Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 3

The Chechen war will expand

by John Colarusso

Despite Chechen appeals this week for peace talks, Moscow seemsdetermined to press ahead with its subjugation of the Chechens.John Colarusso, a longtime student of the Caucasus and someonewith close ties to many of the leaders in the region, offers theoutline of Moscow’s longer term plans in the region–and the likelyresponse of the peoples there:

All indications are that Moscow intends to exterminate theChechens and the Ingush, leaving only small residual populationsin the region. Historically, Russia has been able to dominatethe North Caucasus only if there are few North Caucasians left.In the nineteenth century, Russia achieved control of the regiononly after the expulsion of the Circassians, Ubykhs, and Abkhazians.Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens, Ingush, and other NorthCaucasian groups in 1944 represented a continuation of this approach.And Khrushchev’s rehabilitation of these peoples, many Russiansnow believe, was a mistake.

Consequently, the indiscriminate killing of civilians bothin Grozny, and now in the smaller cities of Chechnya, must beseen as yet another attempt by Moscow to implement the same policy.Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s plan to "evacuate"the region could define Moscow’s next moves if the fighting itselfwere to die down. And because no North Caucasian group will seethe evacuation as anything else but a deportation, Moscow willbe forced to extend this policy to other groups or face more violencefrom them.

The fighting has been, and will continue to be, more vicious in Chechnya than anyone expected, precisely because there areelements of the local mafia involved. For them, but not for mostChechens, the conflict is a gang war with all the nastiness thatsuch fights entail. While few Chechens are part of these gangs,those who are may end up defining the way in which Russian forcesrespond, particularly because Moscow has sought to portray this as a conflict about gangs. Thus Russians will justify their ownbrutality in terms of the brutality of the Chechen mafia and driveChechens not connected with this mafia into a suitable, if awful,response.

As a result, there is a very real possibility that the waris likely to spread with episodic guerilla conflicts throughoutthe region.. At present, no one is talking about fighting, butguerilla war elsewhere becomes more, not less, likely as Moscowtightens its control in Chechnya itself. Despite this eventuality,Moscow will press on, for reasons having to do with developmentsin the Russian capital itself and Moscow’s geopolitical concernsin the Caucasus more broadly.

Many in Moscow still believe that the Chechen fighting–particularlyif it spreads–could be a useful pretext for introducing martiallaw, reimposing censorship or perhaps simply delaying the elections.Few in the Kremlin accept the notion that criticism is part ofthe democratic process; instead they view it as a a direct challengeto their authority and believe that they must demonstrate theirability to crush it if they are to avoid the appearance of weakness.Moscow has not taken many steps in response to Russian publiccriticism of the war, but that could change any time.

But it is at the geopolitical level that one must look tounderstand fully Moscow’s military thrust against the Chechens.Control of the North Caucasus will allow Moscow to reimpose controlover the three now-independent states of the Transcaucasus. Thatin turn will allow Moscow to reenter the Middle East and to influenceEurope, because of the latter’s need for oil. Control of the easterncoast of the Black Sea will allow Russia to expand its naval presencethere even if it cannot make a deal with Ukraine. And Moscow’snew dominance in the region could allow Russian politicians tothink about a new "Orthodox Order," a Russian dominatedregion including Ossetia, Georgia, Greece, and a Greater Serbia.That in turn would weaken NATO and threaten Europe even more thandoes Moscow’s plans to seek modifications in the CFE regime.

Unfortunately, this strategy of promoting stability in theregion will in and of itself generate more violence and instability.To minimize Circassian and Abkhazian involvement in the NorthCaucasus, Moscow is likely to encourage Tbilisi to reinvate Abkhazia,thus directing Circassian and Abkhazian efforts against Georgiarather than against Russia. In such a case, Armenia would quicklyreplace Georgia as Moscow’s main ally in the region, and Yerevanwould likely achieve its goals of securing the pipelines and raillinesinto the republic.

At the same time, this strategy will force Muslim leadersand peoples throughout the region to adopt an increasingly hostileapproach to Moscow. The Russian attack on Chechnya has little immediate impact on the geopolitical interests of the statesin the Muslim world, but it does have immediate consequences [DAVID:ITALICIZE "WITHIN"] within those states. Because Islamteaches that God’s grace to his followers is reflected in theirphysical well being, and because a good Muslim ruler is calledupon to defend the welfare of the entire Islamic world, Muslimselsewhere will become increasingly anti-Russian because of Moscow’sactions in Chechnya and anti-Western because of the failure ofthe West to stop Moscow (or Belgrade) when "Christian"powers are doing the attacking. Over time, such attitudes willaffect the policies of Muslim states as well.

Had it spoken out, the West might have reduced the violence.Despite everything, the West still can play a positive role forthree reasons. First, the current Russian government simply does not understand just what it has gotten itself into. Second, there are Chechens opposed to Dudayev who could play a role in resolving this conflict if they felt the West was serving asan implicit mediator behind the scenes. And third, the Western failure to oppose Boris Yeltsin on this war only guarantees that there will be terrible consequences not only for Chechnya butfor Russia and for ourselves.

John Colarusso is Professor of Anthropology at McMaster Universityin Ontario.