Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 25

On June 18, President Vladimir Putin invited a number of correspondents representing leading American media to the Kremlin for a discussion of the significance of what had occurred when he had met three days previously with President Bush in Slovenia. One of the questions put to him, by correspondent S. Glasser of The Washington Post, concerned the present conflict in Chechnya and also Russia’s relations with Georgia (The complete text of the discussion was posted by NTV.ru on June 20.)

After praising President Bush as “an absolutely normal man who perceives things in realistic fashion,” Putin revealed that he had in effect been required to give the American president a history lesson concerning the origins of the current Russo-Chechen conflict. “I am prepared,” he confided, “to tell you, even in certain details, what concretely I said about this question [of Chechnya].” “In 1995,” Putin commenced his recitation to the reporters, “Russia jurisdictionally did not recognize but de facto agreed to the independence of Chechnya, and Russia left there completely.” Putin made a serious factual blunder here–the first war, of course, ended only in 1996, while the key agreements between Russia and Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov were signed during 1997.

In withdrawing from Chechnya, Putin noted, Russia had “dismantled all of its organs of power and administration, withdrew the army, the police, the procuracy, and the courts. Absolutely everything was dismantled.” This retreat, Putin commented with evident bitterness, “looked like a national humiliation,” but Russia did it “in order to achieve a reconciliation.” Putin then presented the journalists with his take on what occurred in Chechnya during 1996-1999, in the hiatus between the two conflicts. The results of Russia’s departure from Chechnya were, in his opinion, horrific. “We were de facto confronted with the destruction of the Russian-language population in Chechnya, but Russia did not react to that. [Russia] was in approximately the same condition as America was after the Vietnam War.”

Putin left vague what he meant by “the destruction of the Russian-language population in Chechnya.” If he meant a genocide, then he was misleading his listeners, because there was no genocide of Russians and Russian-speakers (whatever that term means-most Chechens, after all, are able to speak Russian) during the period 1996-1999. True, many ethnic Russians, some representatives of certain minority peoples of Chechnya, and some Chechens chose to migrate from Chechnya during this period. But this out-migration can hardly be termed a “destruction.”

The Russian president then continued his emotional indictment of Aslan Maskhadov and the separatist leadership: “From the territory of Chechnya, which turned out to be completely uncontrolled by any authorities, there began a criminal take-over of Russia itself…. But Russia did not react to that. De facto there began attacks, on almost a daily basis, on adjacent territories of Russia: on Dagestan and on other oblasts of Russia.” This recitation of events that took place within Chechnya during 1996-1999 is exaggerated and skewed. For a balanced and informative account of this tempestuous period in Chechnya, readers of Russian are directed to Timur Muzaev’s outstanding study, Chechensky krizis-99 [The Chechen Crisis-1999], Moscow, 1999. Readers of French may consult with profit journalist Isabelle Astigarraga’s book, “Tchetchenie, un Peuple Sacrificie” (Paris, 2000).

During the period from 1996-1999, Putin insisted to his American interlocutors, there existed no possibility of negotiating with the separatists: “There was absolutely no one to talk to, because there was no authority in Chechnya.” Once again, this statement represents an exaggeration. The contacts that took place between the Russians and the Chechen leaderships are discussed in Timur Muzaev’s book. One might add that elements in the Yeltsin leadership were clearly trying to destabilize the Maskhadov presidency during these years. Yeltsin “family” member Boris Berezovsky, as is well known, gave US$1 million to Shamil Basaev, by this time a political rival of Maskhadov’s, allegedly to build a cement factory (both Berezovsky and Basaev have confirmed that this transaction occurred). Berezovsky was also de facto encouraging the kidnapping industry in impoverished Chechnya by paying large ransoms to Wahhabi kidnappers, extremists hostile to the Maskhadov leadership. All of this is discussed in detail in Paul Khlebnikov’s useful book, “Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia” [New York, 2000].

Putin then passed on to a discussion of what he saw as the direct cause of the 1999-2001 conflict. “How did this [state of anarchy in Chechnya] end?” he asked. “It ended with the full-scale attack [in August 1999] of several thousand armed people on Dagestan under the slogan of tearing additional territories away from Russia and creating a new state stretching from the Black to the Caspian Sea.” Putin then revealed to the American journalists a comment that he had made to President Bush: “Imagine that someone–armed people–came and that they wanted to take away from you half of Texas. Can you imagine that?”

What is one to make of Putin’s interpretation of the August 1999 incursion (there were actually two incursions, with the first one appearing to have consisted largely of Dagestanis rather than Chechens)? Once again, serious questions have been raised both in Russia and in the West about Putin’s interpretation of events. Writing in the October 12, 1999 issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vitaly Tret’yakov, until recently that newspaper’s chief editor, commented: “It is perfectly obvious that the Chechens [in August 1999] were lured into Dagestan… in order to provide a legitimate excuse for restoring federal power in the republic and beginning the offensive phase of struggle against the terrorists grouped in Chechnya. Clearly it was an operation by the Russian special forces… which was, moreover, politically authorized at the very top.”

In their 750-page magnum opus, The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms (Washington, 2001, pp. 613-614), Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski cite this statement by Tret’yakov and then proceed to bolster it with other information. They note that a recently retired FSB officer told Russian military journalist Aleksandr Zhilin that the FSB “had long been informed about guerillas preparing armed bases in Dagestan, but that despite the numerous appeals of Dagestani leaders, no action had been taken.” Zhilin also reported that all of his interlocutors in the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry and FSB “without exception stressed a not important point: the FSB and the Security Council were [until August 9, 1999, when he became acting prime minister] headed simultaneously by…Vladimir Putin.”

Clearly, Putin’s version of the events of August 1999 needs to be checked for accuracy. An additional point: It is extraordinary that the Russian president chose not to mention to his American interlocutors the September 1999 “terror bombings” of Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk. Was this omission, one wonders, due to the fact that not a single ethnic Chechen has been charged in these crimes?

Returning to the period preceding the August-September 1999 events, Putin groused to the American journalists: “Everything is forgotten: the decapitated foreigners, the Englishmen, you recall, and the New Zealanders…. And the public appeals to exterminate the Jews.” Once again Putin has ventured into turbid waters. The indeed revolting beheading of three Englishmen and one New Zealander, to which he refers, appear to have been committed by groups associated with Wahhabi leaders Arbi Baraev and the Akhmadov brothers, and those leaders, according to sources in the Russian GRU, had long enjoyed close relations with the FSB, which had even provided them with identity papers (see Obshchaya Gazeta, August 3, 2000, and Moskovskie Novosti, August 8, 2000).

As for the alleged vehement anti-Semitism of the separatists, here, too, Putin appears to be exaggerating. Among the majority Sufis in Chechnya little anti-Semitism is reported to exist. Among the considerably smaller groups of Wahhabis, such sentiments do exist and are to be deplored. But it is precisely these Wahhabi groups that are reported to have had links to the Russian special services.

What does Putin believe should be done in Chechnya today? “It is impossible to negotiate [with the separatists],” Putin stated categorically to his listeners. “There is no one to negotiate with.” Earlier in his conversation with the American reporters, however, Putin might have opened the door a crack to some kind of settlement when he remarked that the question of the “dependence or independence of Chechnya from Russia” was a matter of indifference to him. What was of “primary importance,” he underlined, was this: “We will not in the future allow that territory [Chechnya] to be used as a springboard for attacks on Russia. We will not allow it!” An independent Chechnya that did not threaten Russia with new attacks on its territory might therefore prove to be acceptable. Obviously more information is needed on this point.

In his comments concerning Georgia, Putin reiterated his position that Georgia ought to permit Russian troops onto its territory so that they could attack Chechen rebels taking refuge in the Pankisi Gorge. One wonders if Putin is aware of the consequences of such an incursion. In the June 16 issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta, the deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, the well-known filmmaker Eldar Shengelaya, asked: “What would Russia obtain from the introduction of its troops into the Pankisi Gorge? It would get mopping up operations, such as we have been observing over the past year-and-a-half in Chechnya, during which peaceful villages and cities burn and are turned into rubble… while the rebels would easily avoid retribution and would continue the partisan war with even greater ferocity…. Georgia would get 8,000 refugees from Chechnya plus another 8,000 Kist refugees…. In the meantime, the rebels would be methodically picking off Russian soldiers and officers in the Gorge as they are presently doing in Grozny.” President Putin might want to reflect upon Shengelaya’s cautionings.

To conclude, on June 15 in Slovenia, Vladimir Putin attempted to provide President George Bush with a lesson in contemporary history. Unfortunately, that lesson contained significant flaws and omissions.