The Bloodiest Chapter

A recent spate of Chechen terrorist attacks sends a centuries-old conflict spiraling out of control

Fred Weir

Relatives pray for a peaceful outcome to the Chechen-Russian showdown.

As Russia’s sum­mer of ter­ror unfold­ed, it might have been easy to for­get the long and ago­niz­ing pre­his­to­ry to the head­line-grab­bing hor­rors that includ­ed explod­ing air­lin­ers, sui­cide bombs and school­child­ren tak­en hostage.

Inde­pen­dence-seek­ing Chechen fight­ers, who are behind the recent wave of ter­ror­ist attacks, have been a bone in the Kremlin’s throat for almost 300 years. And Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin faces the same dilem­ma that ear­li­er led Czars and com­mu­nist com­mis­sars to seek solu­tions” to the Chechen prob­lem as bru­tal as any in the annals of warfare.

We have had war with Chech­nya for two cen­turies, and not much has changed,” says Kon­stan­tin Simonov, with the Cen­tre for Cur­rent Pol­i­tics in Moscow. This is a 19th Cen­tu­ry con­flict still going strong in the 21st.”

In recent years the con­flict has mutat­ed into a sav­age war of ter­ror­ist vio­lence against help­less civil­ians, one for which Russ­ian secu­ri­ty forces appear woe­ful­ly unprepared.

Ter­ror­ist actions have killed more than 1,000 Rus­sians since the onset of war five years ago, with the death toll spi­ral­ing each year.

The attack­ers have grown bold­er, knock­ing down two air­lin­ers, bomb­ing a Moscow metro sta­tion and tak­ing 1,200 hostages, most­ly chil­dren, at a North Osset­ian school. The day­time school seizure, the most hor­rif­ic act yet in a con­flict marked by mas­sive crim­i­nal excess­es on both sides, end­ed in more than 300 dead, half of them chil­dren, when ill-pre­pared Russ­ian secu­ri­ty forces stormed the build­ing after a bomb explod­ed, appar­ent­ly by accident.

Our law enforce­ment bod­ies are in decay,” says Pavel Fel­gen­hauer, an inde­pen­dent secu­ri­ty expert. So far we’ve been lucky that the ter­ror­ists have launched only ran­dom attacks and not a full-scale cam­paign of ter­ror against us.”

An indige­nous nation of moun­tain herds­men and farm­ers with their own lan­guage and clan-based soci­ety, the Chechens have lived in the Cau­ca­sus for thou­sands of years. Russ­ian Czar Peter the Great occu­pied the Caspi­an coast­line in the 18th Cen­tu­ry but declined to move inland after encoun­ter­ing the fero­cious Chechen moun­tain war­riors. Gen. Alex­ei Yer­molov, who led Russ­ian forces in the first years of a ruth­less 30-year cam­paign to con­quer the Cau­ca­sus region in the 19th Cen­tu­ry, called the Chechens con­gen­i­tal rebels.” Nov­el­ist Mikhail Ler­mon­tov, a Russ­ian offi­cer in that war, wrote in 1832, “[The Chechens’] god is free­dom; their law is war.”

Yer­molov and his suc­ces­sors even­tu­al­ly sub­dued Chech­nya by incin­er­at­ing its forests to uncov­er the guer­ril­las and by exe­cut­ing dozens of Chechen hostages for every Russ­ian sol­dier lost.

In 1944 Sovi­et dic­ta­tor Joseph Stal­in accused the Chechens of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Nazis, and had the entire nation — half a mil­lion peo­ple — deport­ed to the wastes of Cen­tral Asia. An esti­mat­ed 150,000 Chechens died dur­ing the forced win­ter march.

Depor­ta­tion and the exile that fol­lowed unit­ed the Chechens, in bit­ter­ness, sor­row and rage,” says Vladimir Dim­it­ryev, with the Russ­ian Insti­tute of Eth­nol­o­gy. We are reap­ing the har­vest today.”

Sovi­et leader Niki­ta Khrushchev per­mit­ted the Chechens to return to their homes in 1956, and the region set­tled into its longest peri­od of rel­a­tive peace in three cen­turies. But the post-Sovi­et peri­od may yet prove to be the blood­i­est chap­ter in this seem­ing­ly end­less conflict.

As the USSR was col­laps­ing in 1991, for­mer Sovi­et Air­force Gen­er­al Dzhokar Dudayev seized pow­er in the Chechen cap­i­tal of Grozny and declared inde­pen­dence, claim­ing that Chech­nya had the same right to free­dom as oth­er for­mer Sovi­et cap­tive nations that were being wel­comed into the world as new states.

Moscow dis­agreed, and in Decem­ber 1994 then-Pres­i­dent Boris Yeltsin ordered his forces to invade. Russ­ian Defense Min­is­ter Pavel Grachev assured that two reg­i­ments of para­troop­ers in two hours” could sub­due Chech­nya. The war last­ed near­ly two years, killed upward of 80,000 peo­ple, most­ly civil­ians, and end­ed in humil­i­at­ing Russ­ian defeat.

But the Chechens proved inca­pable of gov­ern­ing them­selves. Wartime mil­i­tary leader Aslan Maskhadov was elect­ed pres­i­dent in 1997 but quick­ly lost con­trol to pow­er­ful war­lords, includ­ing leg­endary Chechen field com­man­der Shamil Basayev. 

By the late 90s, Basayev and his allies had aban­doned Chechen nation­al­ism and embraced Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ism as their key ide­ol­o­gy. Some Chechens took train­ing in Afghan camps run by inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ists, while fund­ing, exper­tise and per­son­nel from groups such as al Qae­da found their way to Basayev.

The sit­u­a­tion changed rad­i­cal­ly” after the first war, Simonov says. The Chechen war became inter­na­tion­al­ized, part of a wider glob­al conflict.”

Forces under Basayev invad­ed neigh­bor­ing Dages­tan in 1999 but were thrown back by Russ­ian troops and local mili­tias. After a series of dev­as­tat­ing and still-unex­plained apart­ment bombs killed near­ly 300 Rus­sians, a huge Russ­ian army assault­ed Chech­nya and occu­pied the entire repub­lic with­in six months — mak­ing Vladimir Putin a nation­al hero and ensur­ing his land­slide vic­to­ry in March 2000.

But Maskhadov’s rebel forces con­tin­ued to strike back, killing a dozen or more Russ­ian troops each week, and mak­ing a mock­ery of Krem­lin dec­la­ra­tions that nor­mal­cy” is return­ing to Chechnya.

Female sui­cide bombers, recruit­ed and trained by Basayev, have wreaked hav­oc. These Black Wid­ows” — so named by Rus­sians because they’re typ­i­cal­ly Chechen women who’ve lost their hus­bands to war — have killed hun­dreds in the Moscow metro, at a rock con­cert, on busy street cor­ners and by bring­ing down two Russ­ian airliners.

Until this sum­mer, the worst inci­dent was the seizure by a Chechen sui­cide squad of a down­town Moscow the­atre with 800 hostages in Octo­ber 2002. That siege end­ed when elite secu­ri­ty troops pumped sleep­ing gas into the the­atre, then charged in and killed the Chechen fight­ers. The oper­a­tion was a tac­ti­cal suc­cess, but a polit­i­cal dis­as­ter: Near­ly 130 hostages died from the gas, prompt­ing a wave of pub­lic outrage.

Putin has staked much on an effort to install a pro-Moscow gov­ern­ment in the region, in hopes of Chech­eniz­ing” the con­flict. But a rebel bomb killed the Kremlin’s first man, Pres­i­dent Akhmad Kady­rov, last May. A new strong­man, Alu Alkhanov, was elect­ed in August to replace him, but the record would seem to hold out lit­tle hope.

Chechnya’s first leader, Dudayev, was killed by a Russ­ian mis­sile in 1996. His suc­ces­sor, Zelimkhan Yan­dar­biyev, was assas­si­nat­ed by a car bomb set by Russ­ian agents in the Gulf state of Qatar ear­li­er this year. Maskhadov is holed up in the rugged moun­tains of south­ern Chech­nya and is said to still com­mand wide­spread support.

Unless the Krem­lin decides to final­ly solve” its intractable Chechen prob­lem by repeat­ing the geno­ci­dal poli­cies of the past, it may yet find there is no oth­er way but to sit down and nego­ti­ate with Maskhadov.

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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