A Tired Anarchy

A Tired Anarchy

Mini Teaser: Russia, for our officials and foreign policy leaders, is an increasingly scary and strange place. We don't seem to know where we are or what we are doing.

by Author(s): Charles H. Fairbanks

Russia, for our officials and foreign policy leaders, is an
increasingly scary and strange place. We don't seem to know where we
are or what we are doing.

The Chechen war climaxed a crescendo of bizarre and troubling events.
The Moscow journalist Dmitri Kholodov, who was investigating
scandalous thefts by army generals, the training of mafia hit men by
the army, and FSK (ex-KGB) destabilization operations against
Chechnya, received a briefcase from the FSK. When he opened it, it
exploded and he was killed.

Attention was called to the private armies that exist not only in the
Caucasus region but in Moscow when a millionaire's "security guard"
was attacked in the street by masked gunmen who turned out to be
members of Yeltsin's personal bodyguard. The Moscow KGB came to the
aid of the "security guard" and struggled with Yeltsin's guards; the
upshot was the dismissal of the Moscow KGB chief and the
subordination of the Moscow KGB to Boris Yeltsin's bodyguard.

This bodyguard, under the former KGB major Alexander Korzhakov, and
the larger Main Guards Department under KGB General Barsukov have
become a center of uncontrolled power with forty thousand troops
including tanks and paratroops, and is metastasizing into the
provinces. Korzhakov is now passing on the acceptability of new
ministers and issuing directives to the prime minister to halt
economic reform. His new "analytical center" is framing plans for a
"National Guard," a kind of parallel army, like the Red Guards, the
SA, or the Waffen-SS, which will extend through all the provinces and
answer directly to Boris Yeltsin. Such events, amid the swirling
rumors of canceled elections, emergency presidential rule, and
Yeltsin's blind-drunk binges or terminal illness, display both
megalomania and panic. None of this inspires confidence.

But we're stuck on Boris Yeltsin. And the more strangely or
arbitrarily or insanely he acts, the less he is in control, the more
we cling to him, in our need for something recognizable and
reassuring. As an administration official, evidently Strobe Talbott,
told a reporter, "Just who else are we going to deal with? Yeltsin is
president of Russia, period."

In 1987, when the forces of disintegration first began to show
themselves, there was good excuse for not identifying this reality or
preparing a policy to deal with it. But at this point, after having
waited so long for the strong reformed state of Gorbachev to appear,
and then waiting for the strong reformed state of Yeltsin to appear,
it begins to be strange. Over two administrations our officials have
stubbornly clung to a policy of dealing only with governments, above
all the Russian government, and put all our hopes on the leader of
the moment. Everyone says at this point that this makes policy too
personal, yet we keep doing it. Something is at work here beyond the
normal range of human misjudgment, bureaucratic interest and vanity,
although all these factors are present. This pattern needs to be
understood as something like an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The Pre-Chechnya Consensus

The Chechen war is the culmination of tendencies that were building
through last year. During this time a new direction in Russian
foreign policy became evident, one that is increasingly assertive
and, in its language, increasingly anti-American. By the fall of 1994
there seemed to be a consensus of the foreign policy elite that
Russia needed to assert itself more, especially in the independent
republics of the "near abroad" and on behalf of ethnic Russians
living there. This consensus seemed to respond to a broad popular
mood, but it was also shared by most of the democratic intellectuals
who have been our friends.

The new rhetorical consensus has been supported by some real actions
in the republics of the near abroad. People there share an almost
universal consensus that Russia is extremely powerful, that it is now
working to restore the former Soviet Union, and that almost
everything that happens there, whether it seems to have any
connection with Russia or not, is the result of Russian scheming.

I once thought that these suspicions were the result of a paranoid
imagination, which is a common experience for Westerners in the
post-communist world. But careful study of the evidence does show
that in at least three important cases Russia has worked to
destabilize the independent governments of other Soviet successor
states. When Abulfaz Elchibey, the nationalist and pro-Western prime
minister of Azerbaijan, was about to sign an oil investment agreement
with Western firms, he was overthrown by Surat Huseynov with Russian
arms. When Elchibey's successor, Heydar Aliev, signed a similar
agreement last fall, Russia protested and a similar attempt to
overthrow Aliev was made. And in Georgia, the Russian "power
ministries"--the defense ministry under Grachev, the internal affairs
ministry (MVD) and the successor agencies to the KGB--supplied the
Abkhaz rebels who were fighting to secede from Georgia with arms and
Russian and Chechen mercenaries, putting pressure on the Georgian
side to sign a truce. When the truce was signed and the Georgian
heavy equipment withdrawn, the Abkhaz side, receiving back their
equipment from the Russians, broke the truce and won a complete
victory. Then Yeltsin used the disaster to force Georgia to accept a
continuing Russian military presence and membership in the CIS. The
chairman of the defense committee of the State Duma, Sergei
Yushenkov, has characterized the principles of Russian policy thus:

"They are very simple. Take the Caucasus, for example. We are trying
to establish our power in the region using other people, stirring up
civil war, and supporting warring forces and groupings with arms and
ammunition and even personnel."

The Chechnya Crisis

The Russo-Chechen conflict provides a better window on real Russian
policy, and the domestic reaction to it, than any of these events.

As a side effect of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991,
Chechnya declared its independence under the leadership of General
Dudayev. This is one of the events in the world whose drama we have
scarcely absorbed. It is as though Quebec or Brittany or Scotland had
actually declared its independence, was armed to the teeth and
serving as a base for criminals who plundered trains going from one
part of the country to another. General Dudayev made no effort to
give Chechnya the orderly structure of a normal state. He behaved
like a bandit, at best a medieval Robin Hood figure who, thanks to
Russian forbearance, had a state to play with. Chechnya was not only
a real problem, but a standing humiliation for Russia and an
incitement to other non-Russian areas to declare their independence.
So Russia had very serious reasons to reject the independence of
Chechnya. Here, if anywhere, you would think, the new national
foreign policy consensus would apply.

There was, in fact, an intervention following the Chechen declaration
of independence. It failed and was disavowed by the Russian Supreme
Soviet. Luckily, it was not necessary to use force, because Chechnya
was completely isolated by Russian territory on three sides, and by
the highest chain of the Caucasus mountains on the remaining side.
There are no roads across the Caucasus mountains here; all the roads,
all the railroads, all the oil pipelines between Chechnya and the
outside world pass through Russia, but there never has been any
effective blockade of Chechnya. The explanation may be that, as many
Russian journalists have charged, powerful officials were using
Chechnya as a sort of free port for illegal exports of oil, gold,
diamonds, and arms. Perhaps there were also political reasons: some
of the illegal arms seem to have gone to Serbia, and Chechen
mercenaries were used in the Russian operation to tear Abkhazia away
from Georgia. The most amazing thing is that Chechnya, having
declared its independence, defied Russia, established an army,
intended to establish foreign relations was until very recently
receiving a subsidy from the Russian government, like any other
backward province.

So Chechnya maintained its independence for three years. It is one of
ten post-communist mini-states, extending from Croatia to the old
Soviet-Chinese border in the Pamirs, that have factual independence
but no international recognition and no international
responsibilities. During the three years of Chechen independence, a
slow exit of Russians took place. Grozny, the capital, is an old
Russian town founded in 1818 as a fortress against the Chechens. When
the USSR collapsed about three quarters of Grozny's population was
Russian. About half of those people were driven out, not apparently
by any decision of the Chechen government, but just by the fact that
life there was so difficult and so dangerous. The concern of Russia
for Russians abroad has to be seen in the light of this kind of fact.
Russians in the near abroad do suffer from discrimination; in some
places they feel or are made to feel unwelcome. But, on the whole,
Russia has not done anything about it, contrary to a very popular
myth both within Russia and in the West.

Around the end of the summer of 1994, the Russian government broke
with its three-year pattern of de facto toleration of Chechen
independence. Clans which had always opposed Dudayev were armed and
organized to overthrow him. Such a decision was certainly
understandable on the part of Russia. But it seems to have been part
of a pattern of restoring Russian influence and military presence
over the entire Caucasus, as part of the more assertive foreign
policy described above. It was actually preceded by the maneuvers to
destabilize independent Georgia and Azerbaijan, on which it was
modeled. Yeltsin's decision has to be seen in the context of his
increasing dependence on the "power ministries" which had organized
those earlier adventures. His struggles with the communist and
nationalist opposition in the Supreme Soviet, now the Duma, which
culminated in the street fighting of October 1993, had antagonized
the right. Meanwhile, in the absence of a communist enemy, the
democratic forces were breaking into small quarreling groups, which
were antagonized by Yeltsin's use of force against the Supreme
Soviet. There remain few cohesive entities that could prop up
Yeltsin, except for the army and the security police.

Essay Types: Essay