Vladimir Putin — a former KGB operative plucked from obscurity by President Boris Yeltsin, who appointed him prime minister of Russia — used the Chechen war to secure his election as president in March 2000, and continues to exploit it to maintain his popularity while conceding privately that victory is not on the cards. Now it is the Russian army’s turn to take a leaf out of his book, in an attempt to avert a “virtual state of collapse”, as Boris Nemtsov, Liberal MP and former deputy prime minister, put it recently. But the generals are not setting about this task at all subtly, as demonstrated by belligerent high-profile statements in recent weeks.
The head of the Russian federal forces in Chechnya, for instance, declared on February 20 that his forces would continue their operations mercilessly to secure the removal of the last vestiges of terrorism in the region. In a statement to Interfax newsagency, general Vladimir said that it was necessary to obliterate terrorism, which was responsible for blocking an early return to “normal in this Caucasian republic”. And, in a transparent attempt to refute reports and accusations of operational failure by his forces, Russian troops carried out numerous rapid operations in unexpected places, boasting that they killed about 1,000 Chechen fighters in a few months. The general even hinted that he was in a position to overrule any decision by politicians to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict. He said that he understood the desire of the political authority to resume economic activities as soon as possible, but added that it was impossible to create the necessary atmosphere for normality without first eliminating banditry.
Another general seeking the limelight, in order to demonstrate the military establishment’s eagerness to engage and defeat the Chechen fighters, was Anatoly Kavashnin, the radical chief of staff. He even quarrelled publicly with the rulers of neighbouring Georgia, urging them to overcome their reluctance to move against the ‘Chechen terrorists’ in the Pankisi region, which adjoins Chechnya’s mountainous region. In a statement released on February 21, Kavashnin insisted that “Russia and Georgia should jointly eradicate this terrorist centre in the Pankisi gorge.” He was replying to a statement made by Eduard Shevardnadze two days earlier, in which Shevardnadze had rejected military cooperation with Moscow, preferring “future joint action with US special forces in the Pankisi gorge”.
The Russian military were particularly angered by Georgia’s preference for cooperation with the US military because it coincided with accusations of operations failures and corrupt practices levelled at them by Russian members of parliament and the Russian media. Some even contrasted the perceived ‘victory’ of the US forces in Afghanistan with the failure of Russian troops there. Boris Nemtsov, for instance, said during a recent television programme that it had taken the Americans two months to succeed and the Russians almost a decade to fail. “Look at the Americans in Afghanistan,’ he said, “They solved the problem in two months, while we Russians got nowhere after being in the country for nine years.”
Nemtsov, a liberal MP and former deputy prime minister who should know what he is talking about, attributed the army’s lamentable state to corruption, lack of resources and an urgent need for reform — adding that “unfortunately the question of reform is being handled by officers and not by the civilian government”, and that “only the poor in this country do their military service”. He was referring to the system of bribes that makes it possible for conscripts to obtain a certificate declaring them unfit for military service.
But even many men who are drafted desert, shooting anyone getting in their way in the process. Aleksei Khozeyev, an 18-year-old conscript, for instance, fled his base in southern Russia and is suspected of shooting dead two officers with his Kalashnikov; a fortnight earlier two deserters had killed nine people. The incidents prompted Russia’s Itar-Tass newsagency to observe that in the parachutist regiments “up to 15 percent of recruited conscripts have a criminal record”. Nemtsov also cited these two incidents to back his allegations of corruption.
Unfortunately, the far greater acts of corruption and criminality committed daily in Chechnya by Russian troops are highlighted by neither politicians nor the media. Only the odd human-rights organisation, such as Memorial, publicises the massacres of Chechens and widespread looting of their property, the televisions stations brave enough to report such abuses having been closed down long ago. The Russian people do not appear to be worried about the atrocities being committed by their leaders and soldiers against the Chechens; this explains why Putin and the generals believe that they can make political capital out of them, particularly if they can brand the Chechen fighters as separatists and terrorists.
Moscow’s propaganda war, however, suffered a serious setback at the beginning of February, when Boris Berezovsky, a Russian tycoon and former Kremlin-insider, revealed that Russian security services and troops were responsible for the bombings inside Russia in 1999 that at the time were successfully blamed on the Chechen mujahideen. The bombing of apartment buildings in Ryazan — 185 kilometres (about 115 miles) south of Moscow — killed 300 people. Putin, then prime minister, exploited the event to declare the first phase of the Chechen war, which in turn helped to secure his election as successor to president Yeltsin in March 2000. Berezovsky — a Kremlin-insider during Yeltsin’s presidency — said in a New York Times interview on February 2 that it was the head of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) and other members of the FSB who were responsible for the bombings, and that he would publish evidence to support his allegations within some weeks.
But Russian generals, who have now reinforced their troops in preparation for the anniversary on February 23 of the deportations of Chechens in 1944 by Stalin, will not be deterred from their barbarous behaviour by the Chechen people, although they have stepped up their struggle to mark the occasion, and are demonstrating throughout the country without fear. The cost they must bear because of the clashes will be heavy, but the generals will not be able to intimidate a brave people who should receive ample support from their fellow Muslims worldwide, instead of being largely ignored.