Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 36

During the first week of October, a number of influential American commentators and newspaper editorial boards sharply questioned what they saw as the beginnings of an unwise and excessive embrace of the Putin regime by the Bush administration, especially in relation to the armed conflict in Chechnya. Former high-ranking State Department official Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of diplomacy at Columbia University, warned in an op-ed: “The most obvious problem is Moscow’s appallingly brutal war in Chechnya. The administration has sought to narrow its differences with Russia on this issue…. Yet getting too close to Mr. Putin’s Chechnya policy is far more dangerous than keeping our distance from it. If the United States is to win this new war [against terrorism], our coalition partners need to believe that the effort is not anti-Islamic, that we do not apply the terrorist label carelessly and that we will not target civilians indiscriminately. Mr. Putin discredits us on every point.” Sestanovich also went on to note that: “Russia’s charge that Georgia is a Taliban-style haven for terrorists is preposterous.” (New York Times, October 5).

In a similar vein, Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, cautioned: “The war against terrorism is still in its infancy, but it has already claimed at least one casualty: the West’s conscience about Chechnya…. Vladimir Putin badly wants Americans to believe, as he put it, ‘We have a common foe.’ And suddenly many Americans are inclined to agree. They shouldn’t. Morally, America’s war on terrorism and Russia’s war on ‘terrorism’ are night and day. And if we conflate the two, our struggle against the perpetrators of September 11 will not only fail, it will deserve to fail…. Russia’s war on Chechnya is premised on a lie that America’s war on terrorism must at all costs avoid: that every Muslim who takes up arms for his homeland is Osama bin Laden” (The New Republic, post date October 4, issue date October 15).

Writing in the October 5 issue of The Wall Street Journal, Guy Chazan and Andrew Higgins observed: “Russia’s enthusiasm to join forces with the West against terrorism and the West’s eagerness to embrace this support… risks obscuring an important fact: Although rebels fighting the Russian rule in Chechnya overlap at the margins with Mr. bin Laden’s loose global network of supporters, they are far from identical in their aims…. Russia’s woes in Chechnya long predate the formation of Mr. bin Laden’s terrorist network…. The Kremlin blames the [September 1999 Moscow] bombings on Chechen rebels but hasn’t made public any evidence of this; a trial of several alleged culprits now under way in southern Russia is closed to the public. Human-rights activists and military analysts acknowledge that Chechen rebels receive some support from militant groups outside but say Russia’s own heavy-handed tactics have played a far bigger role in strengthening the militants’ cause.”

In an editorial appearing in its October 4 issue, the Washington Post wrote: “Chechnya is not a terrorist syndicate or an Islamic movement but a nation that was conquered by Russia in the 19th century and that for more than a decade has been seeking to regain self-rule. Its leader, Aslan Maskhadov, is not an Islamic extremist or even a man of arms but a pro-Western politician who was democratically elected in 1997…. Most important, the most brutal atrocities of the Chechen conflict… have been perpetrated not by international terrorists or the Chechen rebels but by Mr. Putin’s own Russian forces. Russian and human rights groups have extensively and meticulously documented hundreds of war crimes by Russian troops, including extra-judicial executions, torture, extortion and the reduction to rubble of Chechen towns.” “The Bush administration,” the New York Times editorial board, in similar fashion, warned on October 7, “needs to be cautious about what kinds of concessions it will make [to Russia]. Already, Washington appears to be deliberately, and wrongly, downplaying the issue of Russian human rights violations in Chechnya.”

Not all American commentators, of course, took the above tack. Bill Keller, a correspondent for the New York Times, seemed to speak for some when he wrote in an op-ed: “We need the Russians now, as we needed Stalin once, and if that means our president pulls a punch on the subject of the indiscriminate civil carnage in Chechnya, I can live with that; the punch had no muscle behind it anyway” (New York Times, October 6).