Russia in Chechnya: Their Predicament, Our Dilemma

In the aftermath of the Moscow hostage crisis, Russia's predicament in Chechnya remains unenviable.

In the aftermath of the Moscow hostage crisis, Russia's predicament in Chechnya remains unenviable. While it is easy for outsiders to criticize Russian conduct there, few have been able to offer realistic solutions. Still, with creativity and modest expectations, the United States can make a difference.

After a successful beginning to its second intervention in Chechnya, the Russian military is again bogged down in a protracted and ugly conflict. The rebels control little territory-at least by day-but retain strongholds in the mountains and remain well motivated. They also have impressive access to modern weapons like surface-to-air missiles, with which they have shot down six Russian helicopters in less than four months, including one incident in which over a hundred soldiers were killed.

Russia's own forces are demoralized, ill equipped and so corrupt that illegal deals with Russian military personnel are the source of many weapons in Chechen hands. Though some commanders are impressive, and some soldiers display great bravery, the Russian effort suffers considerably from poor coordination among regular military detachments, special forces and police units, who often work at cross-purposes. Thus even if the Chechen rebels cannot hope to defeat a vastly superior Russian force, Russian control of their territory is, if anything, deteriorating.

To some, these realities may appear to be powerful arguments for a political settlement to the conflict. Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple.

First, the Kremlin has a point in saying that it has no good negotiating partner in the Chechen leadership. Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov may not be a terrorist mastermind, but he was the region's leader at the time of its worst excesses, when kidnapping and murder were rampant (affecting not only locals but also Western aid workers), and when sharia courts were forcibly introduced. Moreover, although it has not been demonstrated conclusively that Chechens were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths in apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999, it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Chechen forces invaded the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan that same year with a view to inciting its otherwise moderate Muslim population to rebellion. Shamil Basayev, who led the incursion and has recently accepted responsibility for the hostage incident, is no stranger to Maskhadov's government: he has held top positions including acting prime minister and first deputy commander-in-chief of Chechen military forces. Basayev's personal relationship with Maskhadov is tenuous at best, but at a minimum Maskhadov has been unable to control him. The consensus in Moscow is that the two have adopted a convenient "good cop, bad cop" division of labor. Still, regardless of Maskhadov's possible connection to the hostage-taking, it is politically unthinkable for Vladimir Putin to allow the Chechen president, much less Shamil Basayev, any role in governing Chechnya. And while the Russian government enjoys weak support in occupied areas, the rebels have also lost substantial popularity among ordinary people, most of whom want peace with dignity rather than a return to the chaos, violence and Islamic extremism of the 1996-99 period.

At the same time, the conduct of Russian military forces in Chechnya has been deplorable. Put simply, the unreformed and outmoded Russian army is incapable of fighting an 21st century American-style war with limited civilian casualties-it is an axe rather than a scalpel. And notwithstanding its expensive technology and training, the U.S. military itself was unable to avoid errors leading to civilian deaths in Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin would likely welcome having a different kind of army, but he has what he has. Under the circumstances, demanding the impossible of Putin and his generals sounds to Russian ears like a hypocritical suggestion to surrender to the Chechens. Perversely, however, some in the military and security services are not afraid to exploit Western pressure, which then becomes an alibi of sorts. They are eager to blame their failure to achieve victory on compliance with non-existent constraints imposed from the outside rather than their own incompetence.

One of us directly experienced Russian frustration with U.S. criticism of the Kremlin's Chechnya policy in Moscow last week. Russian leaders across the political spectrum believed that America is willing to define as "terrorists" only those who directly attack the United States-and that as a result, Washington sees itself as the only government entitled to do whatever it takes to fight terrorism. This perception not only contributes to anti-Americanism in Russia, but also becomes a real obstacle to working with Moscow to advance important U.S. interests and, most essential, to winning genuine Russian cooperation on non-proliferation and in the war on terrorism.

Taking into account these broader interests, the Bush Administration is right to approach the Kremlin carefully and to resist pressures for moralistic posturing over Chechnya. The war is a Russian dilemma and responsibility for resolving it is best left in Moscow rather than Washington. Still, there are a few useful things that the administration could do localize and gradually calm the conflict:

First, as a component of its declaratory policy recognizing Chechnya as a part of the Russian Federation, the Bush Administration should strongly encourage Tblisi to take all possible steps to drive Chechen rebel groups from Georgia. In parallel, the administration should discourage Moscow from unilateral military action across the Georgian border. This two-track approach would help to prevent the conflict from spreading to Georgia, which is the key transit route for the important new Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline.