Spy or Savior?

Spy or Savior?

If Russia is not to dissolve like the Soviet Union or, worse yet, end in a cataclysm like Yugoslavia’s, it must negotiate peacefully across a welter of emotional claims to self-determination.


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.

Anderson was not the only journalist interested in putting the story together. PBS's Frontline series produced an excellent documentary. Much of it, with additional source material such as audio clips of interviews with Cuny, articles and memos he'd written, and articles about him, can be found at www2.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cuny.

As Anderson and others convincingly argue, a preponderance of the evidence does suggest that a group of Chechens killed Cuny and his colleagues in or near Bamut. But was concern over nuclear deterrence really the motive? And did the order really come from Dudayev? Cuny was well and favorably known to the senior Chechen leadership, particularly after his scorching critique of Russian culpability for the war in an April 1995 article he had published in The New York Review of Books shortly before returning to Chechnya. That, and Cuny's frequent media appearances on top-rated shows, offered the possibility of additional, priceless publicity for the Chechen cause. In addition, through Cuny, the Chechens were about to get substantial humanitarian aid from a politically powerful billionaire. It only stands to reason that the Chechens who killed him must have convinced themselves that he wished to do them harm that superseded tangible proofs of the help he offered.

One explanation for this mental calculus is speculation that the Russians planted the notion that Cuny was a spy. Russia had the real motive for removing Cuny, after all. Anderson rules out a Russian false-flag operation on the grounds that, because of its detailed nature, the Chechen intelligence allegedly "incriminating" Cuny as a spy and his colleagues as Russian agents could have been produced only after Cuny's detention. Fair enough–but what if a local Chechen intelligence officer, duped by Russian disinformation, clumsily tried to fabricate an exculpatory rationale after carrying out the execution of Cuny and his party? Anderson's conclusion relies much too heavily on a single shaky source who puts Dudayev in Bamut at the time Cuny disappeared.

Something Anderson doesn't mention was pointed out to me by Paul Goble, a friend of Cuny's and the area expert from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Chechen culture, based upon a Sufi version of Islam, holds that there are two kinds of knowledge: ordinary knowledge to which everyone has access and hidden knowledge for the elite. With a gnostic perspective, and in a nightmare wartime environment, people become particularly susceptible to the kind of disinformation that may have surrounded Cuny. Fearing that the Russians would arrange his death after the New York Review piece, Goble pleaded with Cuny not to return to Chechnya. Between Scott Anderson's analysis and Paul Goble's, I side with Paul, though I am not fully persuaded. At the very least, I think that since Cuny gave his life to help the Chechens, we should reserve judgment on the worst allegations against them absent any hard evidence.

There remains the question of what Cuny was doing in Bamut and whether it is at all likely he was a spy. The road through Bamut was not the logical, the easiest or the safest way to Grozny. His driver was from there, so one explanation could be that the driver just wanted to pass by home; but this seems rather feeble and would not hold up in Cuny's priorities. Anderson is right, I think, in his observation that the only credible reason for Cuny to go to Bamut was to check on the nuclear warheads story. Indeed, in our last conversation I remember Cuny saying, seemingly out of the blue, that everything was for sale in Chechnya, "including nuclear missiles." "Armed!?" I asked, thinking it was nonsense. "Yes!" he averred, but he didn't elaborate and I didn't pursue it. Anyhow, the missiles were on his mind just before the trip, which somewhat corroborates the supposition. But then what explains his interest? Anderson does a good job of laying out the range of possibilities: Cuny was a paid, deep-cover official of the US government; a government-directed but unpaid, unofficial agent; or a regular source with unique, highly prized access to areas of interest. Anderson suggests that the reality was a fuzzy combination of the latter two. I concur. I asked Cuny about this once, and he vigorously denied working under deep cover. (If he had been, he would of course have denied it; nevertheless, I believed him.)

Many did think Cuny was a paid, clandestine government agent. Others, including sometimes members of his own family, wondered. Two of his undertakings in particular seemed hard to explain without recourse to obscure government powers. First, after the Gulf War, Cuny–practically single-handedly–expanded the militarized zone of Operation Provide Comfort by several hundred kilometers, making possible the safe return to their homes in less than a hundred days of approximately 400,000 Iraqi Kurds. It must be understood that without Cuny they would not have gone home in 1991 and very well might still be refugees parked on the Turkish-Iraqi border. How Cuny managed this is an epic tale in itself–suffice it to say he talked local US military commanders into helping while turning a deaf ear to their superiors. Although the top brass were incensed, they could not argue with Cuny's overnight success, for which they received the credit. Then, in Sarajevo for Soros, Cuny miraculously got his cargoes priority on United Nations C-130 relief planes (entirely filling many flights), got huge flatbeds of equipment past Serbian "customs authorities" and built an ingenious water-treatment plant that was impervious to shelling, replacing the one destroyed by the Serbs. Nobody could understand how it was done.

Cuny had a special gift, a genius really, for figuring out local quirks of how things were implemented. With this quality–combined with an unusual willingness to sacrifice his own comfort in sharing the living conditions of those he sought to help and increased hobnobbing with the military in the last decade of his life, which lent an additional air of mystery–he fit the part of the perfect spy. But Cuny loved the limelight, while most real spies, of course, are anonymous.

Having discovered a note written when Cuny was 30 in which he lays out for himself a multitude of grandiose ambitions, Anderson uses it as a central refrain in recounting Cuny's life, playing back snippets at various milestones. It is a useful device, perhaps, in establishing his driven personality, and it does help put in perspective the tall stories Cuny told and that others told about him. But a focus on ambition gets in Anderson's way when describing a critical personal transition for Cuny that culminated in the early nineties: from fieldwork involving natural disasters to work involving relief in the midst of war, or "complex emergencies." In the former he was largely, even completely, in control. In the latter he was a smaller player in an opaque political process, frequently forced to rely on his own and others' abstract judgment. Cuny lived for the moment; he was, through no fault of his own, not a strategic thinker.

It turned out that he was not equally gifted at anticipating the whims of politicians, either in Washington or abroad. What this boiled down to was that Cuny, far from being his own master and seeking ever-greater risks as a means of self-promotion, as Anderson describes it, was being tossed by his employers into situations he did not understand, for purposes neither he nor anybody else could clearly articulate.

Operation Provide Comfort gave Cuny five-star credentials in dealing with complex emergencies. But Provide Comfort–a humanitarian intervention massively backed by a recently victorious military coalition–was an anomaly because of the limited number of manipulable players on the ground. The next complex emergency Cuny worked on, Somalia, revealed more of his weaknesses even as it confirmed his strengths. The United States would not, I strongly believe, have gone into Somalia in 1992 if not for Cuny. I watched him in action making the tour of Washington, talking the ears off senior officials in a surprisingly successful attempt to convince them to do something about famine relief. But they did not do it the way he recommended! Anderson has that part right too. Cuny did not want intervention anywhere near Mogadishu or in any manner involved in clan warfare. Carried out in that way it was a disaster, as he predicted it would be. Nevertheless, Cuny demonstrated a bothersome lack of foresight in terms of the politics of the bureaucratic process.

In Sarajevo we again see, this time on a foreign front, a critical disconnection between Cuny's ability to get things done and his ability to cope with the ambiguities of high-level, wartime political machinations. He built a fantastic water project that would have saved a lot of lives (most people killed during the shelling were killed getting water from public wells), but when he tried to turn it on, the Muslim authorities wouldn't let him. A memo he wrote speaks for itself:


In what has to be one of the most frustrating and bizarre meetings in my life, our team was pleading with the city government to turn on the water during the heaviest day of shelling in Sarajevo in 6 months. With bullets literally pinging off the window sill and rounds going off in the lot next door, the Water Institute was talking about a long-term testing regime that was more complex than anything we would see in the U.S.


Later he told me that the Muslims had actually fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the facility to get him to back off. He did. (The spigot was eventually opened quite a while after Cuny's departure from Sarajevo, after his death; it did help save the city in the latter days of the siege.) But Cuny had failed to understand the politics of the Bosnian war, the essential corruption of the Muslim leaders and possibly even the desire to preserve one of the city's most poignant images of suffering.

What, then, was the purpose of a humanitarian intervention in Chechnya? Cuny's backers tended to see a wider pattern of complex emergencies for which humanitarian intervention was everywhere the thin end of the wedge of further military intervention tied to geostrategic political purposes. It's unimportant that those larger purposes went undefined. Perhaps the UN could have been called in to Chechnya; perhaps something else could have been done. Political pressure, if successful, could have stopped the war. If not, there would be many other complex emergencies to choose from. But Cuny was still thinking in terms of the nuts and bolts of helping people and was simply unaware of the political forces arrayed against him. He trusted those he worked for to handle that part of it. They didn't.

Anderson describes a memorial service held for Fred Cuny at the Carnegie Endowment in September 1995.


In attendance were most of Fred's extended family, along with representatives of scores of humanitarian relief agencies, diplomats, State Department personnel, foreign ambassadors, even National Security Advisor Anthony Lake…. The tributes–some humorous, some sad–continued for well over two hours. Afterward Craig Cuny [Fred's son] felt vaguely annoyed…. "I guess in a way I'm tired of it," he said. "It gets tiring to hear all these people talking about how much they loved my father, how great he was, when he spent his whole career butting heads with most of them and trying to get them to listen."


I was there too and also felt annoyed, but for a different reason. The people Cuny worked for should have taken better care of him. They should have stopped him from going back to Chechnya once it became obvious he was scared (and he was very scared–possibly for the first time in his life). They should have scaled back their ambitions. They should at least have uttered a single mea culpa.

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