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Russia gambles with raising the stakes in Dagestan

Zia Sarhadi

Moscow has been desperately trying to involve the west in its futile war in the Caucasus by invoking the name of Osama bin Laden, the US’s current villain of the month, but with little success so far. Russian forces, facing stiff resistance from the indomitable Caucasus people, have accused Osama bin Laden of masterminding and financing the latest operations. Their basis for this is the presence of an Arab mujahideen commander, Khattab, in the region, whom they allege to be working for Osama.

Khattab is a Jordanian-born Chechen. There are hundreds of Chechen families settled in Jordan and Syria who fled persecution at the hands of Russian forces in the twenties. Khattab is the scion of one such family, and has been active in Chechenya from the time of Russia’s first mistake: the military assault on Johar-Gala (formerly Grozny), the Chechen capital, in December 1993. There is no evidence of his having any links with Osama (although, of course, there is no reason why he should not have) but the Russians are hoping that the Americans can be duped by this misinformation and may come to their rescue.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s tenuous hold on power ï undermined by his own alcoholism and ill-health, rival gangs vying for control in Moscow, Russia’s shattered economy, and a disastrous war in the Caucasus ï is now made worse by a bombing campaign that has brought home to many Moscovites how others feel when they are bombed and their children killed in cold blood. It is this awareness that has led Russians (with the west’s encouragement) to assume that Chechens are responsible for the bombings, although any number of other groups, criminal and political, could also be suspected.

The impression in Russia is increasingly of a society falling into an irreversable tail-spin. Rumours of Yeltsin’s pending resignation have been repeatedly floated, causing further uncertainty and chaos. But the truth is that whether he resigns or not would frankly make little difference to the plight of the Russian people or to the future prospects of Russia itself. It is the Caucasus region that will prove Russia’s undoing, just as Afghanistan tolled the death-knell of the Soviet Union.

The rhetorical volleys fired from Moscow, vowing to crush the Caucasian ‘terrorists’ and ‘bandits’ ï terms used for the mujahideen fighting Russian forces in the region ï have failed to conceal the fact that the military campaign is not going well; nor was it expected to. Mention Chechenya or the Caucasus and it sends shivers down the spine of every Russian soldier. Chechenya is to Russia what Vietnam was to America and Lebanon is to Israel.

This, however, does not mean that Russia will stop killing innocent civilians in the Caucasus. On September 18, the Chechen chief of staff accused Moscow of sending motorized units 1.5 kilometres inside Chechenya and digging in, according to a report by the Interfax newsagency. It is a serious escalation of the conflict in the region, from which the Russians were humiliatingly expelled three years ago after being defeated by the Chechen mujahideen.

The Chechens have also accused Moscow of killing more than 250 civilians in bombing raids since September 5. Russia confirmed on September 19 that it had been bombing what it described as “guerrilla bases” to prevent another attack on Dagestan. A day earlier, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin had flatly denied that his troops were involved. “The Russian armed forces have nothing to do with the strikes against civilian targets in Chechenya.” If civilians were killed, it was in internal fighting between the factions in Chechenya, he alleged. Yet he was contradicted a day later by the Russian military in Moscow.

Gasankhan Ibragimov, a Dagestani and senior officer in the Russian intelligence agency (FSB), told the daily Novoya Izvestia: “All the information gathered indicates that Chechen commanders are preparing new operations whose dates and places are known.” He was alluding to last August’s daring operations by Chechen commander Shamil Busayev, who penetrated deep into Dagestan before regrouping his fighters back in Chechenya. Ibragimov added that “the terrorists have good sources of financing. The money comes from Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait, from Qatar, from Syria, from radical Islamic organizations in Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan.” Weapons also came from Georgia and from Azerbaijan, he said.

Whatever help the Chechens may or may not be getting from elsewhere is minuscule compared to the resources that Russia is throwing against them. Accusations of foreign help are designed to conjure up images of a grand international Islamic conspiracy, the kind of tale the xenophobic, anti-Muslim west is likely to buy. This is spiced by the ‘Osama bin Laden factor’.

Instead of trying to reverse the tide of history, the Kremlin bosses would be well advised to withdraw from the Caucasus and save their own people, as well as the Caucasians, from further suffering. It would also allow the Russians some measure of dignity - a commodity in short supply in Moscow these days, and which may come in handy in trying to sort out their mess at home.

Given the mindset in Moscow this may, however, be asking for too much. There is no doubt that Russia can inflict immense damage on the people of the Caucasus; what it cannot do is subdue their spirit of independence. Unless Moscow sees sense, it will soon be signing its own death warrant.

Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 15

Rajab 22, 14201999-10-01

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