#7 - JRL 7216
June 9, 2003
Chechen violence helps Putin's hand
By Matthew Riemer
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the world - and more specifically the Bush administration - to believe that Moscow is fighting the same enemy in Chechnya that Washington is fighting in the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. But just how compelling of an argument is this? In many regards, the conflict in Chechnya is significantly different from those of other regions and is the result of a much older yet simpler history.
Washington's "war on terrorism" is far broader than Moscow's intervention in Chechnya and certainly more ambiguous historically, if only because of its makeup: It pits the United States against a variety of nation-states (North Korea, Iran, Syria), organizations (al-Qaeda and Hizbollah) and financial support networks. Aside from the varied collection of those who are the war's focus, the "war" is a conceptual one in the sense that it more describes an envisioned future and policy than an actual past. It is the taking of many separate situations, conditions and conflicts and grouping them together because they share one, specific, subjective quality: "terrorism".
In contrast, Russia's conflict in Chechnya is a highly specific and focused affair. Begun almost five centuries ago when the northern Caucasus were on the southern edge of the expanding Russian empire, it is essentially a war of independence and continues to be one to this day. It involves a former imperialist power and its recalcitrant subject turned republic on its territorial fringes playing out a common historical theme: foreign power vs suppressed ethnic minority. Chechens remember when Joseph Stalin deported them by the hundreds of thousands to Central Asia during World War II because he thought that they were Nazi sympathizers.
Further, comparing Chechnya to the focal point of the US campaign - al-Qaeda - there are additional contrasts. Al-Qaeda by its very nature as an organization is multi-ethnic and not based in one country, let alone being nationalistically attached to a specific nation-state, whether established or aspiring. In this sense, al-Qaeda has broken the nation-state mold for US geopolitical strategy by its existence as a significant global enemy that is not one politically demarcated on the world's map.
Al-Qaeda is not fighting a specific foreign power for self-determination as the Chechens are, but a conglomerate led by the US and its various client governments throughout the world, including, most notably, Saudi Arabia. And al-Qaeda has never used traditional methods of warfare as the Chechens have.
Any US/al-Qaeda conflict is certainly in its infancy, if not in an embryonic state, when compared to the conflagration in Chechnya. Al-Qaeda was formed in 1988, only 15 years ago; prior to its genesis, Osama bin Laden was aided by the US in an effort to stall the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Washington, then, is fighting a militant organization that - at the very least it indirectly created with its training and funds throughout the 1980s. The real enemy of al-Qaeda is also as much globalization and Westernization - not necessarily modernization - as it is the US specifically. Such a relationship is certainly disparately paired with a centuries old ethnic and imperial war in the Caucasus.
However, what is now occurring, to Putin's benefit, is the "terrorization" of the battle for Chechnya; the last decade's gory war of attrition has found an increasing number of Chechen guerrillas associated with Middle Eastern and Central Asian militants as the Chechen cause has become increasingly internationalized. The last 10 years of fighting reveals a grim trail of executions, rapes, mass graves, destroyed infrastructure and extensive loss of civilian life. Many of the atrocities are laid at the Russian military's doorstep, and human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have expressed their concern with the behavior of the Russian military in Chechnya. Putin has occasionally been scolded by other leaders for his military's conduct.
Chechen forces have also employed extreme measures, adopting other more traditional terrorist methods, such as hostage taking. In 1995, Chechen rebels led by Shamil Basayev seized a hospital in Budennovsk - a town in southern Russia - taking more than 1,000 people hostage; as many as 150 were killed and 200 hundred injured in the ensuing violence. In October 2002, 700 people were taken hostage in a Moscow theater by about 40 Chechen rebels; almost 150 hostages died in the end - largely due to a narcotic gas used by the Russians - as well as all the hostage-takers.
Now, suicide bombings have become a feature of Chechen resistance. In December 2002, explosives-laden trucks crashed into an administrative building in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, killing over 70 and injuring more than 200. On May 12, there was another truck bombing that targeted the local Russian secret service (FSB) headquarters. Two days later there was a further attack by two female suicide bombers in a town outside of Grozny. Then, on June 5 in Vladikavkaz, Russia, a suicide bomber killed 16 people in the third bombing in the Caucasus in a month.
The very concept of suicide bombing would seem to strengthen Putin's argument because of its highly symbolic and poignant nature, though the bombings still remain infrequent and are a more recent development in the evolution of the conflict. Suicide bombing is seemingly such a potent symbol of "terrorism" as to convince many that Washington and Moscow do, indeed, face the same enemy. Less so, the taking of hostages is also a symptomatic act and seen as being very dramatic by the press and general public - as was the case in Iran in 1979 at the US embassy. It is to Putin's advantage to have the international spotlight on such incidents.
So Russia's war in Chechnya is different in a fundamental sense - both historically and practically. But Chechen resistance has now begun to selectively employ the more outwardly symbolic and traditional methods of Middle Eastern militants: the taking of hostages and suicide bombings. But the latter - aside from such obvious similarities as Islam - remains the only shared characteristic between what Washington and Moscow are fighting. Also, simply being Muslim does not mean that Chechens are necessarily fighting for an Islamic republic or that their resistance to Russia is rooted in religious causes, as is the case with many of the groups throughout the Middle East.
Putin can at least point to a common religion and shared techniques when comparing Moscow's military efforts in Chechnya with the US's "war on terrorism". But for many already unconvinced by Russia's attempts to garner global sympathy for its undesirable and unfortunate situation in Chechnya, these analogies will remain superficial and unconvincing.
Published with permission of the Power and Interest News Report, an analysis-based publication that seeks to provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe. All comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org