Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 8

The costs for Moscow of its war in Chechnya are high and continuing

by Paul A. Goble

Like a bullet fired at a glass window, Russia’s use of forcein Chechnya has sent fracture lines not only through that troubledregion, but also across Russia and Moscow’s relations with herneighbors and the world. As the fighting passed the six-monthmark on June 12 and as the ongoing talks in Grozny following theBudennovsk hostage crisis promised some resolution of the conflict,obervers and participants–Chechen, Russian, and Western alike–beganto weigh the costs of the conflict. The emerging consensus suggeststhat the price of this war will be even higher for Moscow thanit has been Chechnya, and that both Moscow and the West will bepaying for their actions and inaction for a long time to come. Offered below is a preliminary balance sheet on the conflictfor Chechnya, for Russia, and for Moscow’s relations with theformer Soviet republics and the broader world.

Chechnya: Destroyed but Defiant

Since the intervention began on December 11 last year, the Russianmilitary and security services have killed a minimum of 40,000people in the region while losing almost 2000 of their own people.(Perhaps 12,000 of the dead were ethnic Russians who lost theirlives during the Russian attacks on the city of Grozny.) Thousandsmore have been wounded or maimed as the result of the fighting.And more than 100,000 have been forced to flee the region, oftenreceiving little or no help if they were identified by the Russianauthorities as ethnic Chechens. The physical and economic consequencesto the Chechen Republic are equally staggering: While noting thatthere are "no accurate figures" about damages, Birzhevskiyevedomosti (no. 24) reported that Russian forces had destroyedalmost all of Grozny’s housing stock, and also from 20 to 50%of housing, public buildings, and roads in the towns of Argun,Gudermes, Chervlena, Shali, and Urus-Martan.

The region’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Literaturnayagazeta published a photograph two weeks ago of the bombedout ruins of Grozny with the legend: "Is this Stalingradin 1944? No, it’s Grozny today." The absence of electricpower has stopped most industries, the destruction of the Chechenwater supplies has led to an epidemic of cholera and dysentary,and fires in the oil refineries and pipelines caused by both sidesmean that these will not be operating anytime soon. Hundredsof miles of roadways and dozens of miles of rail lines were alsodamaged in the fighting and will have to be repaired. Moscow’srecent efforts to suggest that everything will soon return tonormal are propagandistic claims, rather than statements aboutreality. In fact, as the Russian finance minister acknowledgedthis week, the direct costs of the campaign will certainly behigher than Moscow has acknowledged so far and that they may bustthe budget, particularly as President Yeltsin tries to restrainspending on everything but social services for Russians.

These horrific figures–necessarily estimates–have been obscuredfor many by the Chechen execution of a dozen or so hostages inBudennovsk, and the loss of more than 120 lives in that southernRussian city during the hostage crisis last week. World leadersjustifiably rushed to denounce the Chechen hostage takers fortheir actions, but both the uncertainty and brutality of Russianactions there, and earlier in Chechnya, failed to elicit a similarresponse. As one Chechen put it to a Russian radio interviewer,"If the hostage taking in Budennovsk was terrorism, whatcan one call the Russian actions in Chechnya over the last sixmonths."

Now the Chechens and the Russians are talking about ending thefighting, but many Chechens remain defiant, unified by the Russianattacks around their leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, whom many of themhad earlier despised. Even the Chechen negotiators with whomMoscow feels it can do business told demonstrators in Grozny thisweek that Chechnya would survive, and that they would oppose Russianefforts to kill Shamil Basayev, the Chechen who led the raid onBudennovsk. More significant is the fact that many Chechens areunlikely to be willing to give up their weapons, lest Moscow exploita disarmed Chechnya to impose its will in the region. And havingwon both the world’s attention and Moscow’s agreement to talkby attacking Budennovsk, at least some Chechens will rememberthat they still have the means to advance their cause–despitethe Russian successes on the battlefield, and others have alreadythreatened to adopt an "Afghanistan-style" guerillawar if Russia resumes its attacks.

A Pyrrhic Victory for Moscow

Although Moscow has "won" on the battlefield, it isRussia which has suffered most from this war, at least at thepolitical level. The Russian people now feel more insecure andthreatened by terrorism than ever before. They no longer havemuch faith in either the increasingly divided Russian government. And they have gotten used to the government’s use of force againstthe citizenry of the country; and their ability to get used tothat removes an important taboo on the future actions of the government.

Budennovsk highlighted for most Russians that their governmentcannot protect them from such threats in the future. Some Russiansdemanded a return to an authoritarian form of government for "securityat any price." Others were prepared to make more concessionsto the terrorists in the name of buying some safety now. Butboth sides in the debate were increasingly unhappy with theirgovernment–some believing that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’sconcessions will only encourage the Chechens and the many othersin Russia to use such tactics to press their causes, and othersfeeling that the botched handling of the initial stages of thehostage crisis, particularly the much-criticized raid on the hospitalwhere the hostages were being held, like the botched handlingof the war in Chechnya in its initial stages, guaranteed a returnto an ineffective authoritarianism.

More generally, the Russian people, who overwhelmingly opposedthe war according to Russian polls, saw that their parliamentwas unable to take up the issue in any serious way, nor to forcethe executive branch to change its policies. That fact and thefact that various participants in both the Chechen fighting andthe Budennovsk hostage crisis hurried to shift blame away fromthemselves–defense minister Grachev blaming the security agencies,the security agencies blaming the political authorities, and Yeltsinblaming everyone–have not generated new support for any of thecurrent members of the political establishment. This confusionin the government over Chechnya and Budennovsk helped lead theDuma to approve a no confidence resolution this week, but Yeltsinand Chernomyrdin’s counterattack suggests that the Duma will notsucceed in its efforts to retake control of executive power.WhileYeltsin claimed that the failure of the Chechen fighting to leadto secessionist challenges by other regions showed the wisdomof his approach, in fact the regions of Russia have been lesscooperative of late, forcing Yeltsin to make concessions on taxpolicy and elections. Indeed, all these developments will continueto lower the government’s credibility in the eyes of its own people,and thus further weaken a regime which seems to have no ideasabout how to generate support and thus is increasingly willingto use force to get its way.

This last development is probably the most fateful. Until August1991, Russian officials had been reluctant to use force in theRussian capital. That taboo fell completely in October 1993 whenthe Russian army, at Yeltsin’s behest, crushed the Russian parliament. Russians had also been reluctant to use force against the regions,fearing both a long war and a backlash. In 1991, the RussianSupreme Soviet blocked Yeltsin’s efforts to send in the army tocrush Dzhokhar Dudayev’s declaration of Chechen independence. But now, as a result of willingness of the Russian people andthe West to put up with, if not actually approve, the massiveuse of coercive force in Chechnya, the taboo against violenceby the state against the population has almost completely collapsed. As one Russian commentator put it recently, people can get usedto anything–including constant military action in Chechnya.Overtime, he suggested, people pay no more attention to the use offorce than they do to weather forecasts. As a result, and withincreasing support from the public, Russia’s Yeltsin-led statefinds it easier and easier to employ the traditional authoritarianstyle of the Russian state at home and abroad.

Such an approach may bring some political benefits to Yeltsinin the short term, but the consequences of such actions–includingthe massive deployment of military forces in Moscow this weekand the increasing use of Cossack units to supplement local policeforces in southern Russia–will both frighten foreign investors,even as the ruble stabilizes somewhat, and will make Russia’stransition to democracy even more problematic than it has beenin the past.

A Backlash Abroad

While most Western governments have supported Yeltsin’s war inChechnya and even more have backed the Russians in the resolutionof the Budennovsk hostage crisis, the Russian intervention inChechnya has cost Russia a great deal, both in her efforts todominate the former Soviet republics and in her relations withthe West. Some of this damage can be repaired, given Russian propagandaefforts and the desire of many Western governments to see Russianeconomic reforms succeed even at the cost of restrictions on democracy. But as many Russians themselves admit, the real costs of thewar will require Moscow to pay a high price in its foreign relationsfor a long time to come.

The costs in Moscow’s relations with its so-called "nearabroad" were both immediate and obvious. Ever more CIS statesshowed their reluctance to follow Moscow’s lead in forcing througha Commonwealth-wide security system. As one Ukrainian officialput it, "we do not want Ukrainian lads dying in Tajikistanor Chechnya.." Even more dramatically, Chechnya limitedMoscow’s freedom of maneuver on Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet. Having lost the ability to pressure Kiev for a return of Crimeabecause it was defending its own borders in Chechnya, Moscow couldnot push Ukraine as far as many wanted when Yeltsin met with PresidentLeonid Kuchma in Sochi. The Ukrainians understand Moscow’s limitationsin this regard, and have adopted a much tougher line against theethnic Russians in the peninsula who want to challenge Ukrainianauthority.

Elsewhere in the former Soviet space, the countries of the regionshowed ever more independence. While many American papers focusedon the Belarusian vote to link that country with Russia as a signthat CIS integration was working, most failed to note that eventhe Belarusians were solidifying their foreign ties with Turkey,Europe and the Baltic countries. Moreover, few paid much attentionto the important fact that except for Armenia, Georgia and Tajikistan,which have sizeable Russian military forces on their territory,none of the CIS countries has been very cooperative with Moscowlately. The Kazakhstan government has continued to pursue anindependent foreign policy even while calling for a formalizedrelationship with the Russian Federation. (Moscow has rejectedPresident Nursultan Nazarbayev’s calls for a Eurasian Union becauseit understands that such a formal structure would end some ofthe managed instability in the region, which Moscow has employedto state to project its power.) Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and theother Central Asian states have been similarly independent-mindedin the last few months, some because of fears that what Moscowhas done in Chechnya might be extended to them, and others becausethey aare confident that Moscow can do little against them.

And largely because of Chechnya, the Baltic states became evenmore insistent on joining Western economic and defense organizations,and on pushing the Europeans to include Ukraine as well.

Even in the West, where most governments remained reluctant tocriticize Moscow lest they weaken Yeltsin and his economic reforms,the war had consequences. The almost daily coverage of the Russianattacks on Grozny from December 1994 to February 1995, the reportsof Russian atrocities by Russian human rights activist SergeyKovalev, the clumsy efforts by Russian foreign minister AndreiKozyrev to justify what Moscow was doing, and blatant Russianmisrepresentations about the war and the hostage crisis all combinedto shift Western attitudes about the men running things in Moscow. Ever more people were willing to suggest that NATO must be expandedeastward, ever more commentators were becoming disillusioned withthe prospects for Russian democracy, and ever more governmentswere beginning to look beyond Yeltsin for some source of stabilityand democracy in Russia. The current suggestions by Western foreignministries that the ongoing talks in Grozny will settle thingspermanently, and in a manner acceptable to the West, are madewith less and less conviction. This shift in attitudes has notyet had serious consequences for the Washington-Moscow relationship,but Russian lying about the participation of Russian troops whohad fought in Chechnya in the May 9 military parade which PresidentClinton attended had an impact in the Halifax G-7 statement onChechnya.

On June 22, Chechen negotiator Usman Imayev said that "Chechnyawas, is and will be." He is certainly right, and that cangive no comfort to the Russian government as it surveys the damageof the last six months.

Paul Goble is the Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor andPrism.