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Putin’s War


In 1997 I published an article in these pages1 in which I tried to draw some conclusions about the Chechen war of 1994-1996. In Moscow, the presidents of Russia and Chechnya had just signed a pact that rejected the use or threat of force and postponed a final resolution of Chechen-Russian relations until the year 2001. It seemed to me that the war was finally over and that the time had come to sum up recent events.

I was cruelly mistaken. However, at the time no one in his worst nightmare could have dreamed that there would be politicians in Russia who, being of sound mind and memory, would resume the Chechen war on an even greater scale than before. It was even more difficult to imagine not only that the war itself would be supported by the Russian public, but that it would result in unprecedented political dividends for the Russian leaders who presided over it, particularly Vladimir Putin, who owes his accession to the presidency largely to his backing of the war.

For American readers to fully understand how unthinkable a metamorphosis has taken place, let them imagine for a moment that in, say, 1978, the president of the United States resumed the war in Vietnam. And furthermore that this action was applauded by all Americans—from miners and farmers to university professors and students. Inconceivable? Of course it’s inconceivable. Nonetheless, this is precisely what has happened in Russia today.

First, I must make it clear that a huge share of the guilt for what has happened lies with the Chechen people and its leaders.

In the first months after the military action ended in 1996, it seemed that there was an opportunity to establish a democratic regime in postwar Chechnya, one that would act according to the rule of law. If that had happened it would not, in my view, have mattered whether Chechnya remained part of the Russian Federation or not. In January 1997, Aslan Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya. Maskhadov was a moderate and responsible leader, a man who definitely preferred a secular model of development to an “Islamic state.”

Of course, there were serious concerns about Chechen behavior at that time. The extortion and violence against the remaining local Russian-speaking population, including kidnappings for ransom or enslavement, not only did not cease with the end of the war but increased many times over. And the new Chechen authorities made absolutely no attempt to stop this criminal activity, although in a country as tiny as Chechnya, with a population of fewer than one million people, everyone knew perfectly well which of Maskhadov’s former associates were making money on the slave trade, where the captives were held, how the ransom was extorted, and so forth. Yet after every reported kidnapping of a well-known victim, the president of Chechnya made public statements in which he explained events, in vague and extremely unconvincing terms, as “provocations by the Russian secret service.” There were hardly any attempts to rescue prisoners. There were no attempts to track down or to punish the organizers of these crimes.

The kidnapping of numerous journalists was particularly repugnant. These were people who for two years, at serious risk to their lives, had told Russia and the world the truth about the last war. Chechens were as indebted to them for the peace as they were to the military victories of the Chechen militia.

The result was not long in making itself felt: correspondents stopped traveling to Chechnya, and a completely new, diametrically opposed attitude toward the republic formed among Russian journalists. It is hard for me to reproach the journalists for hostility toward Chechnya.

Furthermore, the norms of Islamic law were introduced in Chechnya in a particularly harsh form, including corporal punishment, the amputation of limbs, and public executions broadcast on local television. All of this forced people friendly to Chechnya to doubt the sincerity of Maskhadov’s intentions to defend the secular nature of the state—intentions that he never stated publicly, by the way—or, at the very least, to doubt his resolve.

Unfortunately, the fears that I expressed about Chechnya’s future in my 1997 article turned out to be well founded. During the last three years, the president and government of Chechnya have not been willing to risk taking decisive measures to bring order to the republic. Their reasons are obvious—they were afraid that the first firm step they took would lead to an uprising and civil war. But Maskhadov’s timidity led to the worst possible outcome: almost complete loss of control over the country and the transfer of real power into the hands of the so-called “field commanders,” among whom are such people as the slave traders Arbi Barayev and Ruslan Khaikhoroyev, the terrorists Salman Raduyev and Shamil Basayev, and the Jordanian Islamic fanatic Khattab, who many assert is an ally of Osama bin Laden. The last vestiges of the system of state authority disappeared in the confrontation between the government and the field commanders.

In other words, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria never actually came into existence—even as an “Islamic republic.” Instead, a black hole was formed on the world map out of which bearded people driving Kamaz trucks and carrying Kalashnikovs descended from time to time on the neighboring regions of Russia. Sometimes they would seize livestock and disappear with them, sometimes people. No one knows with any accuracy what actually happened within the territory of Chechnya itself.

What we do know is that Basayev and Khattab mounted in August a “liberation crusade” into neighboring Dagestan. Apparently, they and the other commanders of the Chechen units that invaded Dagestan saw themselves as “internationalist warriors for Allah,” Islamic Che Guevaras, one might say. They were certain that fellow believers on the other side of the border would greet them with open arms. They were mistaken: the Dagestanis met them with weapons. Even some Chechens—both in Dagestan and, it is said, in the border regions of Chechnya itself—attempted to stop the insane raid. They understood what the consequences would be. “You will pass only over our dead bodies,” they are said to have told Basayev’s and Khattab’s people. “No problem,” replied “Allah’s warriors.” So the informal Chechen rural patrols in the border regions let them through.

I have no right to judge peaceful peasants who yielded to heavily armed Islamic thugs. But had they known all the consequences of the Dagestan venture, many of them would, I believe, have preferred to risk death rather than let the Islamists cross the border. And if President Maskhadov could have foreseen all the consequences (and it was his job to do so), he would have done everything he could to prevent an incursion into Russia from the territory of Chechnya, even at the risk of civil war.

In Dagestan, for the first time since the end of World War II, the Russian army carried out a genuine mission of liberation. It protected the inhabitants of Dagestan from outside attack. The army did its work badly: it suffered losses from its own artillery fire and its own air strikes. For weeks it could not take several small mountain villages that had been captured by Basayev and Khattab; and it failed to warn the peaceful populations of these villages about its impending use of artillery and bombing. The Russian troops engaged in pillaging and violence against people in the liberated areas, although, in comparison with the previous war, their behavior was fairly moderate. In the end, however, the army fulfilled its mission. Some of the Islamist invaders were dispersed; others were forced back into Chechnya.

Apparently, at this point a monstrous idea was born in the heads of the army generals and Moscow politicians: to use the momentum of the Dagestan victory to unleash a new war with Chechnya.

It is easy to understand what the generals wanted. They wanted revenge for their shameful defeat in the previous war. The motives of the politicians are far more complex. I recently tried to describe some of them in the Berlin paper Die Welt:

For reactionary Russian politicians the resumption of the war is also a form of revenge, revenge against the “vile liberals” and the “irresponsible loudmouths” who in 1994-96 roused public opinion against the bloody demonstration of Russian state power.

But I am afraid that this interpretation was far too simplistic. I underestimated the level of cynicism pervading contemporary Russian political life. Of course, the “reactionary Russian politicians”—supporters of nationalist-patriotic groups and various factions of the Communist Party—would have been happy to dispose of the “vile liberals” as well as the decrepit Kremlin tsar, who authorized the cease-fire agreement at the town of Khasavyurt on August 31, 1996, and signed the pact in Moscow in May 1997. But they didn’t get the chance to do this.

The new Chechen war was used as political ammunition by other people, above all by Vladimir Putin, and others close to the Kremlin. At the very height of the military action in Dagestan last summer, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Stepashin and replaced him with Putin. Moreover, the President publicly named Putin his “heir for the year 2000”—an announcement which at the time provoked only laughter. And indeed, it seemed ridiculous. First, how was it possible that the current president could “appoint” the future president—are we living in Haiti or some such place?

Second: Putin, a man with a professionally nondescript face, previously the director of the FSB (the KGB’s successor organization), was virtually unknown to the public at large. It seemed that he had absolutely no chance of winning in a campaign against such experienced politicians as Evgeny Primakov, the former prime minister, Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, or Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party. Third: after the financial crisis of August 1998, Yeltsin’s own reputation was such that his public support of any candidate seemed to mean disaster for the person he backed.

Putin, however, was not fazed. Without missing a beat, he confirmed that he did indeed intend to run for president, but that at the moment the most important thing was the war in Dagestan. This impressed the public—and, in fact, seemed a correct judgment: Could there be anything more important for the government than military action on its own territory?

After the Chechen forces left Dagestan and returned to Chechnya in August, Putin announced that the current state of affairs in Chechnya could no longer be tolerated—which was true. The government could not stop now, he said; it had to strike at the Chechens’ bases, “even,” he said, “if they are on the territory of Chechnya.” (This logic is understandable, too—but leaves unmentioned a basic problem: How do you distinguish a “terrorist base” from a normal Chechen village?)

Putin began to send troops to the borders of the Chechen Republic. Many people took his words and actions as merely a demonstration of military power for the benefit of Maskhadov and the other official Chechen leaders, a move meant to force them to turn, at last, from mere verbal condemnation of the Islamic extremists to active measures against them. For attentive observers, however, his motives were obvious: the new prime minister had no intention of limiting himself to threats. He never even tried to initiate contacts with the legitimate government of Chechnya. He didn’t consider it necessary to present Maskhadov with an ultimatum. He wanted war, and it was clear why he wanted it.

  1. 1

    See my “Russia After Chechnya,” The New York Review, July 17, 1997.

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