The Forgotten War

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Background: An Uneasy Peace

The month of September 2001 marked the two-year anniversary of the second Russo-Chechen war of the past decade. At the moment, there seems only a slight possibility of a negotiated settlement. The previous war (1994–96) was, it should be noted, ended only through the Herculean efforts of three men: General Aleksandr Lebed, then secretary of the Russian Security Council; Aslan Maskhadov, then chief of staff of the Chechen separatist forces; and Tim Guldimann, then head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Assistance Group in Chechnya.

On the last day of August 1996, Generals Lebed and Maskhadov, in the presence of Guldimann, signed the so-called Khasavyurt accords, which put an end to the fighting. In January 1997, Maskhadov, a political moderate and a former decorated colonel in the Soviet army, was elected to a five-year term as the Chechen president. In May 1997, Maskhadov and then–Russian president Boris Yeltsin met in Moscow and vowed to put an end to 400 years of hostility between the Russian and Chechenpeoples. A large number of economic agreements were signed by Maskhadov and then–Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Unfortunately, the Khasavyurt accords are now deemed by Russian elites—especially those in the so-called power ministries—to have been an act of betrayal. "No more Khasavyurts!" is a slogan frequently encountered in the statements of top Russian government and military officials. Several Russian military leaders have suggested that General Lebed be put on trial for treason.

From August 1996 until September 1999, Russia and Chechnya endured three years of uneasy peace. In August hostilities resumed following a bold incursion from Chechnya into neighboring Dagestan spearheaded by an "international" force of Wahhabis (pan-Islamic extremists), whose titular leaders were the legendary Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev and the shadowy Arab commander Khattab. In September, there were notorious terror bombings of large apartment complexes in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Buinaksk, which infuriated the Russian populace (similar to the American public’s reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon). On September 23, Moscow once again commenced the bombing of Chechnya, and the current Russo-Chechen war was on.

A Shadowy Pretext

The events of 1996–99, especially of August–September 1999, should be scrutinized closely before one accepts the version of events offered by the Putin government. I believe that Russia, not Chechnya, bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for failing to make productive use of three years of peace during 1996–99. Crucially important is the fact that the May 1997 economic agreements were simply not put into effect by Russia.

Consider these recently published remarks of President (and retired Soviet general) Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetiya, a small Russian autonomous republic adjacent to Chechnya: "I know [President] Maskhadov personally. In those three ‘peace’ years—from 1996 to 1999—we would meet very often. . . . He is a man who has a concept of conscience, of honor, and of decency [and] was one of the very best commanders in our [Soviet] army. I underline: in our not-yet-corrupted army. That says a lot. [When Maskhadov took office in early 1997, he] received a destroyed republic with a collapsed economy. Plus thousands of [Chechen] men armed to the teeth. To whom was he to have turned for help? To the federal center [in Moscow]? No. The federal center was playing a waiting game until all this ‘Chechen epopee’ [epic drama] should end and Chechnya should be forced to its knees."

As for the resumption of hostilities in August–September 1999, there is certainly much to be suspicious about. As early as June 1999—a full three months before the terror bombings in Moscow—persistent reports in the foreign and Russian press suggested that one option being considered by the Kremlin leadership was a series of "terror bombings" in Moscow that could be blamed on the Chechens.

Concerning the August 1999 incursion of Wahhabi forces from Chechnya into Dagestan, there also remain many questions. Prodemocracy Russian publications have reliably reported that the "incursion" was in fact planned and financed by Moscow. These press reports have been confirmed in a recent book written by former Russian military intelligence officers. These same officers report that, when Russian military intelligence observed the Basaev and Khattab forces coming across the border from Chechnya into Dagestan, they were "commanded not to enter into battle with them and not to hinder the movement of the rebels." President Maskhadov has stated in several interviews that he directly warned the Russian side of the impending incursion, and independent Russian journalists have confirmed that he did in fact do so.

Corruption, Looting, and More War

In following events in Chechnya closely over the past year, I have been repeatedly struck by the extent of the deep corruption characterizing both Russian civilian and military bureaucracies that deal with Chechnya and the military and police forces stationed in that small republic, which is approximately the same size as Wales. This corruption—many Russians believe—is the real reason why Russia may never negotiate peace with the separatists and why the present conflict could last for a decade or longer.

"Russia, not Chechnya, bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for the failure of the 1996 peace accord."

Related to corruption is the enormous cost of the war. Boris Vishnevsky, a Russian economics specialist, calculated that, during 1999 and 2000, the Russian government spent approximately $8.8 billion on military actions in Chechnya, a figure that exceeded the annual budget for the capital cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Money allocated for the restoration of Chechnya has, it emerges, largely been embezzled. To be sure, this is nothing new. Consider that the 1996 budget allocation for Chechen restoration (16.2 trillion rubles, plus $1 billion in foreign loans) exceeded the amount allocated in the budget (12.6 trillion rubles) for the entire social policy of Russia. Of course, these vast sums were not actually spent on restoration work in Chechnya. Rather, they were directly pocketed by high-ranking Russian officials.

Today, little has changed. To take just one example: 800,000 rubles were paid out during the year 2000 for seeds earmarked for Chechnya. The Russian Ministry of Finance checked 13 state farms in Chechnya and had to open criminal investigations in each case. Nothing, it turned out, had been planted, and indeed the seeds had never even reached Chechnya but had instead been sold elsewhere and the illegal profits pocketed.

One key problem is the lack of any auditing of how allocated funds are spent. For example, Russian wages and pensions sent to Chechnya for distribution to the populace are being audited by no one. The money is being sent not to pro-Moscow civilian administrators in the republic or to accountants but directly to the Russian military. Without oversight, only military commanders know how the money is actually spent. When the pro-Moscow chief controller of Chechnya wanted to take a look, he was brusquely cold-shouldered by the military. It emerged that a number of Chechens for whom pension funds were being received by the Russian military were in fact "dead souls," persons deceased or not currently living at their previous address.

In May 2001, the prodemocracy weekly Moscow News carried an investigative article about the ongoing massive theft of oil from Chechnya. Every night, during what was supposedly a curfew, army and other vehicles would form in convoys of 20 or so and transport up to 2,000 tons of oil, as well as other valuable items looted from destroyed plants, out of Chechnya. They would pass military checkpoints without any difficulties. A joke going around the republic ran, "When the oil and gasoline are used up, then the war will end."

"The massive corruption of the military and police forces based in Chechnya pales in the face of the atrocities and repeated acts of torture that these same forces have committed against the civilian populace of the republic."

In June 2001, Boston Globe correspondent David Filipov reported that Russian soldiers based in Chechnya were engaged in a variety of inventive and sometimes grisly forms of business. For example, he wrote, Russian soldiers were selling the bodies of deceased Chechens to their close relatives, who wanted to give them a proper Muslim burial. One Chechen woman who worked at a street market was offered the corpse of her nephew by a Russian officer. The asking price? $1,000 in cash, plus a $200 gold necklace. Filipov also noted that "everyone must pay bribes to pass military checkpoints, some of which have ‘cash register’ signs pointing out where to pay." And of course Russian military forces in Chechnya have transformed the kidnapping of civilians into big business. Even Russian troops are not immune—it is not uncommon for the troops to have a portion of their wages directly pocketed by their commanding officers.

Of course, the massive corruption of the military and police forces based in Chechnya pales in the face of the atrocities and repeated acts of torture that these same forces have committed against the civilian populace of the republic. The atrocities committed by the Russian forces continue today, and indeed a new mass grave was discovered in Grozny in October 2001.

Moscow Spins the War

One tack Russian government spokesmen have been taking of late is to compare the "low-intensity" conflict said to be presently taking place in Chechnya with the troubles in Northern Ireland or with the separatist movement in Spain’s Basque region. A reporter for the Washington Post, Susan Glasser, recently looked into these alleged historical parallels and found them to be misleading: "About 800 people have died in Spain’s Basque region in more than 30 years . . . and about 3,000 in Northern Ireland since 1972."

"Russian military forces in Chechnya have transformed the kidnapping of civilians into big business. Russian soldiers have even sold the bodies of deceased Chechens to their close relatives, who wanted to give them a proper Muslim burial."

And how many have died during the two wars in Chechnya? For the first war (1994–96), my estimates are 7,500 Russian military and police, 4,000 Chechen separatist fighters, and approximately 35,000 civilians, for a total of 46,500 deaths. For the second war (1999–present), my highly tentative estimates are 8,000 Russian military and police, 8,000 Chechen separatist fighters, and 20,000–25,000 civilians, for a total of 36,000–41,000 to date. Thus some 90,000 persons may have perished so far over the course of the two conflicts—numbers that suggest anything but a "low-intensity" conflict.

A more accurate comparison would be with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war of 1979–89, in which the USSR lost 14,500 men (an official figure). It is possible that Russia has already lost as many men in less than four years of fighting during the two wars in Chechnya.

A number of Russian spokespeople have also drawn direct parallels between the events of September 11, 2001, and the events of August– September 1999 in Russia. As I noted earlier, the available evidence suggests that this cynical approach bears little relationship to reality. The extent to which this Russian interpretation of events will be accepted by Western governments is an open question. Certainly, the events of September 11 and the resulting conflict in Afghanistan could have a profound impact on the attitude of Western governments toward Russia’s ongoing war in Chechnya.

"During the last decade, as many as 90,000 people may have perished in the conflict."

On a related note, a few words concerning the Chechen separatists. During a recent interview with the English-language Moscow Times, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow—after expressing strong concerns about civilian deaths in Chechnya and human rights abuses by the Russian forces—went on to state: "We have long recognized that Osama bin Laden and other international networks have been fueling the flames in Chechnya, including the involvement of foreign commanders like [the Arab] Khattab. So notwithstanding our [human rights] concerns, we’re working with the Russians to cut off these external sources of support, and that includes intelligence-sharing, and working with Georgia to tighten up controls."

The ambassador’s comments invite an examination of the role of outside volunteers—the so-called Wahhabis—in the present conflict. My view is that the role of these extremists in Chechnya is being exaggerated. Reliable evidence suggests that there may be only 200 such mercenaries in all Chechnya.

It seems clear that, for the most part, the Russian forces in Chechnya are fighting dedicated separatists, not far-out extremists like the individuals who committed the atrocities in our country on September 11. As commentator Andreas Ruesch recently observed, although dozens of Russian soldiers continue to be killed each month through such methods as explosives and surprise attacks, "these are not acts of terrorism but typical guerilla tactics . . . directed against military targets as a rule. The separatists have not engaged in the murder of civilians for the purpose of general intimidation." Similarly, Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer has said, "The root sources of the Chechen resistance are located within Chechnya itself; the weapons and ammunition for the partisan war are basically purchased within Russia itself on the ‘black market.’"

"There are signs that Putin and his entourage may finally understand that the corruption and criminalization of Russian military and police forces in Chechnya constitute a serious threat—and not just to the Chechens."

A leitmotif of French journalist Anne Nivat’s remarkable book Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya, which deals with the current war, is the strong animosity felt by many ordinary Sufi Chechens (that is, adherents of the traditional Chechen Muslim tariqats, or brotherhoods) toward the Wahhabis (who represent an extremist Muslim tendency first brought into Chechnya at the time of the 1994–96 war). Many of the Sufis, Nivat reports, believe that the Wahhabis and the Russians equally represent the cause of their afflictions.

Is There Peace at the End of the Tunnel?

Is there a chance of a negotiated settlement to the conflict? Both President Putin and his chief spokesman have warned that the present "low-intensity" conflict could drag on for 10 years or more. Recently there seemed to be indications that the two sides were getting ready to talk. On November 18, high-ranking Russian and Chechen separatist representatives met at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for more than two hours of talks. The Russian side, however, continues to rule out third parties as intermediaries in the conflict.

In late October 2001, there was a new and perhaps significant development: "Chechenization" of the conflict. A 10,000-strong pro-Moscow Chechen police force is to be created on the territory of the republic, and a gradual handover from ethnic Russian policemen (brought in from other areas of Russia) to Chechen policemen has begun. In addition, it has been reported that several top (ethnic Russian) officials in Chechnya have been relieved of their duties in favor of replacements who have begun publicly paying attention to the complaints of Chechen civilians.

The new conflict in Afghanistan and the changed situation in former Soviet Central Asia appear to be providing an opportunity for the Russian leadership to reduce the enormous military and police presence in Chechnya (75,000–80,000 men). Battle-tested troops are now urgently needed elsewhere. In addition, Putin and his entourage may have come to understand that the massive corruption and criminalization of Russian military and police forces in Chechnya constitute a serious political threat, and not just to the populace of Chechnya.

Will Chechenization work? It seems unlikely—just as Vietnamization did not work—given that the separatists have (to date) been at least as hostile toward the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership as they have toward Moscow itself. There is little evidence that the current pro-Moscow Chechen government enjoys the trust of the Chechen separatist leadership. On the other hand, there can also be little doubt that the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities will treat the republic’s populace less brutally than have the Russian military and police. So although Chechenization is unlikely to work, it may represent an improvement over current Russian policies and practices.