Exit Strategies

Russia's Long War (part II)


Continued From Part I

While the Russian people might want to oppose wars in Chechnya for humanitarian reasons, the internal pernicious influences of a militarized state alone should convince them that attempting to rule the North Caucuses isn't worth the cost. After the First Chechen War, the Republic was nominally independent but in a state of chaos. The region was awash in weapons and the Grozny government had little control outside the capital. Already by 1997 there was a split in the Chechen leadership between those who wanted to find an eventual solution with the Russians and others who saw the need to not only completely break away from Moscow but "liberate" the province of Dagestan and the 100,000 Chechens who lived there.

With Chechnya filled with many weapons but few jobs, partly thanks to Russia's blockade, kidnapping became big business. Four British telecommunication workers were beheaded in December 1998 and the Russian deputy interior Minister General Gennadii Shpigun was killed while in Grozy to negotiate with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov.  

In 1995, Al-Qaida commander Ibn Al-Khattab arrived in Chechnya.  Bringing funding from Gulf wahhabists, he became a close ally of rebel leader Shamil Basayev. In its international isolation, Chechnya became dependent on the Arab world for money between the two wars. President Maskhadov tried to co-opt the radicals by appointing Basayev prime minister, though the latter himself found the Islamists difficult to control.  In February 1999, Maskhadov announced that Chechnya was in the process of adopting sharia law.  

The Second Chechen war began around the end of 1999 and lasted ten years. For all its talk about battling extremism, Moscow has been contributing to the radicalization of the region by not only waging war on the population but killing moderate leaders who want to be independent of the federal union. Russia killed President Maskhadov in 2005 and his successor the year after that. Among the extremists, Khattab died after receiving a letter poisoned by the FSB, the Russian Federal Security Service, in 2002 and Basayev was either assassinated or perished in an accidental explosion in 2006. The Chechens got some licks in too, taking out pro-Moscow leader of the region Akhmad Kadyrov in 2004. (His son rules Chechnya today) Basayev became internationally known for claiming responsibility for the Beslan school hostage crisis which resulted in 385 deaths (including 186 children) among other terrorist acts. Maskhadov, for his part, called Beslan a "blasphemy."

Two events have been seen as the main immediate causes of the Second Chechen War.  In August 1999 Khattab and Basayev led several thousand Muslim fighters into Dagestan hoping to establish a North Caucus Caliphate and were pushed back. Concurrently, over the month of September a series of bombs went off across Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buynaksk that killed close to 300 people. 

This seemed certain to be the work of Chechen rebels until the events of September 22, 1999. That day, residents of an apartment complex in Ryazan called the police to report strange men hanging around their building. When officers arrived they found three large sugar sacks in the basement that tested positive for hexagen, the explosive used in previous Moscow attacks. Two of the strange men were arrested that very night and revealed papers showing that they worked for the FSB. Hearing of their arrest, their superiors in Moscow secured the release of the agents. The next day the FSB called a press conference to announce that what had happened the night before was a "training exercise." There have been many within and outside of Russia who've claimed that all or some of the September 1999 bombings were "false flag" operations, despite the lack of conclusive proof.  It's worth noting that while Chechen Islamists have had no problem taking credit for civilian killings within Russia before or since, they denied responsibility for these particular attacks. 

Whether the Russian government planned the bombings or not, they played a role similar to that of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, in that the attacks became an all purpose excuse for the waging of war, violating civil liberties, and consolidating power in the executive. Valdimir Putin was able to ride into office as a "national security conservative," to borrow a term from modern American discourse. After the First Chechen War, the Russian military high command felt betrayed by the politicians in Moscow and a Westernized media which dared to report on their crimes. They were in the same situation as American hawks who were bitter over their country's experience in Vietnam and had thought that with simply a little more brutality and will power they could've won the war. While in the U.S. these types never came to power, Putin was an ex-KGB agent who maintained his ties with the military-security elite. He shared the worldview of those who saw the First Chechen War as a failure of will rather than a blunder from the beginning.

Indeed, Putin's forces were able to take Grozny relatively quickly -- but at an incredible humanitarian cost: 350,000 Chechens, or a third of the population, was displaced.  Every single one of the city's 4,664 apartment blocks was at least partially destroyed. But the insurgency kept fighting. Not until April 2009 did the Russians declare victory and announce Chechnya ready for development and peace under the rule of President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Then last week suicide bombers struck the Moscow metro. They were thought to be "Black Widows," former wives of Chechen men killed by Russians. In response, President Medved has called for "crueler" methods to deal with the terrorist problem. It's probably reasonable to assume that if such a strategy hasn't worked in three hundred years, it's not going to start paying dividends now.  

While it chases impossible goals, a militarized government creates all kinds of inefficiencies in the economy and unintended consequences.  We've seen it in America, and it's not surprising that the same problems are popping up in the only other Western power actively maintaining an empire. One of these distortions of normal life in Russia has been the creation of schools that have no function besides helping young men dodge military service. While all able men are technically required to serve for two years, in 2008 US News & World Report used the Russian Army's own numbers to find that 80 percent of males get some kind of deferment or exemption. The easiest way out seems to be to bribe the recruiter. In 2008, the average cost of getting out of the service in Moscow was said to be almost $7,000. It's been estimated that $350 million a year in bribes are given out to schools, conscription officers and medical facilities to avoid the draft.  

The unlucky few who do serve, being either patriotic or too poor to avoid conscription, are subject to dedovshchina, or ritual hazing. By the military's own count, in 2005 this brutality killed 16 soldiers and helped push 276 to suicide. If those numbers are representative of every year, and there's no reason to believe they're not, then during the conflicts with Chechen rebels to end terrorism, Russia has lost more people to military hazing than it has to actual terrorist attacks, never mind the casualties of the wars themselves! It's hardly surprising that a state which can be so brutal to women and children in Grozny can and is just as cruel to its fairer-haired citizens.  

Another perverse result of the Chechen Wars has been the development of a Russian version of the military-industrial complex, only over there, it's the military-construction complex. The generals who fight the war are the same officials responsible for rebuilding Chechnya, and they profit from destruction. Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist who was the main reporter on what goes on in Chechnya. She explained how the scam worked in her book A Small Corner of Hell,

For example, instead of getting sand for construction from the nearby Stavropol district, they ship it in from Moscow suburbs, inflating the prices. Concrete comes from territories very far from the North Caucasus, such as Perm. Toilets are allegedly from Italy, ceramic tiles from Spain.

But don't imagine that Italian toilets are installed in the Chechen village of Kalinovskaya, where the 42nd division headquarters were erected by [Russian General] Kosovan's people. The toilets are still local. Only the price is Italian...

Once again, the oligarchs are getting rich. And this is the result: the continuation of the Chechen war and the "blowing up" by militants of newly erected sites is extraordinarily profitable both to these oligarchs and to the generals of the national military construction elite. For something so profitable, they will fight as long as they can in Chechnya, until the treasury collapses.

Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment building in October 2006.  According to her editor, on the day of her death she was to report on the torture practiced by the Pro-Moscow Chechen President Kadyrov.  

The other internationally known figure likely killed by the Russian government was former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was granted asylum in the UK in 1999.  He wrote two books accusing the government of carrying out the 1999 apartment bombings, among other terrorist attacks. In November 2006, Litivinenko was poisoned by Russian agents. Just as it would be unthinkable in America for anyone to argue for legalized torture outside of a "war on terror" context, it's hard to believe that Russians would be this indifferent if their government were assassinating its citizens for anything other than "national security."  

The U.S. and Russia have seen similar results from their respective self-righteous struggles against "terrorism": an increasing acceptance of police state tactics, government secrecy, a chest-thumping military establishment with a misguided sense of patriotism, and a collection of money interests with ties to the state who thrive on death and destruction.  While Moscow has not systematically worked to undermine the culture of its people as other Western governments have, those with a respect for liberty should not romanticize a regime that assassinates journalists, has universal conscription, and is the personification of arbitrary bureaucratic control. A patriotic state is still a state, and most dangerous characteristic of a state is still the power to make war.