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Sestanovich: Putin Lacks Coherent Formula to Deal With Chechnya

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
September 9, 2004


Stephen R. Sestanovich, the Council’s top expert on Russia, says that criticism of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is mounting in the aftermath of the massacre in Beslan, where hundreds of schoolchildren, teachers, and parents died while being held hostage by Chechen separatists. Sestanovich says that ”no one—in Russia or elsewhere—thinks [Putin has] a plan, much less a good plan. He’s made solving the problem of Chechnya one of his big claims to domestic political legitimacy in the past five years, and now it’s clear that Russia is more vulnerable than it was before.“

The George F. Kennan fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies and a senior State Department adviser in the Clinton administration, Sestanovich says that the horrors of Beslan have emboldened Putin’s critics. ”The media are showing signs of renewed openness, even of courage. Political figures are more ready to speak out and say that Putin is not succeeding, and they’re getting a chance to be heard.“

Sestanovich was interviewed on September 9, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

Was the tragic terrorist action at Beslan Russia’s 9/11?

There are some similarities: the psychological impact on society, the demonstration of acute vulnerability, the horror at the massacre of innocents. But the differences may be more important. Putin had his real 9/11 five years ago, when Chechen fighters launched their attacks into neighboring Dagestan and apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow and other cities. In that emergency atmosphere, Putin said to the Russian people that the halfway solutions to the Chechen problem that [then Russian President] Boris Yeltsin had accepted were no longer acceptable. [Yeltsin had granted Chechnya a great deal of autonomy between 1996-99.] Putin launched a new war against the Chechens at that time, and for a while he had some success with it. That was his 9/11: a big disaster, but one that he had at least a superficially plausible formula for dealing with.

What’s different today is not only that the disaster is bigger. It’s that he doesn’t have any sort of formula for dealing with it. He’s called for popular mobilization against the enemy, he’s blamed international terrorism, he’s even blamed the West to some degree. But no one—in Russia or elsewhere—thinks he’s got a plan, much less a good plan. He’s made solving the problem of Chechnya one of his big claims to domestic political legitimacy in the past five years, and now it’s clear that Russia is more vulnerable than it was before. He had his 9/11; now he’s got another one, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.

Who is saying he failed? Clearly the Russian media is not, is it?

Interestingly, Putin’s vulnerability has emboldened his critics. The media are showing signs of renewed openness, even of courage. Political figures are more ready to speak out and say that Putin is not succeeding, and they’re getting a chance to be heard. The Communist Party—remember them?—has called on the government to resign. Other opposition figures say that ministers who failed at their jobs need to go. The popular view, as reflected in the polls, is that if Putin is not personally to blame, the institutions of law enforcement have shown themselves to be totally unreliable and corrupt, and that the president has to do something about them. After a period in which Putin seemed to have made himself unassailable in Russian politics, he’s now on the defensive. Imagine what might happen if you had a national election coming up.

But he doesn’t seem to have any alternative except force, is that right?

You are hearing two kinds of criticism from Russians. From one direction, there are people saying—very tentatively, for now—that maybe they need to take a look at the old, discredited Yeltsin formulas. That means reconsidering the kind of compromise that Yeltsin accepted when he ended the first war in Chechnya in 1996. At that time Yeltsin was not willing to say Chechnya could be independent, but he and his advisers gave up on running the place. Remember that Putin himself has been trying to put a Chechen face on Russian rule, finding Chechen front men who would create an impression of a government run by local leaders. This first kind of criticism says, in effect, let’s recognize that this is a nationalist conflict that Russian isn’t going to win outright.

But there’s a second strand of criticism that is more racialist and xenophobic. It sees in recent events proof that the only solution is an authoritarian, imperial, military one. The peoples of the Caucasus are seen as incorrigibly violent and unappeasably hostile to Russia; they are everywhere in Russian society, able to subvert its disorganized military and security forces, and the only thing that will succeed against them is the boot.

Putin is probably not too happy with either of these sentiments. He surely does not want to grant the idea that there could be such a thing as a legitimate, non-terrorist Chechen opposition with which Russia would try to work out some sort of accommodation. And he certainly is not going to re-open the issue of Chechnya’s status in Russia. At the same time, he’s got to know that the idea of solving this problem by military means and repression is a dead end.

Is he reaching out to the United States? Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani showed up in Moscow comparing the Beslan massacre to 9/11. Is President Bush sympathetic to Putin’s position?

The official American position has been, of course, to express horror at the violence and condemn the terrorists, and that’s right. But underneath the official line there is a loss of confidence that Putin has any formula for solving this problem or even making it more manageable. What happened in Beslan was unprecedented, but it was no isolated event. It caps a year in which terrorists have shown they can strike anywhere in Russia. Beslan’s impact was so great because it came right on the heels of the downing of two airplanes and a bombing in a Moscow railroad station. If a couple of years back some American officials thought that Putin had achieved a kind of brutal stability in Chechnya, they certainly don’t think so now.

For his part Putin has said that the battle against terrorism is a single struggle. For years his line has been, ”I’m on the front lines of Western civilization and deserve Western support, sympathy, and understanding.“ He’s repeated this line in the past few days, but he has added to it a rather bizarre and offensive charge—that outside powers have used terrorism as a tool for weakening Russia. In his speech to the Russian people last week, he implied—without actually naming the United States—that we were helping the terrorists in order to eliminate Russia as a nuclear rival. After the way in which both Bush and Putin have talked about fighting terrorism as a common cause, it’s hard to understand a statement like this. It may show that a crisis brings out people’s real beliefs.

Incidentally, Putin’s charges have not gone over all that well in Russia itself. Some critics have said blaming outside powers is just another sign of his weakness and lack of a strategy to cope with this problem.

Hasn’t the United States given asylum to a Chechen leader?

The United States last month gave asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, one of the foreign representatives of Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in elections in 1997 that the Russians themselves recognized. Akhmadov was involved in the first war against the Russians between 1994 and 1996, but so, for that matter, was Akhmad Kadyrov, the man whom Putin installed to run Chechnya until he was assassinated in a terrorist bombing earlier this year. In granting asylum to Akhmadov, the U.S. government satisfied itself that he had not been involved in the current war at all. But the decision went down very badly with the Russian government, and they denounced it as an example of Western double standards.

Who is Shamil Basaev, the leader of the terrorists?

Basaev has been the leader of the most radical, military wing of the Chechen resistance to the Russians. He has been associated with the boldest hostage-takings and other terrorist actions, including the military incursion into Dagestan in 1999. The Russians treat him and Maskhadov as close collaborators, the better to discredit Maskhadov. Most observers consider Basaev to be beyond Maskhadov’s control, but we don’t really know the true relationship between the two. Some people compare it to [Palestinian leader] Yasir Arafat and the radicals that he professes to have no control over. Basaev is certainly among the Chechen resistance figures with the closest connections to Islamist radical and terrorist groups outside Chechnya. As a symbol of this, he even has a new name he seems to use for public statements: Abdallah Shamil Abu-Idris, Amir of Islamic Brigade of Martyrs Riyadh as-Salihiin.

How do you think this will play out?

There have been other dramatic incidents like this in the past—shocking acts of terrorist violence that led many Russians to say, ”This has got to stop.“ Each of them was called a ”turning point,“ something that could ”never be forgotten.“ But over time they were forgotten.

These incidents have a somewhat different feel, partly because there’s been a cascade of attacks. At a minimum, I think we’re going to have to think a bit differently about Russia, to see that Putin’s regime is more vulnerable than we thought, that Russia is less stable than we thought. Above all, its problems call for a kind of political leadership that Putin has never exercised—and that may be beyond him.