Russia adopts domino theory

By Brian Low

Russia has been shelling the Chechen capital of Grozny since last week. Russian forces appear to have directly attacked only some of the fleeing civilians. I guess things are looking up for noncombatants in Chechnya.

Russia’s dispute with Chechnya is not a new one. The superpower and breakaway republic fought a bitter war from 1995-96. The Russians eventually withdrew due to unacceptably high casualty rates. It appears Chechens didn’t particularly like the Russian helicopter gunships razing their apartment complexes. In order to be rid of them, they showed themselves willing to commit as many atrocities against the Russians as the Russians could commit against them.

Well the war’s back on again. Russians, who generally dislike ethnic Chechens, have linked recent terrorist bombings with “bandits” operating from within Chechnya. Russia’s solution is to bomb all Chechen urban centers showing any resistance to Russian supremacy back to the Stone Age. It has also been careful not to omit Chechen urban centers showing no resistance. At least it’s evenhanded.

A few things about this policy cry foul, however. Russian politicians, for all their faults, are not altogether stupid. If they were trying to stem terrorist tide emanating from Chechnya, could this really be their policy? The way to stop terrorism is not to destroy infrastructure, kill civilians, and restart a partisan war against a well-armed people. Even the Russians must know when you make terrorists mad, they step the terror up, not down.

The situation in Chechnya looks much more like a case of Russia wanting to reassert its control over a republic that no longer respects Russian authority. Since 1996, Chechnya has pretty much taken care of itself, electing a president, forming a constitution, and even appointing diplomats abroad. Russia has no interest in letting this Caucuses-region domino fall, however and now that public opinion is back on side, Russia is doing all it can to get Chechnya back.

The fastly approaching December elections for the Russian State Duma may further influence the willingness to get involved. The war against Chechnya has proven extremely popular in Russia. It’s a chance to throw around a little military muscle, win back lost prestige, and really stick it to those Chechen upstarts. Given popular Russian xenophobia toward Chechens, politicians are scoring major points supporting the war. In fact, even local leaders have hopped on the anti-Chechen bandwagon: Moscow and other cities have begun denying Chechens residency, calling them terrorists and bandits.

Leaders are determined to foster public support by keeping the Russian body count low. This favors the tactics of relatively indiscriminate long-range shelling of civilian centers over the riskier close-range fighting every time. It doesn’t seem to bother the Russians that this violates the Geneva Conventions on the Laws of War and results in enormous human tragedies.

All the Russians seem to know is that they are “kickink” ass and they like it. What they fail to see is that the war in Chechnya doesn’t provide any long-term solutions. If the terrorism was in fact coming from Chechnya, it is likely to intensify. If Russia wants to work Chechnya back into its union, it won’t help to take all possible measures to ensure every Chechen still standing vehemently opposes the regime. And if Russians want international respect (or loans, for that matter) violating international covenants is not the way to go about it.

What is really going on is that Russian politicians are employing the ethnic prejudices of Russian voters to gain popular support.

If that’s what’s happening, they should prepare themselves to be relegated to the footnotes of history along with the Hitlers, Verwoerds, and Milosevics. In the end, it’s where most of the politicians who choose machine-guns over negotiations wind up anyway, whether or not they ever win back Chechnya.

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