The assassination of Aslan Maskhadov was received in Moscow with an outburst of triumph and relief: “Well, now no one in Russia or the West will pester us with pleas to hold talks, as there is no one with whom to conduct them.” The job of Russian officials (from the President to the rank-and-file propagandists) will clearly become easier at international forums. But the war which Russia has been waging in the Caucasus for more than ten years will become far more complicated – precisely because there will not be anyone with whom to hold talks.
The annihilation of Maskhadov rang out as a warning shot, marking a turning point in the war and its transition to a new and more dangerous phase. The war started as a classic separatist conflict between the Center and a rebellious province. It was not tinged with any ideology or religion. Graduates from the same Soviet military academies, who had a perfect understanding of each other’s psychology and mentality, were directing military operations on opposing sides. From time to time, they would manage to agree to cease hostilities.
Between the first and the second Chechen wars, the ideology of Islamic radicalism penetrated into Chechnya under the banner of Wahhabism, with the active assistance of such figures as Movladi Udugov and Shamil Basaev. The issue, however, has never been one of international terrorists who came to Chechnya from the Middle East, bringing the philosophy and technology of global terrorism; the role of Arab fighters has never been significant in Chechnya. The greater peril lies in the fact that the longer the war continues, the more people get infected and charged with radical ideologies. This is especially true of young people, who have seen nothing but the atrocities and brutalities war since their childhood. They come to see themselves as part of an international jihad waging a holy struggle against the godless West and Russia, the West’s most vulnerable part.
A new generation is emerging made up of field commanders who have spent two months in madrasas, where they were taught hatred, fanaticism and the use of explosives. This ideology is spreading fast in Chechnya. It is important to note that the groups that committed the most recent large-scale terrorist acts were multiethnic in composition. There were no Arabs or blacks among the perpetrators; however the groups included residents of all the republics of the North Caucasus.
Both Islamic internationalists and Chechen radicals are indifferent to the fate of Chechnya and its people. They consider Chechnya exclusively as a springboard for the world Islamic revolution, as a stepping-stone to Russia. Chechnya is viewed by these “internationalists” as Russia was viewed in 1917 – merely as kindling for igniting a world revolution. Russian and Chechen politicians had one task that they were obligated to fulfill jointly – to end a war that is steadily engendering the spread of Islamic radicalism across the North Caucasus. In fulfilling that task, Moscow, the Chechens fighting on its side and the separatists loyal to Aslan Maskhadov and his government were objectively allies, because radical Islamic terrorism symbolized by such figures as Shamil Basaev is destroying, above all, Chechnya itself.
As President Vladimir Putin correctly noted back in 2000: “After all, the formal status of Chechnya is not that important to us. What is important is that there will never be a threat to Russia emanating from that territory.” This is a brilliant formula for resolving the Chechen conflict, and it would happily be supported by all of the sides in the conflict that realize the great danger posed by global Islamic radicalism, which has chosen Chechnya and Russia as an object for its ideological expansion.
It is impossible to defeat Islamic terrorism by purely military means in Chechnya, Iraq, or Palestine. Only through isolating it from a mass social base, and only by providing hope and security to the thousands of despairing people, can it be defeated.
It was not necessary to try and guess how many armed units Maskhadov controlled. We would be better off asking ourselves: “How many Chechens would support a joint statement on ceasing hostilities and the start of negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on Putin’s formula? How many young people would be saved from the poison of the Islamist propaganda? How many terrorist acts would be prevented? How many human lives would be saved both in Chechnya and in Russia?”
Moscow has purposely chosen another path. In killing Maskhadov, the Kremlin has delivered a coup de grace to the idea of bringing peace to Chechnya and to the Caucasus.
*The title of this article, the Russian term “êîíòðîëüíûé âûñòðåë,” means shooting someone in the head to ensure that they are dead. I have translated it as “coup de grace.”
Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow, has written extensively on Chechnya.