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The Chechen quagmire (Read 831 times)

Posts: 85
The Chechen quagmire
Jul 19th, 2003 at 6:55pm
by Gwynne Dyer

"All terror acts committed on Chechen territory are financed by international terrorist organisations, including Al Qaeda," claimed Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, head of the Russian FSB security service's operations in Chechnya in May. Yes, indeed, said Russian President Vladimir Putin, and everything Russia does in Chechnya is "a contribution to the global war on terror".

Does that mean that the suicide bombers who killed 17 young Russians at a rock concert outside Moscow last Saturday were agents of Osama bin Laden? No, of course not. But that is what the Russian authorities want us to believe, and elsewhere there is remarkable willingness to go along with it.

India accepts Russia's definition of the problem because it also faces a terrorist campaign by Muslim separatists in the state of Kashmir.

Nine months ago, the United States and Britain still condemned the murder of civilians by Russian troops in Chechnya (at least 60 people "disappear" each month) and called for Moscow to negotiate a "political solution" with the separatists, but then they invaded Iraq. Now the US State Department praises the sham elections Moscow is holding in Chechnya and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair says that it is "absolutely the right thing to do".

If your troops are occupying a largely Muslim territory, legally or not, and some of the local people start using terrorist violence to get them out, then it is tempting to blame it on an international Islamic terrorist conspiracy. If foreign Muslims sympathise with the locals, that just strengthens your case. And if you link up with other non-Muslim powers who are facing the same kind of local resistance, then maybe you can impose these definitions on the whole world. But it doesn't make them true.

Chechnya's real misfortune (apart from being conquered by Russia in the first place) is that it ended up in Soviet times not as a full "Union Republic" like Estonia, Georgia and Tajikistan, but as an "autonomous republic" within Russia. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, all the Union Republics took their independence, including the Russian Federation-but none of the "autonomous republics" within Russia, most of them Muslim-majority, were allowed to follow suit. So the Chechens just declared independence anyway.

There was nothing Islamic about it then, just pure nationalism.

The Chechens resisted Russian conquest for a generation before they were finally subdued in 1858. They never really accepted Russian rule, and their welcome for the brief German military incursion into the Caucasus during the Second World War earned them mass deportation to central Asia in 1944 after Stalin's troops returned. The survivors were allowed to go home in 1957, but half of the entire Chechen population was killed in this savage case of ethnic cleansing. So anti-Russian feeling was as strong in 1991 as it was in 1858.

The Chechen independence leader in 1991 was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general whose knowledge of Islam was so slight that he declared that believers should be free to pray three times a day. (The right number is five.) The post-Communist government in Moscow didn't want to fight, but it didn't want to let Chechnya go either, partly because vital oil pipelines cross its territory and partly because it feared a domino effect in other Muslim-majority parts of the Russian Federation.

After three years of hesitation, Boris Yeltsin sent Russian troops in to end the secession in 1994-and the Chechens fought them to a standstill. A cease-fire in 1996 might eventually have led to a peaceful separation, but the sheer ruthlessness of the Russian troops had radicalised too many of the Chechen fighters.

Dudayev's successor, Aslan Maskhadov, was never able to gain control over all of the Chechen guerilla groups, many of them now dedicated Islamists, that sprang up during the war. In the next two years they kidnapped or murdered over 1,000 Russians and other foreigners in Chechnya, made terrorist attacks in Russia proper-and gave Moscow a pretext to invade Chechnya again in 1999.

Many suspect that the terrorist bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 were actually done by Russian agents provocateurs, but they let Vladimir Putin wrap himself in the Russian flag and win the election of early 2000 as the man who could solve the Chechen problem. Except that it isn't solved. Of the 600,000 Chechens who lived in the republic in 1991, about one-third have been killed and another third are refugees, but the Chechen resistance continues to kill ten to 20 Russian soldiers a week.

Once in a while, as in the seizure of the theatre in Moscow last October or the rock concert at Tushino airfield last weekend, Chechen terrorists strike targets in Russia itself, but the vast majority of the deaths on both sides are in Chechnya. Despite the great errors and monstrous crimes committed by people on both sides, it is still essentially a problem of decolonisation after the belated end of the Russian empire in 1991, and the right solution for Chechnya is still independence.

It's easy to see why Putin's government wants to link Chechnya to more complex issues like India's presence in Kashmir and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. It's a lot harder to understand why New Delhi, Washington and London would allow this blatant case of Russian imperial overstay to blight their already difficult relations with the countries of the Muslim world.
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Posts: 85
Re: The Chechen quagmire
Reply #1 - Jul 19th, 2003 at 8:24pm
Excerpts from: Crisis in Chechnya
May 16, 2001, by Anup Shah

It is similar to the situation in Africa, where small nations have been trying to break free from their regional superpowers and colonial rulers.

It is similar to Kosovo or the Gulf War, where allied and NATO forces used humanitarian reasons and mass bombings with precise military technology to wage a high-tech war; here Russia attempts (and has attempted in the past) similar measures, albeit with less success compared to their NATO counter-parts.

It is similar to East Timor, Kosovo, various African and other recent conflicts where, again, the civilians are the main casualties who suffer most from this conflict.

It is similar to the above-mentioned conflicts as various international conventions, treaties and laws are violated by powerful nations in their sphere of influence.

And, as with most other conflicts throughout history, there are trade and access related reasons for this conflict as the issue of Caspian Sea oil and control of it comes to the fore.


During the Soviet era, Stalin, in order to maintain power and to prevent overthrow "by external powers manipulating internal ethnic groups", was pretty brutal in his control of the Chechen people. The Chechens were believe by Stalin to welcome Nazi-Germany if they recognized an independent Chechnya. This led to a mass deportation and relocation of Chechen people (and others) to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Around 800,000 people are said to have been relocated this way. Perhaps 100,000 or more, of these people died due to the extreme conditions.

Chechnya declared independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a move that looked as though Russia wished to show the world it could also do what the US did to Iraq, it attacked Chechnya. The 1994-96 war left 80,000 casualties. The Russian assault devastated Grozny and other parts of Chechnya. However, the Chechens defeated Russia revealing how poor Russian military capabilities were.

Earlier in 1999, Islamic uprising in the neighboring Dagestan region of Russia resulted in accusations by Moscow that Chechen government forces supported a Dagestan rebellion. While this was denied, Chechen warlords (that aren't really controlled by the central government) did support the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in Dagestan. This incursion led to a conflict with Russian forces that defeated the Chechens.

Current Conflict

Following the Chechen defeat in Dagestan, Moscow had suffered bomb blasts believed to be by various separatists and other terrorists (although never proven). This has also led to a rise in racist sentiments against people mainly from the Caucasus regions.

Russia is now engaged in a full scale war with Chechnya. There have been many reports of bombing raids by Russian forces and over 200,000 people are said to have fled from Chechnya. Slowly Grozny and other parts of Chechnya are being pounded and destroyed. Once more, it is the civilian population that gets caught in the middle. Civilian casualties have been high and there has been international outcry at the brutal Russian crackdown and indiscriminate bombing and targeting of civilians.

The Spoils of Oils

A major oil pipeline carries oil from fields in Baku on the Caspian Sea and Chechnya toward the Ukraine. Grozny has a major oil refinery along this pipeline. For Russia it is important that the oil pipelines and routes they take to be sold to the western markets also meet their needs. However, there are various pipelines in discussion that does not involve Russia.

Major Western oil companies and the American government managed to keep out Iran from the picture and have attempted to get the oil pipelines routed through Georgia, reducing Russian influence. As a result, Russia want to do what they can to control the spoils, while the West do the same, leaving Chechnya in the middle being fought for by the two.

There are accusations that external (Western) forces have been used to promote and help in destabilizing the region, to promote succession, to ensure a split from Russia. This would allow them to benefit from a smaller, weaker nation (if Chechnya is successful) that will also make it easier for the West to ensure the resources they want can be further controlled. It has also been suggested that Islamic extremist terrorist groups such as Al Quaeda and others have been involved in some aspects of the Chechen war, and earlier, when such terrorist groups were supported by the west to destabilize the former Soviet Union. (Breaking down larger regions been a successful strategy used throughout history by Europe, the US and others, when they divided and ruled various colonial states. This works to the advantage of powerful nations, to keep others small. For example, look at the resulting maps of Africa on this web site's Africa pages.)

"Petrodollars Behind the Chechen Tragedy"

"America's Push on the Caspian Pipeline is Not Good Sense for the Oil Companies"

"The History and Politics of Chechen Oil"

"Why Should Chechnya Need a New Oil Pipeline?"
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