Putin’s War

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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