Putin’s War

Putin’s War

The bloody end to the hostage crisis in Russia leaves unfathomable human suffering.


The bloody end to the hostage crisis in Russia leaves unfathomable human suffering. More than three hundred children, parents and teachers died in the grusome 52-hour siege that began when heavily armed Chechens–and possibly other guerrillas–stormed Beslan's Middle School #1.

The unconscionable slaughter of the innocents came just days after a female suicide bomber–most likely one of the "black widows," women who have lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Chechen war–blew herself up at a central Moscow subway station, killing nine bystanders and wounding scores of people. And this after two airliners crashed on August 24th–apparently blown up by terrorists.

These latest acts expose the bankruptcy of Vladimir Putin's policy toward Chechnya. After three years of peace, negotiated by Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin with the Chechen secessionists in 1996, Putin came to power by championing a renewed military offensive in the already war-torn region. A series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities that year were blamed on Chechen insurgents, and created mass popular support for the dispatching of tens of thousands of troops to the region. (A new Russian documentary, Disbelief, which was shown for the first and, so far, only time last week in Moscow, explores allegations that the Russian security forces set off the bombings as a pretext to secure Putin's electoral victory and create support for re-launching the war.) Early success in the war turned Putin, then Prime Minister, into a national hero and he easily won election as Yeltsin's handpicked successor.

From the beginning, Putin built his career and image on a promise to bring stability, order and security to the Russian people. Instead, the Russian President's brutal military policies–and his unyielding refusal to negotiate a political resolution with the Chechen government in exile, led by the last freely elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov–have spurred the wave of terrorism that now afflicts Russia.

During the past two years alone, more than 1,000 Russians have been killed in a series of increasingly lethal terrorist attacks inside Russia, including those in a Moscow theater in October, 2002.

Meanwhile, since the first war began in 1994, more than one hundred thousand Chechens, many also civilians, have been killed since 1994. A generation of young Chechens has grown up knowing nothing but war, brutality and the killing of family members. The once vibrant capital city of Grozny has been bombed into rubble. A decade of fighting has decimated the country's labor force, devastated its agricultural base, destroyed its infrastructure and left many people with deplorable living standards.

Russian troops have used harsh occupation tactics, destroying villages, rounding up and "disappearing" young men. Rape, according to human rights reports, is a routine feature of this merciless war. The decades-long conflict has strengthened the hand of the most murderous and extremist elements among the Chechen insurgency–such as those led by Shamil Basayev, who allegedly planned the school siege. It has also fueled even greater excesses of dehumanizing violence.

As one of the surviving hostages in Beslan told a Russian newspaper: "The terrorists say they are Chechens. They say they're demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. They also told us that their own children have been killed by Russians and they have nothing to lose. I asked one of them how they could put the lives of our children in danger like this. He answered that no one asked his opinion about anything when his children were being killed."

In the wake of Beslan's bloody siege, Putin has vowed an all-out war against terror in Russia. In a nationwide televised address last Saturday, he signaled that he is even more determined to link Russia's war against Chechen separatists to the global war against terror. "Terrorism is not an internal matter," Putin told his country, attributing the siege and other attacks to "the direct intervention of international terror against Russia." But this is Putin's war–not a global war. And though he carefully avoided using the word "Chechnya" in his address, Putin is fully aware that the political and historical roots to Russia's crisis are to be found in that grinding conflict.

While editorials in papers like the Wall Street Journal and terrorism "experts" like Steven Emerson work to conflate Russia's crisis with the battle against Al Qaeda, Moscow's leading liberal (Westernized) opposition politicians are criticizing Putin for blaming the Beslan siege on international terrorism. Even the Bush Administration broke ranks with Putin on Tuesday–stating that only a political settlement could end the crisis. When asked what he thought of Western calls for negotiations with Chechen rebels, Putin replied angrily, "Why don't you meet Osama Bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage him in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?"

Challenging Putin's assertions, Irina Khakamada, who ran against the ex-general in the March presidential election, said: "One can see the desire to explain all problems by international terrorism…it is a desire to evade responsibility for what is going on." Several leading Russian analysts also argued that the government was exaggerating the Arab connection in order to obscure the nationalist impulses of the Chechen insurgency. (The federal security forces quickly claimed that 10 "Arabs" were among the hostage-takers, but a Kremlin spokesman now says that, despite earlier assertions, no Arabs have yet been found among the terrorists.) While it does appear that Muslim fighters have joined the Chechen forces–as the conflict has broadened and festered over these last years, the essential driving force behind the resistance remains nationalist struggle.)

Without a political resolution, it is only a question of how many more civilians will die in a spiraling cycle of resistance and terror. Grigory Yavlinsky, a leading opposition politician and head of Russia's Yabloko party, has long argued that the first requirement for ending this mestasizing conflict is much broader political dialogue. "If you want a political process, you have to speak to your enemies. You should talk to anyone except those who are real criminals. Anything is better than what we have now."

One hopeful sign that there is an understanding of the need for political dialogue came with news that just hours before the end of the school siege last Friday, regional government mediators reached out through back channels to Chechen separatist leaders–notably former Chechen President Maskhadov, for help in resolving the crisis. ("I assured them that President Maskhadov was as distraught as they were," his chief representative Akhmed Zakayev said before the end came. "He is ready without any conditions to make all efforts to save these children and resolve this crisis.")

Yesterday, Maskhadov issued a statement disassociating himself from the torture and killing of the Beslan children. "There cannot be any justification for people who raise their hand against what is most sacred to us–the life of defenseless children."

And in the wake of the Beslan assault, regional officials–apparently desperate to avert a widening war in the Northern Caucasus, which Putin warned of in his address to the nation–announced they would seek to talk to the political wing of the Chechen separatist movement. (The Kremlin, seeking to distance itself from these efforts, insisted that such talks were purely a local matter.)

For the first time in many years, voices can be heard in Russia calling for a political solution as the only way out. There are also calls for an independent investigation into the handling of the hostage crisis and demands that the Putin government resign because of the "negligence that resulted in numerous civilian victims." Even the Motherland Party–formed with Kremlin backing–issued a statement demanding that the government resign. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Communist Party blasted the Administration's failed policies for the hostage taking. (Putin has rejected calls for an independent inquiry.)

Putin can no longer rule as he has–as a leader whose popularity was based on promises to bring order and security to his people. The trust he enjoyed has been seriously eroded.

In the short-term, however, the Russian President may well succeed in deflecting responsibility onto the corruption of the security forces, distancing himself from the misinformation put out during the crisis, and assigning blame to the Yeltsin legacy. (A survey taken this week showed that most Russians blame corrupt special forces for failing to prevent rising terrorism but few hold Putin directly responsible.)

The President's authoritarian instincts suggest he will try to counter any opposition through exploiting his peoples' fears of terrorism, strengthening the power of the security apparatus, cracking down on what remains of a free press, and implementing policies and methods that risk inflaming the Caucausus still further. (One sign of an imminent crackdown on the press came on Monday when the editor of Izvestia resigned under pressure after the paper criticized the authorities' handling of the terror attacks.)

Putin has already essentially wiped out any serious opposition and created a submissive Parliament–a body which was afraid to convene an emergency meeting in the hours after the siege. As political analyst Dimitri Furman out it, "We have created a system in which we reproduced the basic principles of the Soviet system–an unchallengeable government carrying out an unchallengeable policy."

Or, as another astute Russian analyst, Liliya Shvetsova, says in assessing the consequences of Putin's consolidation of power: "We have no other leaders. We have no other alternatives. We are at a dead end." And referring to her own country's political crisis, Shvetsova sounded a lament that will be all too familiar to many Americans these days: "Unfortunately, there is no tradition of accountability for lies and failures."

It may be that, as Shvetsova argues, "new leaders are needed on both sides to initiate a search for common interests and for a path to peaceful dialogue." But if Putin refuses to change course and seek open negotiations with credible and moderate Chechen leaders, Russia's future is grim: More acts of terror, possibly against one of the country's scores of nuclear reactors, a widening civil war throughout the Caucusus, more civilian deaths, the empowerment of extremists on both sides, an even tougher crackdown on the media and the growing power of hardline security forces.

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