Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 17

By Andrei Piontkowsky

At the beginning of this week I took part in a seminar in the State Duma of the Russian Federation. Several of those present discussed, in all seriousness, the possibility of using thermonuclear weapons in Chechnya. I spoke against this, drawing on a number of arguments to show how absurd and suicidal such an act would be for Russia. But while I was speaking I could not shake off a feeling that what was happening was unreal. I wanted to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming or in some computer-generated world. My own arguments seemed crazy and unworthy, because it was dishonorable just to be taking part in such a discussion.

Upon returning home I opened the latest issue of Russia’s most popular newspaper. On the front page a writer was laying down the law: “Chechnya should be presented with an ultimatum: Either they cease all military action on Russian territory, or they face the physical extermination of the whole republic using strategic air strikes, biological weapons, psychotropic gases, napalm and everything at the disposal of our once powerful army.” Apparently not satisfied with enumerating the plagues of Egypt to which it wishes to subject all Chechens–old men, women, children–the paper went on to offer some more advice: “And if the Russian government were to threaten Jordan with missile strikes, the Jordanians would find a way of suppressing their bloody Khattab.”

After reading the paper, I turned on the television. A popular political commentator, a TV star from a top television channel, was salaciously describing, with a radiant smile and shining eyes, how Chechen towns would be destroyed. Behind him they were showing footage of artillery and air attacks.

No one likes the Chechens. Our television screens and the pages of our newspapers carry the unanimous call to “destroy them mercilessly,” “smash them once and for all,” “bury them alive.” Typical of this, and indeed understandable and justifiable, is the call by the editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vitaly Tretyakov, for a “swift” and “aggressive” reaction from the public and the authorities to the “outrageous and totally inhuman bombing of an apartment block in Moscow.”

But there are things which we don’t want to think about, things which we erase from our memory and consciousness, obeying our instinct for psychological protection. As I write this, it is not yet clear who is responsible for the explosions in Moscow. On the other hand, it is common knowledge who was responsible for the scores and hundreds of “outrageous and totally inhuman bombings of apartment blocks” in Djohar (Grozny) from 1994-96. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed as a result of air strikes and artillery attacks. Their deaths were no less terrible than those of the residents of the buildings in Pechatniki and on Kashirskoe Highway. Bombs are still falling on Chechen villages today. As we once again consciously and ruthlessly kill civilians, are we any different from the terrorists Basaev and Khattab in the eyes of Chechens? We must not deceive ourselves with myths about “pinpoint strikes on terrorist bases.”

The latest bloody Chechen war began in 1994 because among those leaders of ours who took that fateful decision there was not one educated man who had as a child read Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat with its 17th chapter, which is so unbearably painful for the Russian reader, and which we must all now reread alone with our conscience. We are eternally tied to Chechnya by what we have done there. And we will always be partly to blame for whatever happens there.

Something new and irreversible has happened to us over the years of “democratic and liberal” reforms. Ten years ago no one in Russia would have dared speak of the physical extermination of a whole race. Hitler’s fascism brought much more grief to our country than any Khattab. But even during the harshest period of the war, the thought of the physical extermination of the German people as a desirable goal did not occur to anyone in Russia. As the propaganda of the day put it: “Hitlers come and Hitlers go, but the German people remain.”

Communism was an inhuman system in practice, particularly in the early stages of its development. But its ideology and metaphysics, with their appeals, however hypocritical they may have been, for social justice and internationalism, had a therapeutic, quasi-religious effect on the mass consciousness. With the collapse of communist ideology, post-Soviet man found himself to be totally alone, lost and senselessly cruel in a hostile and godless world.

In the last ten years we have failed to advance towards European civilization and democratic values. On the contrary, the film separating us from barbarism has become even thinner.

Aleksandr Pushkin once noted bitterly that “the only European in Russia is the government.” I recalled this paradoxical phrase of our great writer when, after several days of debauchery in the press, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that “we should not confuse the bandits at work in Chechnya with the Chechen people, who are also their victims,” and parliamentary speaker Gennady Seleznev spoke out firmly against “responding to every bombed building in Moscow by bombing five in Chechnya.” A war against terror must not be turned into a war against a people. We lost the 1994-96 Chechen war for the very reason that right from the start, from the senseless mass bombardment of Djohar, it turned into a war against a people which led to tens of thousands of deaths. We won the war in Dagestan this August because it was a war on the side of the people, in defense of the people.

In order to win the war against the bandits and terrorists in Chechnya, we must state clearly to ourselves and to the Chechen people the aims and tasks of our Caucasus policy. They are to ensure the security of our borders and to destroy the centers of terrorism and the slave trade in Chechnya. We must persuade a majority of the Chechen people to support these aims. To achieve this we do not need to bring Zavgaev back from Africa or look for a new Zavgaev. We must give president Maskhadov a chance. We must not use the pages of our newspapers and our television screens to threaten Chechnya daily with the physical extermination of its residents, but we should announce that after resolving in conjunction with the legitimate government of Chechnya the tasks set by the Russian authorities, we will be ready to discuss with that government any issues surrounding the status of Chechnya.

Russia’s great civilization must not slide towards the genocide of a whole nation, however awkward its relations with that nation have been over the centuries.

The issue here is not world public opinion. As a matter of fact, there would not be any problem with “world public opinion.” In 1996, at the height of the harshest and most senseless bombardments of Chechnya, President Bill Clinton, on a visit to Moscow, gave his public support to Boris Yeltsin, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln, who had battled for the unity of the country. And today the statements of Western politicians, particularly private and confidential statements, have a theme running through them about understanding Russia’s positive role as a “shield defending civilization from the barbarian hordes”.

Here we face the danger not just of a booby-trap, but of “geopolitical catastrophe.” With every public call in Russia for the “physical extermination of the Chechen people,” with every “error” in making “pinpoint attacks on terrorist bases” (for such “errors” are inevitable, and result in the deaths of tens of thousands of people) we are not only creating thousands of new potential suicide bombers who will come into our cities. The “final solution of the Chechen question” will mean that the opposition of the whole Islamic world (not just Islamic fundamentalists) will be focused on Russia. In the eyes of the Islamic world, Russia will graduate from Satan No. 2, as Ayatollah Khomeini defined the Soviet Union, to Satan No. 1, pushing the USA out of this place of honor.

We–Russians and Chechens–have gone too far down the road of mutual animosity and mutual atrocities. There are only two options left to us. Either we live apart, or we die together in the name of the great principle of Territorial Integrity.

Andrei Piontkowsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.