Guest opinion: Chechnya: Russia's second Afghanistan

Russia's predicament in its rebellious republic of Chechnya is fast spinning out of control and is threatening to become Russia's second Afghanistan.
After ten years of trying to control Chechnya primarily by military force, punctuated by a period of withdrawal from 1996 to 1999, Russia still has not been able to realize its aim of ruling the republic through a compliant local political leadership. At present, the situation in Chechnya is deteriorating so badly that Moscow is increasingly faced with a series of options, all of which are unfavorable to its strategic and security interests.

Located in the strategically significant Caucasus mountains, Chechnya's predominantly Sunni Muslim population has never been reconciled to its incorporation into the Russian empire in 1859. Chechens declared an autonomous republic in 1920 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, but were later absorbed into the Soviet Union. In 1944, the Stalin regime accused the Chechens of cooperating with Nazi forces and sent hundreds of thousands of them into forced exile in Kazakhstan from where they were allowed to return in 1957. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechens again made a bid for independence under the leadership of air force general Dzhokar Dudayev. The Russian regime of Boris Yeltsin refused to acquiesce in Chechnya's separation and invaded the republic in 1994, setting off a two-year war that ended in Russian retreat and de facto independence for Chechnya without international recognition.

During its brief period of independence, Chechnya became a failed state. The elected government of Aslan Maskhadov was unable to contain rampant crime, corruption, warlordism and Islamic revolutionist tendencies, which spilled over into neighboring Russian republics and into the heart of Russia itself. After a series of apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen radicals, the Putin regime chose to invade Chechnya once again, driving Maskhadov underground and triggering a second Chechen war that continues to fester and recently has erupted with suicide bombings of Russian airliners and the seizure and bombing of a school in the republic of North Ossetia, resulting in hundreds of deaths and casualties.

The recent upsurge of violence in the Chechnya conflict stems directly from the assassination of Chechnya's Russian-backed President Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9, 2004. Elected in October, 2003, Kadyrov had been Moscow's hope for achieving legitimacy for its control of Chechnya. The chief religious leader of Chechnya's Sunni Muslims, Kadyrov had backed the separatist forces in the first Chechen war, but became disenchanted with the failed experiment in independence and collaborated with the Russian occupiers after 1999, becoming head of a Russian-imposed governing authority. With the death of Kadyrov, Moscow lost the only local leader with sufficient support and prestige in the Chechen population to possibly secure legitimacy for Russian rule. Politically, Russia's situation in Chechnya has reverted to what it was in the first Chechen war, in which it was defeated.

Russia's Position in Chechnya

In Chechnya, Russia faces a situation that is strikingly similar to the one that it encountered in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it tried unsuccessfully to preserve that country as a client state against nationalist and Islamic opposition aided by the United States. Both Chechnya and Afghanistan are clan-based societies whose members share strong senses of national identity and independence, but do not have traditions of strong, centralized, political rule. When such societies function as effective polities, their governance is based on a fine balance of power among networks of clan alliances, which is easily disturbed and vulnerable to degenerating into fragmentation, localism and warlordism. Under the stress of war, Chechnya has fallen apart into an array of competing groups, some of which war against Russia and others which cooperate with it to varying degrees out of expediency.

The one constant among Chechens is a fundamental opposition to Russian rule, which is sometimes superseded by calculations of group and individual expediency. Russia's only significant advantage in Chechnya is that a large proportion of the Chechen population is war weary and has become disabused of the separatists as well as of the Russians. After ten years of turmoil, many Chechens are willing to acquiesce reluctantly in Russian rule, so long as it brings them a modicum of security. The problem for Moscow is that it has not been able to suppress the militant Chechen resistance through force and political manipulation. The result has been chronic instability, the devastation of Chechnya's economy and infrastructure, an exodus of refugees to other Caucasian republics, waves of resistance strikes in Russia and a weakening of Moscow's power in the Caucasus.

During the ten years of struggle, Moscow has pursued a policy of imposing its rule by force and attempting to install compliant leaders, rejecting the option of negotiating with the opposition. Most public discourse about that policy concerns whether or not Moscow should shift gears and try to enter negotiations. Critics of the military option tend to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin's stubbornness for continued failures in Chechnya, but there are plausible reasons why Russia has not turned to negotiation.

Most importantly, Chechen society has become so politically fragmented that it is not clear if any deal that Russia might make, for example, with Maskhadov's exile government of Ichkeria, would be effective on the ground. The resistance is split between Chechen nationalists and far more uncompromising Islamists and warlords, particularly Shamil Basayev who is deemed responsible and has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist acts committed outside Chechnya. Even if Moscow could bring some of the nationalists on board, that would not guarantee peace and security, at least in the short term, and would probably lead to more autonomy for Chechnya than the Russians are willing to permit on a lasting basis.

In addition, Russia has a vital security interest in maintaining its territorial integrity and discouraging bids for autonomy in republics where ethnic Russians are a minority, particularly in the Caucasus. Rebel movements have sprung up in neighboring Ingushetia, which has ethnic and religious ties to Chechnya. Inter-clan conflict has arisen in the republic of Dagestan and there have been recent reported incidents of armed confrontations with security forces in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. A generous grant of autonomy by Moscow to Chechnya might not result in effective separatist movements elsewhere, but it would be highly likely to create instability in the region.

Finally, Russia has a vital strategic interest in maintaining control over the northern Caucasus region and expanding its influence into the southern Caucasus to break American encirclement through Georgia and Azerbaijan, and prevent the United States from monopolizing Caspian Sea oil. De jure or de facto separation of Chechnya from Russia would be a major setback to core Russian strategic aims.

The Election of Alu Alkhanov

Russia's severe predicament in Chechnya is illustrated by the election to Chechnya's presidency on August 29, 2004 of Alu Alkhanov to replace Kadyrov. Widely seen internationally and within Chechnya as a rigged vote, the election detracted from Russia's legitimacy in Chechnya. A former Chechen interior minister and security operative, Alkhanov has no ties to the opposition and has been ordered by Moscow not to negotiate with it. Unlike Kadyrov, he has no prestige or base of support in the population, although he is linked to the powerful clan led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the late president, who controls a formidable independent militia, and is too young to constitutionally assume the presidency.

Moscow has attempted to increase acceptance of Alkhanov by permitting him to pursue a policy of diverting all of Chechnya's oil revenues to reconstruction efforts in the republic. Yet with most of the fields depleted and most of the refining capacity impaired, this plan seems to be an effort by Moscow to avoid having to give direct reconstruction aid, which in the past has been frittered away by corruption.

By putting up as weak a figure as Alkhanov, Russia has shown the weakness of the hand it has to play in Chechnya. The resistance forces understand this, which is why they have launched their spectacular strikes. After the airliner and school bombings, Moscow is faced with a choice between trying to apply massive coercive power to crush the rebellion, letting conditions go on as they are or attempting to make some kind of bargain with segments of the opposition. Each of those options has more downside risk than upside potential, and each of them has benefits for the resistance. Massive force will further alienate the Chechens from Russia; continuation of chronic instability will do the same; negotiation will spell a diminution of Russian power if a bargain is made, and will be a sign of weakness that will likely embolden the hard-line opposition. There is also the option of another Russian withdrawal from Chechnya, but that would mean a severe weakening of Russian influence in the Caucasus.

International Complications

Just as was the case in its intervention in Afghanistan, Russia faces the additional problem that the opposition to its policies is aided by the United States. Chechen businessman Malik Saydullayev, who would have been the only credible candidate contesting Alkhanov in the presidential election had he not been barred from running because of a technical problem with his passport, has said that "Russia has geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Caucasus, the heart of which is Chechnya, and developed N.A.T.O. countries also have interests in the Caucasus. This war is over these interests."

The interest of the United States in the Caucasus is control over oil supplies from the Caspian Sea, which involves securing compliant regimes in the southern Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, where the oil is extracted, and Georgia, through which the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline will pass. As a consequence of this dominant interest, the United States is also committed to thwarting any attempt by Russia to expand its influence in the Caucasus. From the American viewpoint, Russian failure in Chechnya is welcome, as long as it does not get to the point that Chechnya becomes a base for Islamic revolution worldwide.

In the current strategic environment, the United States is constrained to give public support to Russian effortsto curb terrorism, but that does not mean that it takes Russia's side in practice. Not only did the United States criticize the August 29 election as being "neither free nor fair," but it has granted asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov's opposition government, leaving him free to pursue diplomacy aimed at winning international support for Maskhadov's Republic of Ichkeria. The Putin regime has complained of an American "double standard" in the "war on terror," but has been powerless to stop the American support of the opposition.

Maskhadov is pursuing a novel strategy of sending his government ministers into exile in different countries so that they can gain maximum diplomatic leverage. Culture Minister Akhmed Zakayev has been granted asylum in Great Britain; Health Minister Umar Khanbiyev is in France; Social Defense Minister Apti Bisultanov is based in Germany. Maskhadov's dispersion strategy has led to publicity for his proposal to internationalize the Chechen conflict through guarantees of the country's autonomy and to contacts with N.G.O.s. Whether N.A.T.O. powers are formally involved with the Ichkerian exile government is unclear, but at the very least they are granting it a measure of legitimacy and sending a signal to Moscow that they are not supportive of its success in Chechnya.

The United States and the European Union have called for Russia to negotiate with the separatists. France and Germany have played both sides of the table, distancing themselves from the United States by endorsing the August 29 election, but also urging negotiation. Their ambivalence is based on their desire for stronger relations with Russia to counter American influence in Eastern Europe and to build economic relations, particularly in the oil sector. At the same time, they also want Caspian Sea oil free from Russian control.


With no apparent favorable options, it is likely that the conflict in Chechnya will result in a setback for Russia's geostrategic interests in the Caucasus. Faced with a population that remains ill disposed to Russian rule and is not organized coherently enough to make a bargain, and confronted by external powers that have an interest in diminishing Moscow's influence in the region, Putin's regime is in a bind from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to extricate itself. Over time, Moscow will be tempted either to withdraw or to apply massive force. In the short term, it will probably continue its failed policies, possibly with additional shows of force that will not change the basic situation.

The most likely scenario of prolonged instability will weaken Putin's credibility and give him less leeway elsewhere in the Caucasus, providing an advantage to the N.A.T.O. powers.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein,

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Author`s name Evgeniya Petrova