President Putin has intensified military operations against the Chechen people, trying to break their spirit. But the Chechens refuse to be intimidated: Putin now privately admits that the war is unwinnable and is proving a severe strain on Russian military resources.
Russian troops surrounded and sealed off Argun, Chechnya’s third largest city, 10 kilometres (6 miles) east of Johar-Gala (Grozny), the capital. According to RTR, the Russian government-controlled television channel, soldiers were searching for Chechen fighters, and arrested eighteen ‘suspected rebels’. Interfax has reported that Russian troops searched derelict factory buildings allegedly used as bases for attacks, and that roads to Argun had been sealed. Several other towns have also been treated similarly since the beginning of January. In all of them Russian troops have killed and looted.
The Associated Press reported on January 6 that clashes in the town of Tsotsin-Yurt, near Argun, since December 30 have led to the deaths of 15 Russian soldiers, 23 Chechen fighters and 10 civilians. According to military officials, 100 ‘rebels’ were killed in the area during the same period, but Chechen fighters claimed to have killed 40 Russian soldiers. Military officials and their Chechen stooges are known to exaggerate the deathtoll of Chechen fighters and to play down Russian casualties.
Human rights organisations, such as one called Memorial, are carrying out their own investigations. Kheda Saratova of Memorial, who visited the town recently, said on January 5 that according to people there 37 young men had been killed. Newspaper reports also quoted eyewitnesses saying that Russian troops had loaded up army trucks with furniture and other belongings and removed them.
Human-rights groups and humanitarian agencies have brought these methods to the attention of the so-called international community. An editorial in the Paris-based daily Le Monde (December 27) calls the war “terrorist”, and cites dictionary definitions to back its point. The editorial takes the US president to task for his silence on the subject, and concludes that “clearly some forms of terrorism do not trouble the White House in the slightest”.
The Le Monde comment is a rare example of criticism in the western media of the ‘war’ in Chechnya and of Washington’s double standards. It also shows up the media in Muslim countries, most of whose leaders support the US-led ‘war against terrorism’ and ignore the mayhem in Chechnya. This last is partly because Bush backs Moscow’s war and accepts Putin’s line that it is directed against ‘Chechen terrorists’.
This US support and the silence in western and Muslim countries encourage Putin in his effort to force the Chechens to back down. But there are signs that the war is becoming a severe strain on Russia’s military resources. Colonel General Nikolai Kormiltisev, commander of ground troops, announced on January 4 that Moscow would reduce its armed forces from 1.2 million to 1 million. But he added that, while ground troops had been reduced overall, they had been “strengthened in strategic locations in the northern Caucasus around Chechnya and in the Central Asian regions bordering Afghanistan”.
The London-based Economist magazine’s annual report on the new year expects some change in Chechnya. The world in 2002 argues that the Kremlin has to open peace talks with the rebels sooner or later, and that “informal contacts in third countries are already underway”. But it suggests that the most likely solution is for the “rebel and Russian-backed leaders to step aside to pave the way for elections under international supervision”.
The basic assumption of this ‘solution’ is that Chechnya is an inseparable part of the Russian Federation. Elections “under international supervision” are likely to be controlled by the countries in the ‘coalition against terrorism’, which describes the Chechen fighters as ‘terrorists and separatists’, and regards an independent Chechnya as a prospective haven for terrorism.
It is therefore vital for any solution to include the formal acceptance of Chechnya’s independence by theWest. Failure to provide for self-determination before any elections are held will be a betrayal of the Chechen people’s struggle and self-sacrifices, for which Moscow must be held responsible.