Chechnya – Russia’s “War on Terror”

August 18, 2007

When three planes smashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, few expected Chechnya to feel the impact. But 9/11 probably had the most far-reaching consequences for the Chechens since Stalin deported the entire population to Siberia in 1944. It also saved the career of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose rise had been built on his resolve to crush the Chechen insurgency. Putin defanged growing criticism at home and abroad of a brutal war against Chechen independence by tying his cause to George Bush’s “war on terror.” Overnight, Putin the ruthless oppressor became frontline warrior against terror – not unlike Ariel Sharon in his war against Palestinian independence at the same time. The Chechens were transformed into fanatic terrorists.

John Russell’s Chechnya – Russia ‘s “War on Terror” builds a careful case that exposes Putin’s lies. His central theme is that the Russo-Chechen war has more to do with three centuries of Russian subjugation of Chechnya¬† than with global terrorism. Obliterating history – as Israeli policy did with the Palestinians, Putin said that sufficient force would make the Chechens give up. As early as the 1780s, the Russian commander in the Caucusus, Lt.-Gen. Pavel Potemkin, concluded the only way to subdue the Chechens was to exterminate them. An estimated 200,000 Chechens, about one quarter of the population, have died in the two modern wars of 1994-1996, when the Russian army was driven from Chechnya, and 1999 to the present. Russia has lost about 25,000 troops, more than in Afghanistan. Chechens did themselves no favours when they ran a gangster state during their brief de facto independence. Some of their “terrorist spectaculars,” like the Moscow theatre siege and the Beslan school hostage-taking, revolted even supporters.

During the second modern war, I reported on a group led by Shamil Basayev, considered the most radical Islamic leader. His men were fearless, loved fighting, spoke of honour and guns and their love of their mountains. Rather than chant Koranic verses, they talked of the good days in Grozny when they drank themselves silly on vodka. At their cave headquarters, instead of enforcing Wahhabi male-female segregation, their leader shouted, “There are no women here, only a journalist,” and gave me a place on a bed for 25 fighters.

John Russell, senior lecturer in Russian Studies and Peace Studies at the University of Bradford , writes a fluent, well-documented plea for Chechnya rather than a history. His book is not for readers new to the conflict (e.g., only by page 62 does he mention that Chechnya declared independence in 1991 and the war began in 1994). But his scorching analysis of Putin’s dual policies of force and installing puppets to “Chechenise” the violence demonstrates that neither works.

Reviewer: Marie Colvin is foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times.