Spy or Savior?
In the third week of June, almost unnoticed during US-Russian wrangling over the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, the Russian government closed fifty of sixty border crossings into its breakaway province of Chechnya and launched artillery and helicopter gunship strikes on Chechen positions. Although the cost of regaining control over Chechnya--acknowledged to be militarily lost in 1996 after a horrific struggle--would be prohibitive, Moscow nevertheless has a few compelling reasons to play the military card. The strikes were primarily a response to Chechen attacks. In addition, a successful Chechen separation from Russia could induce other autonomous areas to leave the Russian federation, not merely from the notoriously unstable Transcaucasus but from large swaths of the Russian map. Paranoid about these possibilities, Moscow believes its continued military domination of non-Slavic areas, albeit without complete control, is vital for Russia's survival as a sovereign state. This, of course, is flawed thinking. If Russia is not to dissolve like the Soviet Union or, worse yet, end in a cataclysm like Yugoslavia's (with the added piquancy of loose nukes), it must negotiate peacefully across a welter of emotional claims to self-determination.
The conundrums of that bigger picture were, whether he realized it fully or not, what gave international relief superstar Frederick Cuny so much trouble in his valiant but ultimately doomed efforts to save Chechnya. They were probably what killed him. His life story is a synecdoche of sorts, embodying questions about the tensions between humanitarian aid and military intervention, nongovernmental work and state diplomacy. And his vexing end only serves to highlight those vexing questions.
In The Man Who Tried to Save the World, Scott Anderson explores the mystery of Fred Cuny's death in Chechnya and the question of who he really was (a deep-cover, paradoxically high-profile spy or an astonishingly effective humanitarian relief worker). Anderson also examines (in a less than satisfying gloss) what made him such an important figure and gives a kind of watercolor of Cuny's early life that does, in fact, help us separate the myth from the man. The book reads more like a suspense novel than a biography, and it should; in retracing Cuny's movements, Anderson several times rashly risked his own life at the hands of Chechen militias.
Cuny's disappearance in Chechnya in early April 1995 produced a shock wave of high-level meetings, an exchange between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin and an exhaustive on-the-ground investigation with help provided by, among others, US diplomats, the CIA, the FBI, Russian and Chechen security services, prominent relief workers, foreign journalists, Cuny's family and the Soros Foundation, Cuny's employer. It is fair to say that at the time of his death he was regarded as the most talented emergency-relief-work expert in the world, and perhaps the most influential.
Fred Cuny's friends miss him terribly. Although I did not know Fred nearly as well as many others, I counted him as a friend. We were at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at roughly the same time, from late 1992 to mid-1994--he as a part-time senior associate, I as a consultant. Our paths often crossed at meetings and social functions, and we shared a professional interest in the Balkans. So when Cuny set up a Sarajevo gas and water project for George Soros in 1993, I followed its progress with attention, communicated regularly with him by satellite phone and, that December, stayed at his house and worked out of his office while on a private fact-finding mission to the Bosnian war. After I left Carnegie I kept up our contacts--my last talk with Cuny took place in late March 1995, hours before he left the States for his fateful trip to Chechnya.
Originally written shortly after Cuny's disappearance as an article for the New York Times Magazine, the germ of this book grew into another three years of work for Anderson, who hunted for clues to what happened. He saves his arguments about Cuny's demise for the end of this tale, building on a vibrant montage of biography and scenes of the Chechen war zone. After sifting through masses of evidence and weighing the credibility of hundreds of conflicting local sources, Anderson offers the reader a complicated conclusion without quite saying he believes it himself: that Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, then the president of Chechnya, personally ordered the detention and execution of Cuny and three colleagues who accompanied him on what was supposed to have been a simple day trip for refugee-needs assessment. The men had been traveling from their base in Sleptsovskaya, Ingushetia, across the border to the Chechen capital, Grozny.
Anderson suggests that Cuny's party, by attempting to reach Grozny via a back road that took them through Bamut, the site of an officially--but possibly incompletely--decommissioned Soviet nuclear missile base, might have been in a position to confirm or deny reports that Chechnya possessed two or more leftover, uncatalogued nuclear warheads. Dudayev, according to this theory, feared that a revelation either way would ruin an artful ambiguity that divided attacking Russian forces' attention between Bamut and other fronts. This, it must be said, is essentially the Russian explanation of Cuny's fate, and it has also been tacitly accepted by senior US government officials. Dudayev himself was killed in April 1996 by an air-launched Russian smart bomb keyed to his cell phone. The Chechens have never admitted a thing.