, however, politicians and fighters on all sides try to use NGO
evidence as a weapon, and this is not the fault of the NGOs themselves.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for example, have excellent
and admirable records for impartiality in exposing and condemning crimes by
different countries. This has brought them furious criticism from United
States allies in Turkey, Central America, and elsewhere, as well as from
actual or past United States adversaries, such as Russia and China.

Impartiality is something that can emphatically not be said of much of the
United States media, let alone American politicians. An intensely
depressing aspect of the response to this war has been the general lack of
any attempt to apply common standards to Russia and to the United States or
its allies. Few commentators have tried to compare the Turkish record
toward the Kurds with that of the Russians toward the Chechens. Even fewer
have stopped to ask themselves what the United States response would be to
the establishment of an armed Islamic extremist base on its own borders.

Western comment and criticism has also seriously muddied the waters
concerning what is and is not a war crime. Here the NGOs can be criticized.
Since their members have a gut feeling that all wars are bad and somehow
criminal, NGOs have a tendency to treat everything that happens in war as a
crime. And some NGO suggestions have been nave in the extreme-for example,
that the Chechen guerrillas should avoid fighting in populated areas, or
that the Russians should not use heavy weapons when attacking the fighters
in those areas. Most troubling is the argument that, if they fail to act in
this way, the combatants are morally blameworthy.

The Western media have been heavily influenced by this perspective. Carried
away by pictures of the colossal destruction visited on the city of Grozny,
they portrayed the Russian bombardment last winter as a gratuitous act of
brutality directed against the civilian population. Almost nobody has asked
if there were another way to capture a defended city, or compared the
Russian operation with similar Western-conducted battles in the past. Even
the Russian military's warning to the civilian population to leave the city
before the assault was generally portrayed as another piece of Russian
savagery-as if the writers concerned would rather that the population had
stayed and been killed!

This approach should worry all soldiers, including those of Western
nations. After all, fears about the prosecution of American soldiers based
on ignorance or prejudice led the United States Congress to block the
creation of an international criminal court. Sadly, when it comes to the
use of massive bombardment in the capture of defended cities, the United
States, France, and Russia are all historically complicit. Previous
experience, from World War II to Mogadishu in 1993, suggests that as soon
as Western soldiers begin to take serious casualties, all restraints on the
use of firepower are abandoned.1 Regrettably, the development of both urban
warfare and anti-guerrilla warfare has a certain logic, and if the Russians
have followed this logic in Chechnya, so has the West in Vietnam and
Algeria. The West's failure to acknowledge this past-and the possibility it
may occur again in the future-is partly the result of sheer historical
illiteracy, but it also reflects the Russophobia that pervades so much
Western thinking (although the Clinton administration's approach has been
generally correct; it has avoided both the moralizing of the French and the
excessive friendliness the British have shown to Putin).


Since these criticisms will of course be unpopular and disputed, I will
first make my own position on Chechnya clear. I deplore the atrocities
carried out by Russian troops in Chechnya, and also think that a good deal
of the Russian bombardment of Chechnya was unwarranted and excessive. This
judgment applies to the military's rocket attack on the central market in
Grozny in November, the bombing of towns and villages far from the front
line, and repeated attacks on refugee columns. Of course, in a war of this
kind it is difficult to distinguish between fighters and civilians, and
such attacks have taken place in many Western-conducted wars. The Russians,
however, rarely seem even to have tried to distinguish between the two. As
a result, civilian casualties have been high. In interviews with Russian
soldiers who had served in Chechnya, reporter Maura Reynolds documented in
the September 17, 2000 Los Angeles Times that Russian troops have also
carried out widespread atrocities against Chechen civilians, including
killings, torture, rape, looting, and at least one massacre. All this the
Western media have rightly condemned. But the same judgment cannot be
brought against the bombardment of Grozny during the assault on that city.
Here, the Western media has portrayed standard military practice as a war

During the 1994-1996 war, which I reported for The Times of London, my
sympathies were strongly with the Chechen side. I believed and still
believe that the Russian invasion and the suffering and destruction that
resulted were wholly unjustified. I was delighted by the Chechen victories
in 1996 and the peace agreement reached for Russia and Chechnya by General
Alexander Lebed and the Chechen chief of staff, General Aslan Maskhadov. I
welcomed Maskhadov's election as Chechen president; I hoped that the
courage and ability to cooperate displayed by the Chechen fighters and
their commanders during the war would lead them to rally behind Maskhadov
and help in the creation of a stable state at peace with Russia and
Chechnya's other neighbors. These positions are set out in my book on that

Tragically, the Chechen commanders proved one of the most disastrous
dominant groups of any people in modern times. Of course, the destruction,
economic misery, and brutalization left behind by the war of 1994-1996 was
key in subsequent developments, but this is a partial explanation rather
than an adequate excuse. Of these developments, the most important were the
complete failure to create an effective state (echoing but greatly
exceeding the previous failure of President Dzhokhar Dudayev); the
explosion of banditry and especially kidnapping; and the establishment in
Chechnya of a powerful group of international Islamic militants dedicated
to carrying the jihad against Russia beyond Chechnya's borders.

>From the Russian withdrawal at the end of 1996 to the new invasion of
October 1999, more than 1,100 Russian citizens were kidnapped by Chechen or
Chechen-led gangs, and often tortured and mutilated. The victims included
not just ethnic Russians, but numerous Chechens as well as the Chechens'
Ingush and Dagestani Muslim neighbors and several dozen Westerners
(including American missionary Herman Gregg, whose captors made a film of
themselves cutting off his index finger to back up their ransom demand).

The heads of the kidnapping gangs were leading Chechen commanders. For
example, Arbi Barayev, who was responsible for the kidnap and murder of
four British telecom engineers in December 1998, has once again become a
prominent commander in this war, responsible for some striking victories
over the Russians.

Western diplomats involved in attempts to gain the release of hostages held
by Barayev told me that they were certain that he was closely linked to the
Chechen vice president, Vakha Arsanov. This is not to suggest the
responsibility of Maskhadov himself-in fact he broke with Arsanov-but it
certainly brings out his inability to control even his own administration,
let alone Chechnya as a whole. Most kidnap victims in Chechnya were taken
for purely financial reasons, but senior Russian envoys to Chechnya were
also seized, including Boris Yeltsin's personal envoy, Valentin Vlasov in
May 1998 and the Russian Interior Ministry envoy, General Gennady Shpigun
in March 1999 (both were supposedly under Maskhadov's personal protection).

The following extract is from an article by one Western journalist who did
try to give a balanced account of the events leading up to the war, David
Filipov of the Boston Globe:

"Kiril Perchenko, 20 [a Moscow video producer who was abducted in the
Russian capital and spent six months as a hostage in Chechnya], said his
Chechen captors, followers of the Chechen warlords Arbi Barayev and Ramzan
Akhmadov, routinely chopped off the fingers and hands of captives while
forcing the others to watch. . . . 

"Children have not been spared. Adi Sharon's captors cut off the ends of
both [of the 12-year-old's] little fingers to press their demands that his
father, a wealthy businessman who works in Moscow, pay $8 million in
ransom. Alla Geifman, [a] 12-year-old girl, told reporters after her
release that her captors grew impatient as the months dragged on, cutting
off one of her fingers. A month later, they cut off another and sent it to
her father. They also sent him a cassette in which the girl is heard
screaming 'Papa, they're taking off my pants.' Geifman was in the news
several weeks after she was freed when the US Embassy in Moscow failed to
grant her a visa, instead requesting more information about the purpose of
her trip. That refusal was taken up by the media here as a sign of what
many Russians view as the West's unwillingness to hear Russia's side of why
it is fighting in Chechnya."3

>From the viewpoint of the Russian state, still more important was the
creation in Chechnya of forces that were no longer Chechen nationalists
dedicated to defending their "country" but who were committed to attacking
Russia itself and imposing their version of Islam on neighboring peoples.
The key event was an alliance forged in 1998 between Shamil Basayev, the
most famous Chechen field commander, other Chechen radical leaders, Islamic
radicals from neighboring Dagestan, and the followers of Ibn-ul-Khattab,
the Arab leader of a group of international mujahedeen who had gathered in
Chechnya.4 In April 1998 they formed the Congress of Peoples of Chechnya
and Dagestan, with the declared aim of creating an Islamic state that would
unite these two Russian republics. These men were in revolt not only
against Russia, but also against President Mask-hadov, whom they denounced
as a traitor to Chechnya and Islam. They continue to receive strong public
support from the Islamic Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which is also
sheltering Osama bin Laden. (In late August 2000 an aide to bin Laden told
the Associated Press that bin Laden is sending volunteers and arms to

The 1994 Russian invasion was itself chiefly to blame for the appearance
of Khattab and his men, many of whom had previously fought in Afghanistan
and Bosnia. Until that war, the so-called Wahabbis (after the Saudi Arabian
fundamentalist variant of Islam) were an insignificant presence in
Chechnya. With the Russian invasion the mujahedeen flocked to Chechnya. As
in Afghanistan,they re-ceived help in establishing themselves by their
access to Arab funds.

>From April 1998 to their invasion of Dag-estan in August 1999, Chechen
fighters killed or took prisoner dozens of Russian police and troops in
raids across the Russian republic border. Terrorists also carried out many
bomb attacks in the region, including a massive bombing in the North
Ossetian city of Vladikavkaz in March 1999 that killed 51 people, and a
bombing on a block housing Russian soldiers' families in the Dagestani town
of Buinaksk in September 1999 that killed 64 people. No one has ever
claimed responsibility for these bombings, but they appear to fit into the
general campaign by the forces of Basayev, Khattab, and their allies, which
included carrying out bombings of Russian military and police targets.

Only with the bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in September 1999 that
killed more than 300 people did the growing crisis make headlines in the
West. Western reporting of these bombings was invariably accompanied by
statements that proof of Chechen or Islamist responsibility for the
bombings had not been established (no one claimed responsibility). It was
also argued that the behavior of the security forces had been highly
suspicious; notably, that they moved quickly to bulldoze the buildings
affected by the Moscow blasts, thereby also perhaps destroying evidence,
and that they carried out an alleged "antiterrorism" operation in the town
of Ryazan, which involved planting explosives in a building-something of
which they had apparently not warn-ed the local police. The blasts of
course also seemed to be very convenient for Putin and his supporters. They
created a great wave of public support for a new war in Chechnya and
allowed Putin to present himself as a forceful and courageous leader in the
run-up to the presidential elections of 2000.

This was all in itself correct; if not the Russian security forces, then it
is certainly plausible that a tycoon supporter of Putin might have
contracted such an operation. Yet, as far as the general Western discussion
of the issue is concerned, the history of bombings in the North Caucasus
was barely mentioned, nor was the character, antecedents, or links of
Khattab and his men. Whatever the suspicions about pro-Putin forces, it
should be obvious that the suggestion that a force largely composed of Arab
Muslim extremists would have lacked the motive, the expertise, or the
ruthlessness to carry out a terrorist bombing campaign against Russians is
absolutely ridiculous.

In an interview with a Czech newspaper, Lidove Noviny, immediately after
the September blasts, Basayev made the following remarks (he did not at
that stage attribute the bombings to the Kremlin): "I denounce terrorism,
including state terrorism used by the Russian empire. The latest blast in
Moscow is not our work, but the work of the Dagestanis. Russia has been
openly terrorizing Dagestan. . . . For the whole week, united in a single
fist, the army and the Interior Ministry units have been pounding three
small villages. . . . [A]ll this will go on, of course, because those whose
loved ones, whose women and children are being killed for nothing, will
also try to use force to eliminate their adversaries. . . . What is the
difference between someone letting a bomb go off in the center of Moscow
and injuring 10 to 20 children and the Russians dropping bombs from their
aircraft over Karamachi and killing 10 to 20 children? Where is the

I have some sympathy with this point of view, which is almost identical to
that expressed by an Algerian terrorist leader in Gillo Pontecorvo's
anticolonialist epic film, The Battle of Algiers. But that is the point.
One could just as well put these words into the mouth of an Algerian, or a
Palestinian, or a Kurd in Turkey-and if they were, would the United States
media have the slightest sympathy for them?

To suggest that Khattab and his men had no motive to carry out the Moscow
bombings is similar to suggesting that Osama bin Laden had no motive to
attack the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds
of innocent Africans in the process. Bin Laden and Khattab share not only
the same background but also exactly the same beliefs and attitudes. The
tendency of too many Western commentators to believe automatically in
Russian responsibility for the bombings is tragicomically reminiscent of
the attitude of the old leftists for whom the anti-Israeli forces in the
Middle East could do no wrong. Western Russophobes believe that Russia can
do no right, and their views have colored Western media approaches.

Yet the bitterly anti-Western ideology of Khattab, Basayev, and their
followers is not a matter of debate, and does not have to be sought out by
intrepid journalists venturing to interview these men in the mountains of
Chechnya. Their views can be found, on the Internet, in English, on the web
site of the international mujahedeen in Afghanistan, at This is
Basayev himself on the nature of the war (interviewed in early January
2000): "The crucifix is being raised anew and war is being declared against
Islam and Muslims; this is proof that this war is like the Crusades, where
all of Europe's intelligence capabilities are geared towards providing
Russia with information and other support. . . . The Russians and their
supporters in the West are fighting us collectively, as Allah has described
them: 'And fight the unbelievers collectively as they fight you


The campaign of Khattab, Basayev, and their allies against Russia in 1998
and 1999 was carried out in the name of this radical Islamist ideology, as
a reading of their propaganda makes clear. The culmination of this campaign
was the invasion of Dagestan in August 1999, with the avowed intention of
overthrowing the republic's government and creating a united Islamic
republic of Chechnya and Dagestan. This was opposed by the great majority
of Dagestanis and would indeed have been a nightmare for that republic. Too
many supporters of the Chechens have tried to shrug off this invasion as a
minor affair. It was not. Quite apart from the number of casualties that
resulted from the invasion itself, Dagestan, with its 34 different
nationalities, rival religious groups, and unstable government, is a
fragile and delicately poised place. Chechen incursions have the potential
to upset this balance and plunge Dagestan into a more impoverished and
hopeless version of Lebanon during its ethnoreligious civil wars in the
1970s and 1980s. It cannot be stressed enough: even if you disapprove of
the Russian invasion of 1999, in initially resisting Basayev and Khattab
and their plans, Russia was, objectively speaking, serving the interests
not just of the region but of the West as well.

The governing council of the new state that the rebels planned to
establish-the Islamic Shura (council) of Dagestan-publicly declared
(including once again on the Internet, on the Kavkaz-Tsentr web site, "the necessity of liberating the Islamic territory of
Daghestan from age-old occupation by Russian rebels," of introducing
shariah (Islamic law) across the republic, and of arresting the Dagestani
president "as a traitor to the cause of Muslims." The shura declared
Basayev amir (commander) of this jihad. Asked at the time why he had
crossed the border, Basayev told Lidove Noviny that, "Many Dagestani
political parties and movements are fighting for Dagestan's freedom
nowadays. Some of them have asked me to take up the command of the
Mujahidin United Armed Forces of Dagestan. This is no Chechen army. It is
an international corps comprising Chechens, Dagestanis, and other
nationals. . . . We shall always be pleased to fight the Russians and we
shall help anyone, in any way, who seeks freedom."

It is clear why Russia could not have tolerated Chechnya being used
indefinitely as a safe haven for such forces and as a potential base for
further attacks on Russia. For how long would the United States tolerate
such a situation in a neighboring state? It is also important to note that
the fighting in Dagestan was on a serious scale: 270 Russian servicemen
died there, considerably more than the United States lost in the Persian
Gulf War (165). If the government of Chechnya had failed to deal with
Basayev, Khattab, and their followers, then Russia-like any other
state-would have been justified in taking forceful action of its own. This
could have been accomplished by carrying out the plan drawn up by former
Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin to establish a Turkish- or Israeli-style
"security zone" in Chechnya north of the Terek River. Given the pro-Russian
traditions of the local population, and the open nature of the terrain,
this could have been carried out with minimal bloodshed. By contrast,
full-scale invasion should have been only the last resort. That the Kremlin
did so without adequately exploring other options undoubtedly has a great
deal to do both with Putin's electoral calculations and the desire of many
Russian generals for revenge against the Chechens. 

The decision to invade should therefore be condemned. Before taking this
course, Moscow should have tried much harder to support Chechen President
Maskhadov with arms and money to help him establish his authority in the
republic and defeat Basayev, Khattab, and the other militants. Despite the
disappointment of many ordinary Chechens with Maskhadov's "weakness," my
interviews with Chechen refugees in December 1999 suggests that most
Chechens still respected him in principle as the country's legally elected
president; and in the end, any government in Chechnya-whether pro- or
anti-Russian-will only be able to create stability if it enjoys a measure
of legitimacy among a majority of the population.
Yet a country suffering Chechnya's conditions would have posed a severe
challenge to any neighboring organized state, and the great majority of
such neighbors would have responded with force of arms, perhaps even sooner
than Russia did. The United States has done so repeatedly in Central
America, in response to much smaller threats and provocations than those
stemming from Chechnya in 1999.


The failure to place the Russian intervention in this historical context is
the key flaw in much of the Western coverage of the war. This coverage has
not necessarily been wrong in itself, but it has lacked historical and
international perspective, and a sense of comparison. Some print
journalists-for example David Filipov of the Boston Globe, or Daniel
Williams of the Washington Post-have presented admirably balanced accounts.
But their efforts have been drowned out by the sheer weight of others'
articles and still more the television coverage that did not incorporate
the Russian case or include basic objective information.
In behaving in this manner, the Western media have failed their own readers
and audiences. My own conversations in the United States and Western Europe
lead me to conclude that the vast majority of even informed Westerners are
unaware of the full background to the war. A great many people working in
the media and the wider field of international affairs still do not have a
grasp of most of the basic facts concerning the events that led to the war;
nor for that matter that the Chechens had always been offered full autonomy
within the Russian Federation and were therefore not-unlike the Kurds of
Turkey-fighting for elementary ethnic rights (how many times have I been
asked, "But why don't the Russians at least grant the Chechens autonomy?").
Many informed Westerners also do not know of the presence of the
international mujahedeen, since too many of the Western media have either
ignored their presence altogether or, in an especially discreditable
example in the Economist, presented them as a largely fictitious product of
Russian propaganda akin to the legendary (but wholly nonexistent) Baltic
female snipers, the "White Stockings."5

Similarly, the role of Khattab and his forces, and the campaign of
bombings, raids, and ambushes by Khattab's and Basayev's forces from 1998
to 1999, passed almost unnoticed. Even the August 1999 invasion of Dagestan
was not adequately reported-and when it was covered, it was sometimes
twisted to make it appear as an act of Russian aggression. Thus a report in
the August 9, 1999 Washington Post was headlined, "Russian Assault in
Dagestan Recalls Chechen War," and contained the line, "Russian officials
say the Chechens now want to expand their self-proclaimed Islamic republic
into Dagestan"-as if this was an unsupported Russian assertion rather than
the publicly declared aim of the Chechen and mujahedeen fighters (to be
fair, the Post corrected this with a balanced piece of analysis on August 18).

A particularly sad, and surprising, example of such a mistaken approach was
an op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Kaplan on the invasion of
Dagestan.6 This was one of only two op-eds that the paper published on this
subject (the other was mine, in reaction to the first), approximately
one-thirtieth the number that later appeared concerning the Russian
invasion of Chechnya. A few editorials appeared, but these mostly took a
detached view of "Russia's Problem." None that I have found expressed
outrage at the attack, or noted that it risked plunging ethnically and
religiously divided Dagestan into a Lebanon-like whirlpool of anarchic
civil war. None in consequence gave real support to Russia, as they
certainly would have to a United States ally in these circumstances.

Kaplan's op-ed, entitled "Why Russia Risks All in Dagestan," turned the
entire conflict on its head. He described it as "Russia's assault on
Chechen and Dagestani rebels"-as if Russia had invaded Dagestan-and argued
that this was part of a general campaign to restore Russian hegemony over
the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. He said nothing
about the international mujahedeen or the shura. He said nothing about the
fact that the Dagestani government and parliament had given their full
support to the Russian campaign, and were backed by the great majority of
ordinary Dagestanis. In effect, Kaplan was arguing that the Russians should
be defeated in Dagestan, and that this would be in the interests of the
West and the region.

Yet if one man could be expected to understand the real dynamics of what
was happening, it was Kaplan, who has made a name by analyzing how
conflicts are generated by a mixture of history, religion, and contemporary
economic misery, social despair and anomie, and state failure. And all
these factors (albeit severely exacerbated by the war of 1994-1996) played
a key role in the first Chechen war and in the growing crisis in Dagestan.
He also has not expressed any sympathy for radical Islam. But Kaplan knows
very little about the Caucasus and the former Soviet Union, and so he
simply followed his prejudices and those of much of his profession. He
adopted what often seems to be the default mode of much of the Western
media when writing about the former Soviet Union.


Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden's recounting of the October 1993 battle in
Mogadishu between United States forces and the Somali clansmen of General
Mohamed Farah Aidid, contains a quotation from Ambassador Robert Oakley to
representatives of the Somali group holding one-one-United States pilot,
Mike Durant, prisoner after the battle. According to Bowden, Oakley said
that if Durant was not released, "What we'll decide is that we have to
rescue him, and whether we have the right place or the wrong place, there's
going to be a fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all
restraint on the United States side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in
here now. An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships . . . the works. Once the
fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole
part of the city will be destroyed, men, women, children, cats, dogs,
goats, donkeys, everything. . . . That would be really tragic for all of
us, but that's what will happen."7

In Korea and Vietnam, the destruction of cities by United States forces was
initially accepted as part of the price of their "liberation." In Vietnam,
elements of the American public did later become deeply uneasy about this.
However, this in part reflected the fact that Vietnam was far away and had
not directly attacked the United States, so that the reasons for fighting
and killing were not clear. If the United States had been subjected as
Russia was to the kind of threats stemming from Chechnya in 1997-1999, it
is likely that a majority of the American public would have been prepared
to accept a considerable level of bloodshed among "enemy" civilians to
bring these threats to an end. And on the basis of their previous records,
we can predict with absolute precision the level of moral concern of
politicians like North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms and retired
General Alexander Haig, who have been among the loudest in their
denunciations of Russia. Their commitment to United States restraint in
these circumstances would of course be precisely zero.

This is at the core of the difficulty that supporters of rational, balanced
attitudes toward Russia have in debating with the Russophobes. On the
whole, the Russophile camp has tended to be drawn from liberal
internationalists who oppose state atrocities in all circumstances and by
all states, and are certainly not prepared to justify Russian excesses. The
Russophobes, in contrast, who tend to be drawn more from what is mistakenly
called the "realist" school, have no problem adopting completely different
moral criteria with regard to their friends and their perceived enemies.

These are people who for deep personal and political reasons are implacably
hostile to Russia. A large part of the United States and Western media,
which do not share this anti-Russian agenda, have nonetheless in many ways
reflected it through their biased and flawed reporting. This is dangerous,
with implications that go far beyond relations with Russia. For United
States hegemony in the world is not based only on economic and military
might; it also depends on a widespread respect for the United States both
as a moral force and as a fair and reasonable international actor. This of
course is also the perception most Americans have of themselves and their
country. This international respect will be gravely undermined over time if
the United States is seen to apply wildly different standards to the
behavior of itself and its allies on the one hand, and that of perceived
adversaries on the other.

The United States tactics used in Mogadishu and elsewhere do not reflect
any discredit on the American commanders and troops concerned, whose
overriding duty was to the lives of their own comrades. The discredit
attaches only to those Western commentators and politicians who, willfully
ignorant of their own military history, have portrayed the Russian
bombardment of Grozny as an act of brutality, a war crime, or both.

Human Rights Watch should be commended for its exposure of real Russian war
crimes in Chechnya (although one would not want the group to act as
military advisers to Western governments). As to the Jesse Helmses, the Al
Haigs, and the Zbigniew Brzezinskis, their behavior risks weakening respect
for human rights all over the world by allowing America's enemies to
portray these rights not as values but as mere ideological tools of certain
cynical, opportunist, and hate-filled American foreign policy agendas.

The American people are the sovereign of the United States of America-and
like any other sovereign, they depend on the quality of the advice they
receive. As media coverage of the second Chechen war makes clear, in
matters concerning relations with Russia the advice they receive is often

1"Could the Russian military have used less destructive measures in Grozny
to drive out the Chechen rebels? If those had been US Marines, would the
city have been spared? Perhaps not, if we consider our battlefield record
against similarly strong-willed foes in urban terrain." Captain Kevin W.
Brown, "The Urban Warfare Dilemma-U.S. Casualties vs. Collateral Damage,"
The Marine Corps Gazette, January 1997.
2Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University
Press, 1998).
3David Filipov, "Kidnappers Thrive on Chaos in Chechnya," Boston Globe,
April 7, 2000.
4Shamil Basayev, a former fireman and computer salesman, first came to fame
as the commander of a battalion of Chechen volunteers fighting on the
Abkhaz side in the Abkhazian-Georgian war of 1992-1993-at which time,
ironically, he and his men received support and possibly training from the
Russian army as part of its anti-Georgian strategy. After the Russian
invasion of Chechnya in 1994, Basayev quickly emerged as the bravest and
most brilliant of the Chechen field commanders. In July 1995 he led a raid
on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk that killed dozens of Russian civilians
and took hundreds more hostage. The raid helped bring Russian agreement to
a cease-fire, but he has since been regarded by Moscow as an archterrorist.
In January 1997 he stood for president of Chechnya, but was soundly
defeated by Maskhadov. He later served as Maskhadov's prime minister, but
soon quit, and went into armed opposition to the president.
5See "Russia and Chechnya: Are Foreigners Fighting There?" Economist, July
8, 2000.
6See "Why Russia Risks All in Dagestan," New York Times, August 17, 1999.
Robert Kaplan is a specialist on South Asia and the Balkans whose book,
Balkan Ghosts, and essays on the threat of disorder in the developing world
have reportedly had considerable influence on the Clinton administration.
7Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic
Monthly Press, 1999), pp. 327-328. Several hundred Somali civilians were in
fact killed by United States forces during operations in Mogadishu.



Return to CDI's Home Page  I  Return to CDI's Library