Boris's brutal little war

Chechnya
April 24, 1998

Had the war in Chechnya erupted during the days of the "evil empire", we can be sure that western leaders would have been fulsome in their praise of the plucky Chechens struggling to break free of the shackles of Soviet tyranny, while the CIA would have been backing them with smuggled Stinger missiles. How different was western reaction, however, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the Chechens had never voluntarily submitted to the tsarist empire, to the Soviet Union or to the Russian Federation, western leaders insisted on regarding the conflict as a strictly internal matter. So intent was the West in making Russia safe for "robber baron" capitalism of the most predatory kind and in propping up Boris Yeltsin, who was seen as its surest guarantor, that a collective blind eye was turned to one of the most brutal conflicts the world has witnessed since the second world war.

Young Chechens of military age were processed through "filtration" camps quite as nasty as anything to be found in Bosnia, although the Russian authorities took good care that no pictures of the kind that were to shock public opinion over Bosnia ever saw the light of day. Indiscriminate bombardments and the routine deployment of such fearsome weapons as vacuum and fragmentation bombs, which spew out metal darts, caused massive casualties. The fact that many of these were not Chechens but ethnic Russians was of little concern to Yeltsin and his cronies in the "power" ministries. Ill-disciplined, demoralised, ill-fed, and ill-paid Russian troops, often high on alcohol and drugs, lashed out indiscriminately at an elusive foe whose experience in guerrilla warfare went back to the days of Imam Shamil and the great Caucasian war which convulsed the region for much of the 19th century.

What more than anything seems to have inspired the Chechens to fight on, and eventually win, against seemingly impossible odds was the determination to avenge Stalin's mass deportation of their parents and grandparents to Central Asia in 1944, an "ethnic cleansing" that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. Jokhar Dudayev, the president of Chechnya from November 1991 until his death in October 1996, was exiled with his parents to a desolate settlement in Kazakhstan. The terrible deprivation of this Babylonian captivity were etched deeply into Dudayev's psyche and that of his compatriots. As many as 6,000 dead Russian soldiers and 20,000 wounded paid the price of the Chechens' revenge for their humiliation 50 years previously. Yeltsin and his western backers were obsessed with the notion that the Chechens could call on large numbers of mercenaries. There were some volunteers but this was a war essentially fought by Chechens, albeit with weapons purchased from Russian sources with dollars supplied by the Chechen diaspora in the Middle East and by Islamic states and organisations.

At the time many western commentators attributed responsibility for the war to Yeltsin's hapless minister of defence, Pavel Grachev, who, in one of the most foolhardy remarks ever made by a military commander, boasted that he could subdue Grozny, the Chechen capital, in two hours with a single parachute regiment. Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal have no doubt that it was Yeltsin himself who, in a "clear, calculated and ruthless" decision, ordered the crackdown.

Not for him, however, the threat of retribution in the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. Instead President Clinton compared the war in Chechnya to the American civil war and lauded Yeltsin as a latter-day Lincoln. This was an absurd analogy. If the Chechen conflict resembled anything in American history, it was the genocidal Indian wars of the 19th century. Certainly the conflict had strong racial overtones, for the Russians deem the Chechens, as indeed all the Caucasian peoples, to be "blacks". Western intelligence services were enlisted to leak stories of spurious Chechen atrocities to friendly journalists.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe did not even go through the motions of being an impartial observer, while the Council of Europe, which makes a great song and dance about its commitment to human rights, welcomed the Russian Federation to membership while the near-genocidal war was at its height.

Gall and de Waal's excellent, comprehensively documented and lucidly written book is a timely reminder that realpolitik is as much a feature of the New World Order as it ever was of the cold war. In the aftermath of the war, Chechnya has collapsed into anarchy tempered by shariah law. Whether the Chechens will gain the independence and international recognition they seek remains to be seen. But Yeltsin's brutal heavy-handedness has already created what the Russians have always dreaded, namely a militant Islamic enclave within the Russian Federation.

Richard Clogg is fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford.

Chechnya: A Small Victorious War

Author - Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal
ISBN - 0 330 35075 7
Publisher - Pan
Price - £6.99
Pages - 416

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