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There is a Way Out of Russia's Chechen Nightmare, Says Council's Fellow Rajan Menon

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Rajan Menon, Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University; Fellow, New America Foundation
October 29, 2002

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The Moscow theater siege was a portent of more terrorism to come, warns Rajan Menon, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow specializing in Russia. He argues that the shocking attack shows that fundamentalist radicals in Chechnya have decided to bring their war to Russia’s cities. Menon proposes that Russia pull out its forces from its unwinnable war in Chechnya and seek U.S. and other support in “containing” the rebellious area.

Menon, who is also a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, offered a broad overview of the Chechen dilemma in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website, cfr.org, on October 28, 2002.

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Q. Over the weekend, the Russian authorities were able to end the siege in a Moscow theater. How would you describe the Chechens who took over the theater?

One of the Chechens who seized a Moscow theater. (AP Photo/NTV Russian Channel)

A. The particular Chechens who took over the theater were undoubtedly terrorists because they were prepared to blow up the building and kill 700 people. They had an explicit political agenda—to get the Russian army to withdraw from Chechnya. I suspect that they never expected that to occur and thus they were on a suicide mission. That raises the question of whether their goal was simply to try to get as much publicity for the Chechen cause as possible, given that in recent years attention to Chechnya has fallen off the map.

Q. Why has Chechnya faded from view?

A. Part of it, I think, is due to the warming of relations between the Bush and Putin administrations. They started off, if not on the wrong foot, certainly on a chilly note. Now the proclivity of the White House to make Chechnya an issue between Russia and the U.S. has decidedly declined. The other factor is that after 9/11, we have been much more persuaded by the way the Russians have tried to define the Chechen problem as a terrorist problem pure and simple. And our own press coverage of Russia generally has fallen off, and with that Chechnya has fallen off further. So I think there is some desire by Chechens to say, “We are still out there, facing a brutal war. We want independence, and we have the capacity to reach out and bring the news to you in a visceral sort of way.”

Q. Can you give a snapshot of the history of the Chechens?

A. The struggle between the Chechens and the Russians goes back to at least the late 18th century. This is one ethnic group that has, in both imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, showed that it is rebellious and not easily reconciled to the position of being a captive group.

Now flash forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was an enormous amount of nationalist ferment in Chechnya. The way was led by Dzhokar Dudayev who came to power in the 1991 presidential election. The role of Islam grew significantly from then on. In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided that he wanted to put an end to this, and this began the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996. In the course of that war, Dudayev was killed by Russian forces, who rigged his satellite phone so it exploded while he was conversing. By 1996, the war had become hugely unpopular in Russia. It was dragging Yeltsin down, and it was not being won, for all the reasons it is not being won now.

By then, one of the central figures in Chechnya was Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet military officer like Dudayev (although not as high-ranking) and someone who—although he did and does have a sense of being a Muslim—was and remains fundamentally a nationalist. In 1996, a signed agreement provided for Russian troops to withdraw from Chechnya. And at the end of the year, a very ambiguous treaty left Chechnya’s status unclear. The treaty spoke of sovereignty. To the Chechens, that meant independence; to the Russians, it meant something like the status of Tatarstan, another Muslim republic in the interior of Russia that signed a 1994 treaty with Russia giving it extensive autonomy. It was never clear what either side meant by this agreement.

Within about a year, there was chaos in Chechnya. Maskhadov had been elected president in 1997 but was soon no longer in charge of his own house. Armed guerrillas of various sorts were engaged in kidnapping, extortion, and organized crime.

Q. The chaos was due to the brigands?

A. There were some brigands. There were also some people who were using Islam to mobilize support but who fundamentally were nationalists. And there were outside elements from the Arab world, some of them Chechens whose ancestors had fled to the Arab world or Turkey in the 19th century. The most famous of these—now deceased, killed by the Russians—was Khattab. He was an Islamist fundamentalist in the very strict sense of that term.

Q. Where did Khattab come from?

A. Well, he was born and raised in Jordan. He fought in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, as many of these Chechen militants did. In 1995, he came back to help expel Russian forces in Chechnya.

There was a melange and still is. Some people are using the war for gun-running, corruption, and siphoning petroleum. Then there are those like Maskhadov, a nationalist, with whom a deal could be struck. The problem is that he never had the power to hold Chechnya in his grasp. There are also people like Shamil Basayev, who certainly is a Muslim—much more Islamic than Maskhadov—but who is essentially interested in Chechen nationalism. Then there are people supported by outside forces, many from the Middle East, and their Chechen minions, who seek an Islamic state in Chechnya. And so it is incorrect to speak of a Chechen resistance. It is a multiple entity. It fights on many fronts. It is gravely disunited. The problem is that if the Russians were to withdraw, there would be no peace; the Chechens would turn on themselves.

Q. Is al-Qaeda involved?

A. The Russians have insisted it is. I have no evidence that it is or isn’t. We have to be very careful because from the start—especially since Putin came to power, and especially after 9/11—the Russian position has been to make this issue one of terrorism and international terrorism in particular, and that and that alone. Now, there is no question there are terrorists within Chechnya. I am not at all persuaded, however, that the Chechen problem can be simply diagnosed and encapsulated as one of terrorism. We must be careful not to start singing that script merely because of the wounds we have suffered from 9/11.

So in 1996, the first war ends. Chechnya is a hornet’s nest. In 1999, Vladimir Putin is made prime minister. In 1998, there is an incursion of Chechen fighters into the neighboring republic of Dagestan, to Chechnya’s east, and the Russian army is sent in to quell this incursion, which it does. The Chechens do not have much support in Dagestan. That is followed later by a series of mysterious bombings of apartment buildings in Russia. By now, Russian public opinion has swung in a direction which makes for a lot of anger and animosity against the Chechens because Putin repeats again and again that the bombings were the work of Chechens. In my mind, it is not clear who did it, and it is not a foregone conclusion the Chechens did it. Do they have people capable of doing this sort of thing? Yes. But there has been no evidence produced.

But the wave of anger set the stage for the second Chechen war, which began in 1999 and continues to this day. It is a disaster. It is that rare combination of a war that is morally obtuse and strategically damaging. It is morally obtuse because it has been fought in a way that guarantees an enormous amount of ill will against Russia among ordinary Chechens who are not fundamentalists and who may not even want independence.

Grozny, the capital of Chechnya and the largest city in the northern Caucasus, is now a smoldering ruin. Let me add that a number of Russian civilians have died too because there are ethnic Russians in Chechnya. Because of the military offensive, about 225,000 people—a fifth of the population—are now in Ingushetia, to the west. There are orphans, destroyed families, people who have lost loved ones. This, in a society in which revenge and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is taken very seriously. So there has been an enormous erosion of support for Russia. Therefore, the pro-Russian government in Chechnya, headed by Akhmad Kadyrov, is seen by many as a Quisling government. Frankly, if Russian troops withdrew tomorrow, which they are not about to do, Kadyrov and company would not last long.

Q. How many Russian troops are stationed inChechnya?

A. Estimates vary between 15,000 and 30,000. They are a mix of regular troops and Interior Ministry troops. While not all Russian troops are implicated in such misdeeds, we have abundant evidence of rape, execution of civilians, pillaging, corruption. This points to the steady evisceration of professionalism in the Russian army, which is in terrible shape. So this war is morally obtuse. It is strategically stupid. Why? Because it cannot be won. If victory is defined as the destruction of the resistance and the emplacement of a reliable Chechen government that enables Russia to withdraw with some semblance of normalcy. It can’t be done.

The Russians are in a bind. Because if they withdraw, there will be conflagration upon conflagration. Still, I happen to think there is a solution. And that solution is, ironically, more likely to work after this horrific incident in Moscow because it brought the war home to Russians who have been seeing this war in a very peculiar way. One of the things Putin has done is to curb press coverage from Chechnya. Reporters are given access to the front rarely....

So there is a kid-glove treatment of the war, and the Russian public has seen a rather sanitized version. But there is a Moscow grapevine, and enough young men have served in Chechnya. So whereas a year and a half ago, 60 percent supported the war, now it is down to 30 percent and dwindling. The bloody event in the Moscow theater will cause a slight up-tick in support because of the anger, but it will start falling off soon. What this episode shows is that the fundamentalist, radical elements in Chechnya have decided to start bringing this war to Russian cities. They have decided that only when the Russian people feel pain viscerally will domestic support for the war dry up.

I’m afraid this is not an isolated incident; we shall see more of this. Now the way to deal with it is for Putin, who still has enormous popularity, to say there will be a switch in strategy in Chechnya. The strategy will change from one intended to discipline the republic to a withdrawal, to a policy of containment, so that Chechnya’s problems are locked inside that republic. This is a complicated thing. It involves monitoring of money laundering, gun-running, and the movement of terrorists from Chechnya to other parts of Russia. It requires the aggressive support of the international community, including us. We should play a role in this because we have a stake in making sure that a post-withdrawal Chechnya does not become an outpost for al-Qaeda. But we also have a stake in ensuring that Russia does not continue with this ruinous war, because it simply cannot be won. No matter how sympathetic one can be to the kind of problem the Russians face, the current strategy is not working.

Q. So what should the United States do?

A. Right now, Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. But Chechen resistance groups all agree it should be an independent republic, Ichkeria. Unfortunately, only one government, the Afghan Taliban, recognized it. We have to be very careful. In telling Russia to withdraw from Chechnya we ought not to communicate to the Russians that we are blase about the fragmentation of Russia. That would be a disaster, strategically speaking.

But the argument that if the Russians withdraw from Chechnya, the rest of the north Caucasus will fall like dominoes, is a line that you hear repeated in the press and by academics again and again. I submit to you that it is false. If you look back, the Chechen cause has gained little traction even in Ingushetia, although the Ingush and the Chechens are closely related people, almost brothers... The other Muslim republics in the Russian Federation have made their peace with Moscow... There is no secession... I don’t buy the argument that there would be “falling dominoes.”

The question is not whether there is an ideal strategy. The question is which strategy is least bad.

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