BACKGROUND: In the 19th century, the cost of the North Caucasus conquest was Russia’s decline as a European power. The conquest became particularly cruel, intractable, and drawn out because Russian generals offered impossible terms: the resistance leaders were told to surrender unconditionally, and the territory would be incorporated into the Russian empire on the same basis as any Russian region. The leaders of the resistance sought negotiations on a number of occasions but were never so roundly defeated that they would accept such terms. For instance, in 1837 Imam Shamil sought peace, but Russia¹s condition was his submission to tsar Nicholas I; Shamil refused. Obtaining Shamil’s complete surrender required over 20 additional years of war and untold resources in men and gold. The war went on several years after his surrender because sizable pockets of resistance continued fighting. The campaigns against Chechnya and Dagestan sapped the strength of the empire and contributed to its defeat in the Crimean War. The most powerful European state after the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was bled dry by the arrogance and cruelty of its generals, and emerged from the Chechen conquest a decidedly second rate power. There are many parallels in the present. Presidential Representatives Viktor Kazantsev and Sergei Yaztrzhembsky insist that the only topic for discussion with Chechen leaders are the terms of their surrender. Even the proposals elaborated by relatively moderate figures such as Boris Nemtsov envision Chechnya as just another Russian district. Yet, the repeated coordinated assaults against Russian positions throughout the republic, including daytime fighting in Grozny, indicate that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov is not hard pressed enough that he should consider surrender. The question is hence whether Russia is ready to devote the lion share of its military resources for the next 20 years in order to obtain Maskhadov’s unconditional surrender? The Chechen war is swallowing up resources that could be put to better use. Russia has spent over $8 billion on the war, funds that could have been used to reform and modernize the military. Although countless plans for military reform and restructuring have been announced, none have been put into practice. While foreign military sales constitute a cash crop for the state, the Russian military has to make due with meager salaries, inadequate supplies and antiquated weaponry. A recent Duma commission found 20 year old helicopters in Chechnya. More importantly, the military suffers from a profound moral crisis. In a recent poll, over 70 percent of Russians favored ending compulsory military service. They identified hazing as the primary reason for not wanting to serve in the military. Although the Chechen war has claimed the lives of 12,000 servicemen according the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, hazing is the greatest obstacle to army recruitment. Over the last two years, Putin’s policies towards the military have been as negligent as his predecessor’s. In a sudden cost-cutting measure, Putin has announced base closures in Vietnam and Cuba, thereby diminishing Russia’s international presence.
IMPLICATIONS: The new anti-terrorist partnership has not reordered pre-existing alliances. That the US won't fully embrace the Northern Alliance and that Russia won't tolerate any Taliban elements only emphasizes this fact. Despite his friendly relationship with President Bush, Putin has not won any concessions regarding the formation of a future government. At the same time, the Northern Alliance has achieved little on the ground. Unable to parlay warm personal affection into concessions on the diplomatic front, Putin also has few cards to play in the military balance. A lightning march into Kabul, an amplification of the march into Pristina airport in the summer of 1999, is beyond the limits of imagination. Not only has the US established a military presence in two post-Soviet republics, but it has displayed a capability to conduct night raids illustrated by television broadcasts. By contrast, Russian troops in Chechnya barricade themselves in at night, leaving the initiative to Chechen fighters. The frustrations of Russian policy options in Afghanistan draw attention to the crisis in the Russian military and raise questions about Russia’s priorities. It’s ambition to play a leading role in the post-war order in Afghanistan and Central Asian security in general are not matched by a military, financial, or moral capability to do so. Russia has been quietly supplying the Northern Alliance with weapons and specialists since 1996. Now Russia’s spokesman have publicly announced that they are supplying the Northern Alliance and have intensified the shipments. In an October 11 interview with Novaya Gazeta, Duma Defense Committee member Alexei Arbatov said that specialists are engaged on the ground in Afghanistan and that this decision was made at the highest political level. Pavel Felgenhauer, a very knowledgeable analyst, says that Russian crews are flying missions and manning tanks for the Northern Alliance. Many Russian analysts worry that this limited involvement could escalate as the war in Afghanistan expands.
CONCLUSIONS: Russia’s brutality in Chechnya has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled in Europe since Word War II. For Russia, the war has reversed the tentative political pluralism of the Yeltsin period. At present, it threatens to undo Russia’s status as a world power. The need to come to a political resolution in Chechnya is hence increasingly obvious. When Putin visits Washington later this month, he will want us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the innocent in Chechnya and pretend that his butchery contributes to our anti-terrorist cause, in which we need his help. Only Putin has very little to offer, except perhaps for another set of empty promises that sales of sensitive technology to Iran will cease, or weapons for the Northern Alliance that are often a decade older than the average fighter. The visit is a golden opportunity to press him to begin full scale political negotiations with the Maskhadov government. The obvious venue is the OSCE, which has a mission in Chechnya, mandated by the international community to facilitate such talks.
AUTHOR BIO: Miriam Lanskoy is Program Manager at the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy at Boston University. She regularly writes about the Caucasus for the NIS Observed.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved