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The Times (UK)
May 13, 2003
An unwinnable war, but Russia cannot quit
By Bronwen Maddox

Why does Chechnya haunt President Putin?

The suicide blast yesterday was yet another illustration of how the Russian President cannot escape the bloodstained Caucasian conflict, which is costing the lives of about as many Russian soldiers each year as did the disastrous, decade-long foray into Afghanistan. As international summits and press conferences have shown again and again, a casual question or unexpected diplomatic aside touches a nerve like no other subject; it is a constant sore that rubs away at Putin's demeanour of secure command.

There is a bit of truth to Russia's claim that the war is constantly refuelled by Islamic terrorists, and thus is extraordinarily hard to end. There is much more to the case that the bitterness reflects Moscow's brutality towards the region over more than a century. Yet if that makes it a war that Russia cannot quite win, the region's strategic importance makes it one that Russia can never afford to quit.

The Kremlin has said that life in Chechnya is returning to normal after 3 years of war, the second in a decade. It acclaims the much-mocked "referendum" of March 23, in which, it says, Chechens voted to stay part of Russia.

This is nonsense. Bombings and suicide attacks continue. Most aid given by Moscow to repair the shattered republic is stolen -some studies say 90 per cent. And according to many reports, Chechens were conspicuously absent from the polls on the supposed polling day, either out of fear or because of a straightforward refusal to give up their struggle for independence.

Putin has been led to assert the opposite, however, because of the enormous importance he has attached to the struggle since the start of his presidency. In February, Russian military officials were reported as saying that more than 4,500 Russian servicemen had been killed since the present conflict began in 1999, and more than 15,500 wounded.

That is equivalent to the number of Russian deaths per year in Afghanistan in the 1980s, analysts say.

Since September 11, 2001, Putin has had some success abroad, if not at home, in justifying this level of military loss by the need to fight Islamic terrorism. He has worked hard to portray the Chechen conflict as yet another front in the war against al-Qaeda, in the face of initial Western suspicion that this was just a way to avoid criticism over Russian troops' human rights abuses.

There is some truth in Putin's position. Arab militants played a central role in the start of this round of fighting, with their aim of merging Chechnya with neighbouring Dagestan, predominantly Muslim, to create an Islamic state. For many years the United States underestimated the extent to which Islamic terrorists had set up bases in Chechnya and the surrounding region, including the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia and the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, as well as in Afghanistan.

Russian officers say that Arab fighters still make up about one fifth of the militants in Chechnya.

At a deeper level, too, it is right to expect Islamic fundamentalism to be central to the identity of the Caucasus. It was always a powerful current in its culture, given its trade links with Muslim countries to the south. It became a focus for those opposed to communist rule and then to post- Soviet corruption and chaos.

But this argument glosses blithely over the history of Chechen resentment towards Moscow. In the first half of the 19th century the Romanov campaign to subdue the northern Caucasus drove more than one million people into exile, a pattern of expulsion repeated by the Bolsheviks.

In the past half-century, returning exiles have fought to regain their land and power, with each other and with those who had stayed behind. That bitterness has been fuelled by poverty and unemployment, which subsidies from Moscow have not lifted.

Could Russia give up? No. It would send the wrong signal, in that laconic diplomatic phrase, to the other Caucasian provinces with fraying ties to Russia.

More than Chechnya, Moscow cannot afford to lose Dagestan, with 70 per cent of Russia's Caspian Sea coastline and the pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to the outside world. Perhaps most seriously, it might also encourage Georgia and Azerbaijan, already courting Washington, to deepen those westward ties.

Can't win and can't leave. It is no surprise that European attempts to censure Putin about the bloodiness of the Chechen war have struck a nerve, but also no surprise that they have had no effect at all.

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