Chechnya and Iraq: imperial echoes, militant warnings

Despite all the differences between the two wars, and the countries prosecuting them, the parallels provide a tool with which to investigate the potential consequences of the American occupation of Iraq

Susan Richards
23 July 2003

Read also Jeremy Putley’s ‘Crime without punishment: Russian policy in Chechnya’.

It was late at night and I must have dozed off for a moment in the stuffy cinema. I woke to a hand-held shot onscreen of pale, nervous soldiers being harangued by headscarved women and children, while through the door terrified young men were being led away with guns in their backs. I saw the scene as Iraq today. Then the soldiers started speaking Russian, and I was awake again, watching a rare, documentary film about Russia’s protracted war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The confusion of sleep lasted seconds, but the thought remains, wedged in my brain. Could Iraq become America’s Chechnya? Despite all the differences between the two wars, and the countries prosecuting them, the parallels provide a tool with which to investigate the potential consequences of the American occupation of Iraq. True, America’s war is in its early stages, while Russia’s has lasted on and off for the best part of a decade. But seen from another angle, the US has been at war with Iraq since 1991 – and it is perhaps here to the south of Russia, rather than Vietnam, that we should be looking for a warning of what might await America.

Since Russia has been largely successful in removing its war from the attention of the world’s press, a few background facts. Russian forces were ordered into Chechnya by the then president, Boris Yeltsin, in November 1994 in order to stop the territory seceding from the Russian Federation. Despite overwhelming manpower, weaponry, and air support, the army was unable to establish effective control over the territory due to persistent Chechen guerrilla raids. Widespread demoralisation of the Russian forces in the area prompted Boris Yeltsin to sue for peace and withdraw most of the Russian forces after the Khasavyurt agreement of August 1996.

In 1999, following a raid by Chechen fighters into neighbouring Dagestan and a series of bomb outrages in Moscow and other parts of Russia which killed more than 300 people, Vladimir Putin (prime minister then, but due to succeed Yeltsin as president within weeks) ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya. They have been mired ever since in a dirty, protracted war, which increasingly spills out into attacks on civilian targets in Russia. On 6 July, a Chechen suicide bomber at a rock concert at Tushino left sixteen civilians dead, while the theatre siege by Chechen guerrillas in Moscow in October 2002 led to the deaths of more than 300.

An elusive logic for war

Like the Chechen war, America’s military engagement with Iraq falls into two distinct stages. Though much more successful than the first Chechen war of 1994-96 was for Russia, the US-led Gulf war of 1991 which followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait left crucial unresolved issues. It failed to topple Saddam Hussein. Nor did it destroy the Iraqi army. America had unfinished business in Iraq after the UN ceasefire in 1991, as Russia did in Chechnya after its 1996 withdrawal. Then, in both cases, the prelude to the second phase of war saw massive, shocking atrocities staged in the capital cities – Moscow, New York and Washington.

The Russian public backed the second Chechen war of 1999 even more unequivocally than the American public did the war in Iraq of 2003. Yet four years later, the fog of confusion which still covers the events which triggered the second Chechen war has parallels with today’s furore over weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the lack of evidence that Saddam had contacts with al-Qaida.

French intelligence sources suggest that the Chechen fighters were lured into Dagestan by Russian security forces. As for the spate of apartment bombings in 1999, one of which (in Ryazan) was thwarted by vigilant residents, and has since been proved to be the work of Moscow-based FSB agents.

So what about the other ones? The only hard evidence connecting the Tushino rock concert bombing with Chechnya, as the authoritative defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out in the Moscow Times four days after the attack, is an internal Russian passport of a 20-year-old Chechen woman found on the site. He reminds his readers that all these attacks contradict consistent Chechen propaganda arguments that their fight is with the Russian authorities, not with the Russian people; and that the timing of both bursts of activity occurred in the run-up to presidential or parliamentary elections.

From Persian Gulf to Caspian Sea

In Chechnya, oil has been a greatly complicating factor, though not the prime cause of war as it has been in Iraq. Chechnya’s wealth was mainly dependent on Caspian oil, but only as long as the territory was part of the larger Russian economy. Fully three-quarters of the goods produced in Chechnya, including oil products, depended on deliveries from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.

But even by 1991, long before the first Chechen war began, production had dwindled to 4 million tons. Grozny’s importance as an oil-refining centre was by then much more significant; it was second in importance in the region only to Baku (in Azerbaijan). This capacity has since been destroyed by Russian bombardment.

When the 1994 war broke out, the main pipeline leading from Baku still came through Grozny and Chechnya’s neighbour Dagestan. Transportation of Caspian oil through Chechnya and Dagestan remains a potent source of conflict. But the other options which have been developed since have now bypassed Chechnya, and are steadily eroding Russia’s own importance. US-backed interests have opened one new pipeline to the Black Sea to the south of Chechnya, through Georgia. A second is under construction: running all the way between Baku and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, it is planned to carry a million barrels a day. Whatever happens in Chechnya and Russia, the economic interests of both have been irreparably damaged by the war between them.

The Wahhabi headlock

Significantly, both America’s and Russia’s ‘war on terror’ are being fought in places which, though Muslim, originally had little or no connection with contemporary Islamic fundamentalism.

The first Chechen war was triggered by the Chechens making a bid for independence, as they have been doing on and off since 1830, when the imperial Russian forces first invaded the region. As mountain warriors, the Chechens are traditional practitioners of the very guerrilla tactics which people in the west have recently come to associate with modern fundamentalists. But the traditional mode of Sunni Islam practised by these mountain people is a long way away from fundamentalism. It is Sufi, and suffused with paganism, local customs and law practices much more ancient than the region’s long, slow conversion to Islam, which was only completed in the 18th century.

Not until the 1994 war were the rich, well-trained Wahhabi fighters drawn to the region from Saudi Arabia. Those early fighters did not find it easy to win over the independent-minded, clannish Chechens. The second Chechen war changed that. During the period of peace between the two wars, young Chechen men were just beginning to develop the non-military skills which had been neglected for so long. The resumption of war in that already ravaged landscape now seems to have closed off all other options for them.

Increasingly savage, arbitrary, nightly round-ups (zachistki, or ‘cleansing’ operations) by the Russian troops which target boys and young men have foreclosed the option of disengagement. Although a few may be released after several days of interrogation, with or without torture, often the best a relative can hope for after their young men are taken off in such a round-up is that one of the corpses deposited overnight outside a mosque can be identified and buried.

The Wahhabi are also the only people in Chechnya who have the money to pay these young men a regular living wage now. Is it surprising if they are now signing up with them in large numbers?

A charade of democracy

Although Iraq is a country with a far more sophisticated secular culture than Chechnya, when it comes to the Bush administration’s commitment to impose democracy on Iraq, the Chechen example may have salutary lessons to offer.

Russia has been imposing illusions of progress on its southern neighbours for three hundred years. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great sent General Potemkin ahead of her to establish model villages in the freshly-conquered southern territory of her empire. The referendum staged in Chechnya in March 2003 is only the latest of these illusions of progress.

In an elaborate show of democratic consultation, 95.5% of the Chechen population were reported to have voted to back a constitution drafted by the Russian government. Naturally, this involved agreeing to remain part of Russia. The result sits awkwardly with the absence of any diminution in Chechen resistance, as it does with all the soundings which suggest that 90% of Chechens still back Aslan Maskhadov, the leader they elected, quite legitimately, in 1997.

Maskhadov is a hero in Chechnya. He served as chief of staff of the Chechen armed forces in their first, successful war against the Russians, and negotiated the withdrawal of Russian troops. Now, he has a price on his head, as the Russians allege that he backed the Moscow theatre siege.

The Russians have appointed their own Chechen, Ahmed Kadyrov, to administer the territory, and a Russian, Stanislav Ilyasov, as Chechnya’s prime minister. Now Putin has set elections for a Chechen president for 5 October 2003. His man Kadyrov, who is about to start campaigning, will certainly win by an overwhelming vote. But no one in Chechnya or in Russia will be any safer for this charade of democracy.

Meanwhile, Chechnya’s entire pro-Moscow administration lives in fear of attack by their fellow Chechens. Now that an Iraqi ‘governing council’ has been appointed by the US, these Iraqis too may soon be feeling at risk from their fellow countrymen. Not only has this year seen the ‘Palestinianisation’ of the conflict within Chechnya itself, with the appearance of Chechen suicide bombers; for the first time, the bombers have this year killed more (pro-Moscow) Chechens than they have Russians.

For the first time, too, women have been volunteering themselves. Over the past two months Chechen women have staged four suicide bombings, killing nearly 100 people. This is a highly significant new development among a traditional people whose women have never before been involved in warfare. It can mean only one thing: these women have nothing left to lose.

The media chloroform

Russia’s approach to imposing democracy may be rudimentary, but its grasp of information management is much firmer, drawing as it does on a long Soviet experience which aspired to absolute state control.

One of the main reasons why the first Chechen war ended was because a strong Russian press, liberated from Soviet censorship, informed the Russian public of the brutality with which it was being conducted, and conveyed the hopelessness of continuing it. This was compounded by the fact that the Chechen foreign minister (an ex-television journalist) fed the world’s press with a steady diet of stories about atrocities committed by the Russian army.

By the start of Russia’s second war on Chechnya in 1999, the lesson had been learned. Since then, the Russian public has had virtually no access to information. The forcible closure of Russia’s last remotely independent television channel (TVS) in June marks the end of a dogged strategy by the Russian government to regain control over news management in the entire country.

Russia’s press and television have not been allowed to carry interviews with resistance figures, and journalists have been firmly ‘embedded’ with the army. Any desire the foreign press had to cover this war has been choked off by requiring journalists to sign documents absolving the Russian authorities of any responsibility for their security.

As for Russian public opinion, the timing of the bombing of Russian cities right at the start of the campaign has meant that few have needed persuading that ruthless measures were required to deal with ‘terrorism’. Attempts by the Chechen rebels to present their own version of events on the internet, via www.kavkaz.org are regularly sabotaged. The most recent assault, on 20 June, was allegedly carried out by the Lithuanian security services.

Rare are the Russian journalists who have persevered in the face of such obstacles. The bravest is Anna Politovskaya, who caught the world spotlight when she entered the Moscow theatre to negotiate with the Chechen guerrillas during the siege. She has insisted on continuing to report from Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, and is undaunted by repeated attempts to threaten, arrest or detain her. Among western organisations, it has been left to independent outlets like the Institute of War & Peace Reporting and the Jamestown Foundation to keep nurturing reliable reporting from the killing fields to the outside world.

Present parallels between this news blackout and America’s approach to news management of its war should not be exaggerated. But none other than Helen Thomas, the woman known until recently as the First Lady of America’s Press, has been vocal about her anxiety that the Bush administration has exploited post 9/11 domestic fears to tame America’s press and encourage a dangerous culture of self-censorship. This doyenne of White House correspondents lost her job with United Press International (UPI) early this year for interrogating the administration too fiercely over its war plans.

Similarly, the veteran correspondent Peter Arnett was sacked by NBC in the early stages of the Iraq war for saying on Iraqi television that the US war plan had failed. The US administration does not need to have had a direct role here; from the standpoint of the White House press corps, these were exemplary sackings. The results are reflected in the ignorance of American public opinion, with a recent poll suggesting that 25% of the public believe to this day that Saddam actually used WMD against American troops.

A cancerous growth

Without the moderating influence of an open press, both sides in the war have become brutalised and war crimes have bred. The Chechen war has also taken a calamitous toll on Russian society as a whole in less obvious ways. Until now, war in Chechnya has served as a pretext for obstructing all efforts to bounce Russia’s oversized, undertrained conscript force (despite cuts, it still numbers over a million) into radical reform.

Chechnya has been the army’s milk cow. As long as the army stays in Chechnya, officers and men have not needed to survive on their meagre pay. For the military retains control over a lively illicit trade into Russia of drugs and local oil. It also trades in arms to the Chechen fighters, as well as to the established networks of organised crime in Russia.

If Russia’s defence minister has his way, this might now change. In July 2003, he announced that the length of military service would be halved within five years, and that within the next four, half the armed forces would be made up of volunteers. This would certainly help Russia’s prosecution of the war. But these reforms will take money, and at the moment it is just not there.

Meanwhile, the scale of the army’s corruption and the fact that it is beyond reach of the law, is having effects that reach into the heart of Russian society. So too is the flow of drugs and arms back into Russia. A strong correlation has emerged back in the heartland of Russia between ex-soldiers and the most violent, drug-related crime. Russians recognise this from the Soviet days as the ‘Afghan syndrome’. Americans remember it from Vietnam. In Iraq, morale is already at this early stage in the occupation low among US troops who find that, far from being welcomed as liberators, they are daily under attack. Now reports are surfacing of the re-emergence of a drugs trade among Iraq’s criminal gangs. How long is it going to be before the frustrated young troops of the coalition become a ready market for those drugs?

‘Wars on terror’: a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Until 9/11 the west was prepared, if cautiously, to bring pressure to bear on Russia to clean up its act in Chechnya. Since then, the ‘Christian’ states of the west have joined in the common crusade against Islamic ‘terror’. Now only a few human rights organisations and the European Council object to the frequency with which ordinary Chechens are raped, abducted and murdered. Even their ability to gather information is severely constrained. No one can even tell you with any degree of accuracy how many have died in Chechnya in the course of the last nine years. Estimates vary from 60,000 - 100,000.

Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin waged war on Chechnya for fear that if Chechnya were allowed its independence, the multi-ethnic Russian federation would disintegrate. Research by Matthew Evangelista and others suggests that this threat was greatly exaggerated. Far from strengthening the Russian state, the war has broken the freedom of the press, encouraged the trend towards authoritarianism, and introduced a bacillus of indiscipline, violence and corruption into the bloodstream of the larger society.

Exaggerating threats leads to exaggerated responses. ‘Pacification’ through overwhelming force has created an enemy so desperate that it cannot be defeated, as it has nothing left to lose. Yet, while Chechnya cannot win this war, Russia has already lost it in the sense that democracy there has suffered perhaps irreparable damage. Chechen fighters, including women, are now spreading terror across Russia. Empty referenda, puppet politicians and the clumsy use of force will not convince the Iraqis any more than they have the Chechens, and could well stoke the global war against terror.

Like Yeltsin and Putin, George Bush waged his war against Iraq in order to strengthen his own position domestically, and his country’s internationally. Military intervention in Iraq may yet be vindicated, but only if, unlike in Chechnya, it leads swiftly to security, economic stability and political enfranchisement for the Iraqi people. Otherwise the parallels are a warning: a ‘Christian’ country, bogged down in a smaller one which its occupation makes more ‘Muslim’, encouraging further terrorism and brutalising the invader’s troops, with disastrous results at home.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData