Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 37

By Andrei Piontkovsky

Russia has yet again lost a war in Chechnya–just as it did in the nineteenth century, and in 1944 and 1996. If this really is a war for the territorial integrity of the multi-ethnic Russian Federation, then the Chechens must feel themselves to be Russian citizens with all the rights of Russian citizens. Such a war can be won only in people’s hearts and minds.

We perhaps had the chance to win such a victory in the fall of 1999. The refugees then fleeing Chechnya were cursing Basaev and Khattab. Specialists were suggesting that we halt our troops on the banks of the Terek River, bring northern Chechnya back to normal and then negotiate with Maskhadov from a position of strength–isolating the forces most hostile to Russia. But the logic of the Putin election campaign demanded not long term strategy but immediate drama. What the campaign planners needed was television images of Grozny in ruins, of the Russian flag raised over every mountain village.

Their spectacle was successful–in the short run. Three years later, a correspondent for Nezavisimaya gazeta writes that “it is simply impossible to imagine a Russian officer stepping out onto a Grozny street to take a stroll; within minutes he would either be shot by a sniper or captured as a hostage. That is why the top brass live in Khankala; almost none of them spend much time in Grozny.” Unfortunately, that correspondent’s preferred solution is to employ even harsher methods: Extra-judicial executions, complete disarmament of the so-called “pro-Russian” Chechen police and so on.

Russia has lost this war forever precisely because of the mass bombings of cities and shellings of villages, and the “zachistki” security sweeps and extortions of bribes and ransoms. The overwhelming majority of Chechens now hate us–and that includes those who are forced to collaborate with us. Our army, to which we assigned tasks unsuitable to its very nature, is now dissolving before our eyes as it is drawn ever more deeply into shady transactions with oil, with federal “reconstruction” subsidies–and with the kidnapping and selling of hostages.

Did we enter Chechnya in order to end the ransoming of slaves, or in order to go into that business ourselves? If the latter, what is the difference between the Russian military and the bandits? According to human rights advocates, more than a thousand Russian citizens have been kidnapped by members of our security agencies in the course of “zachistki.” Either they have disappeared without a trace, or their corpses, mutilated by torture, have been sold to their families. But our authorities deny such findings. In April the procurator of the Chechen Republic stated that only a few hundred citizens of Russia had been kidnapped by our servicemen. “Only” a few hundred–this of course is mass terror against one’s own countrymen.

Especially striking was one particular point in President Vladimir Putin’s appeal to the Chechen people just before the March constitutional referendum. Our president expressed his wish that the Chechens’ fears of nighttime knocks on the door would disappear forever, that they would see a complete end to “zachistki” and to robbery at checkpoints. Excuse me, but the president of the Russian Federation is not Mother Teresa or a UN official. The president of Russia is commander in chief of those very same troops who are kidnapping and robbing. Is our commander in chief unable to stop our death squads–or does he just not want to? I don’t know which answer is the more frightening.

Every war produces war crimes, and the Chechens have committed many. But our duty above all is to remember our own evildoers. They include our bankers who financed Basaev, our political consultants who counted on the electoral effectiveness of capturing Grozny, our liberals who shouted that “the army is being reborn in Chechnya” and who labeled all who disagreed as traitors, and our businessmen–both in and out of uniform–who continue to enrich themselves from this war. It is thanks to them that Russia has lost.

Many of us believed that once Putin had won the presidency, he would then soberly and pragmatically start trying to end the war through peace negotiations. But instead he has let it turn into a hopeless guerrilla war that could last for years to come–exhausting our country’s human, economic and moral resources. The Chechens have long hated us, they hate us now and, of most importance, they are going to hate us forever. (To quote one officer in this centuries-long Caucasian war, Lev Tolstoy: “Their feeling toward Russians is far greater than simple hatred.”) Sooner or later we shall have to negotiate, and it would be better sooner than later, unless we intend to murder every one of them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Chechnya Putin is in no sense a pragmatist; he is not the cold, calculating secret service operative so often described to us. On this issue he is a man of passions. See how his face is transformed and his eyes enflamed whenever the topic of Chechnya comes up, how his emotions break through his usual restraints to express themselves in the coarse slang of criminals. The reason why he loses his temper is that in the depths of his heart he knows he is wrong. He knows that in this war he has blundered into a dead end, and that the urgent need to end it is–as opinion polls show–already clear to the majority of Russians.

Of course, it was this same majority that responded in the fall of 1999 with enthusiasm to the myth of “Russia arising from her knees” under a decisive, macho leader, one who would take her from victory to victory while “wasting in the outhouse” all her enemies. Now it is clear that our army is collapsing like any army trapped in an anti-guerrilla war. Hundreds of thousands of criminalized soldiers who have passed through this filthy meat-grinder are now bringing the nightmare of that collapse to our city streets.

It must be agonizingly difficult for the man who came to power on the wave of this war to face these truths. Colonel Putin would have to repeat the moral breakthrough of General de Gaulle, who came to power in 1958 under the slogan “Algerie francaise,” but who came to realize that the Algerian war was pointless. It is much easier to continue deceiving yourself–with the help of your own generals.

We remember these generals, constantly on our television screens in late 1999. They proclaimed that nobody was going to stop them this time. Their cherished myth was that in the previous war they had been forced to halt, that their well-deserved victory had been stolen from them. So this time they have been allowed to proceed all the way to Chechnya’s southern border–and back. Indeed, they have done this several times. The result has been the same.

Since then another self deception has been born: That the cause of our generals’ defeat is in the Pankisi Gorge and in the Georgians’ refusal to let our army enter it. Yes, it is true that Georgia cannot control the Pankisi Gorge–but it is equally obvious that Russia cannot control all of Chechnya. For the overall military situation in Chechnya, Pankisi is less important than the conditions in any one Chechen district. And in any case, what could our troops do in that gorge other than what they have already been doing in Chechnya itself? They would destroy a few villages, pulverize a few hundred peaceful residents and perhaps a dozen real guerrillas. The remaining guerrillas would simply relocate to the Chechen highlands-this time accompanied by new recruits from among the relatives of those kidnapped in our new “zachistki.” The military uselessness of such an adventure would be obvious within months. But during those months we would have hopelessly inflamed the situation in Georgia, which faces its own smoldering Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts; in these too our troops would inevitably get entangled. In the words of Macbeth,

I am in blood