Ten years ago, Russia was slowly slipping into a quagmire, which seemed shallow at the time but proved to be a bottomless “black hole.” Seeking to cover one miscalculation with another blunder, the Kremlin applied increasingly blunt force to the rebellious and conflict-ridden republic of Chechnya. Then on December 11, 1994, three armored columns moved into the territory. A large body of evidence has been presented in recent years to show that political decision-making was driven by petty intrigue and that planning was limited to a “show-of-force”-type operation (Polit.ru, 26, November 26, 29; December 1, 3, 6, 8). The bloody assault on Grozny on the eve of 1995 shocked the country and revealed the depth of its army’s degradation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with his keen political instinct, sensed a no-win situation, and only his re-election in mid-1996 decided to cut his losses. The peace treaty that he signed with President Aslan Maskhadov in May 1997 marked an opportunity for Chechnya to establish its statehood and for Russia to stabilize its southern underbelly. Instead, Chechnya sunk into violent lawlessness and Russia pretended that this failure was none of its business.
In summer 1999, the situation became intolerable when a Chechen warlord entered neighboring Dagestan. Moscow then began to finalize plans for a second, decisive military campaign (Polit.ru, September 7, 9; Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal, December 6). Yeltsin’s team appointed a political newcomer to bear responsibility for this risky business — and he did not chicken out. Vladimir Putin allowed the revenge-seeking generals to conduct the operation as they saw fit, but made the war his own political instrument that duly propelled him to the summit of power.
Public support for the second war was massive, the destruction of Chechnya was swift and comprehensive, and even the challenge of terrorism was useful as the newly elected president began to propagate Russia’s role in defending European values against the “Islamic terrorist international” (Ekho Moskvy, December 6). Prior to the tragedy of 9/11, this rhetoric had appeared odd and irrelevant to the key question about what the new Russian leader was really about. Putin seemed eager to provide multiple answers, but the Chechen war eventually became the symbol of his presidency. For Putin the European modernizer, whose main focus was political stability in Russia as a precondition for dynamic growth, the war became a burden and a political solution was the natural way out. For Putin the bureaucrat and the “patriot” who sought to restore Russia’s “greatness” and power-projecting potential, the war was an instrument of mobilization. By now, few doubts remain about the profound impact of Chechnya on Putin’s choices and Russia’s trajectory (Novye izvestiya, December 6, 10).
This trajectory incorporates many elements, from the gargantuan growth of Gazprom to the mass migration of secret service personnel into government, and each trait bears the small, but unmistakable imprint of that “original sin” (Moskovskie novosti, December 3). It might appear that the invasion of Chechnya has long since served its purpose and has turned into a political liability, yet the Kremlin shows no eagerness to resolve or eliminate this problem.
The current war strategy has two key parts: 1) the war in Chechnya is over, and 2) the war against terrorism is escalating to a new level. The first part involves pumping more and more money through the puppet government of Chechnya, advertising the achievements of “peaceful reconstruction,” and announcing the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops, which more often than not means only rotation (Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal, December 6). The second part is by far more important and its thrust is in societal mobilization around the president’s vertical power structure, which is reinvigorated by the pronounced emphasis on identifying “internal enemies” who dare to oppose the official line (Gazeta.ru, November 15). As for the “external enemies,” they are never clearly defined but periodically threatened with preventive strikes to be delivered by mysterious, high-precision missiles (Lenta.ru, December 8).
This mobilization can only be sustained through periodic bursts of bloody terrorist attacks, so five years into Putin’s “counter-terrorist operation,” Russia has definitely not become any safer and is quietly bracing for yet another tragedy that might even surpass the horror of the Beslan massacre. The authorities adamantly insist that there is no alternative to their course of combating terrorism and rebuilding Chechnya, but each time the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, or Memorial, or any other NGO presents their alternatives, the full fury of state propaganda is unleashed upon them (Novaya gazeta, December 6).
The current deadlock in Chechnya is neither hopeless nor inevitable; it is a deliberately maintained construct. A solution would require hard and sustained work, because the society in Chechnya is massively traumatized and Russian society has been badly poisoned by these past ten years of war. Responsibility for finding a way toward a solution lies with Moscow, which has to undergo much painful soul-searching in order to turn Putin’s failure into a victory for a new Russia, free from the heritage of past injustice.