You say that there are some who say we should have been more openly critical. I think it depends upon your first premise; do you believe that Chechnya is a part of Russia or not? I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country in which we lost on a per capita basis far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.
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Washington and other western powers are playing an active part in supporting the Chechen separatists. The imperialists have stepped in to grant asylum to many of the leaders in the separatist and exile government, which has declared Chechnya, “The Republic of Ichkeria.” It is headed by Aslan Maskhadov, the provisional president. The U.S. gave asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov’s opposition grouping.
They say that Saddam Hussein had an entire library devoted to Stalin. Perhaps if Vladimir Putin was as much of a scribbler as Stalin, we might expect fellow Baathist Bashar al-Assad to do him the same kind of honor since the war in Syria seems to be lifted out of the Chechnya playbook. You unleash a scorched earth policy against a civilian population and then justify it as a defensive measure against Jihadist terror.
If the left had little reason to align itself with the first Chechen war that was prosecuted by neoliberalizing bogeyman Boris Yeltsin, there was clear evidence that Putin’s war that began in 1999 would be given the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the cue they needed could be found Anatol Lieven’s journalism. No matter that Lieven had written powerfully against Yeltsin’s intervention. By 1999 Putin had become a lesser evil in his eyes, just as al-Assad appears to a broad swath of the “anti-imperialist” left. In testimony before the Helsinki Security Commission on the question of Chechnya after 9/11, Lieven sounded like Christopher Hitchens or Paul Berman:
This must also involve a recognition that it is emphatically not in the interests of the USA, the West, or the Caucasus that the Russians should simply withdraw and Chechnya return to its condition of 1996-99. The banditry which flourished in those years was a threat to the region and to western visitors to it. The establishment of a new base for international Muslim radicalism (and perhaps terrorism) posed a threat not just to the region, but to Western interests across the world, and to US allies in the Middle East. This is a point which was fully recognized by the Israeli government long before September 11th, but which for a long time was not fully understood by the US foreign policy elite – to the genuine bewilderment and frustration of Russian officials. Before September 11th at least, few in the USA stopped to think what the US reaction would be to the establishment of a powerful group of heavily armed international Muslim radicals on America’s borders – and yet the answer is not difficult to find.
If you are looking for left scholarship that took a different tack on Chechnya, there was little to go on other than articles that appeared occasionally in New Left Review by Georgi M. Derlugian and Tony Wood. Except for these two, the general consensus on the left is that although Putin was wrong to invade Chechnya, those who fought against him were Jihadists inimical to secular and progressive values—in other words, the same tropes applied to Syria today.
In the provocatively titled “Che Guevaras in Turbans” (New Left Review I/237, September-October 1999), Derlugian made the case for the Islamist guerrillas and Shamil Basayev in particular. Basayev, who was killed by a Russian car bomb in 2006, was responsible for some of the most sensational terrorist attacks that persuaded many liberals and radicals to adopt a plague on both your houses position with respect to the Second Chechen War. While Derlugian was no apologist for terror, he provided some background on Basayev that never found their way into the customary reportage in the left press:
During his brief period as a student in Moscow, aside from the fateful Professor Borovoy, Basayev met Cubans and learned from them about Ernesto Che Guevara. The young Chechen commander carried a picture of Che in his breast pocket through the Abkhazia war of 1992–93, where he was rescuing the fellow Abkhazian mountaineers from the marauding Georgian warlords—and where he was apparently trained, supplied, and supported by the Russian military who saw their interests as lying in the subversion of Georgia’s independence.
In 1999 Basayev led an incursion to Daghestan with the intention of creating a new Islamic state that would in turn form the basis for a broader union of the North Caucasus Muslim polities. At the time his bid was seen as driven by nothing except a typically Jihadist agenda based on religious fanaticism. In his 2007 book “Chechnya: the case for Independence”, Tony Wood hones in on the socio-economic realities that made Daghestan open to Islamist intervention:
The republic is so riddled with corruption that in 2005, Mukhu Alley, then chairman of the People’s Assembly of Dagestan, but appointed its president in February 2006, admitted that ‘there is not a single post to which one could be appointed without a bribe'; a low-level police position reportedly cost $3,000 to $5,000, that of a district administration chief $150,000, while one could become a minister in the republic’s government for $450,000 — $500,000. In post-Soviet conditions of economic collapse and de-industrialization, unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 30 per cent in 1999, though the true figure is undoubtedly higher. Poverty levels were astronomical: in 1995, 71 per cent of Dagestan’s population had an income below the official subsistence level, compared to 25 per cent across the Russian Federation; by 1998, it remained at 58 per cent, compared to 21 per cent nationwide. Those on the inside of Dagestan’s neo-patrimonial order strove to reinforce it; the tens of thousands on the outside grew increasingly dissatisfied with their lot. Islamist groups were an outlet for criticism of official corruption and misrule, as well as of the complicity of the official clergy. The Islamists’ calls for equality and social justice, gesturing beyond ethnic particularities to a shared Muslim identity, inevitably acquired greater and greater resonance. Moreover, as discussed with regard to Chechnya, Salafism joined the flow of deeper social dynamics, being described by one expert as a ‘mechanism for the democratization of Dagestani society through cleansing its Islamic life of mysticism, superstition and patriarchal elements’. In sum, the roots of Dagestani Salafism are to be found in ‘the socio-economic realities of the republic, in the unbearably onerous burden of pseudo-traditional customs, and in disillusionment with the spiritual authorities’.
While Russia was primed for the reconquest of Chechnya and the eviction of Chechen rebels from neighboring Daghestan, there was some evidence that military action was made more palatable by an awful series of terrorist bombings in Russian apartment buildings in September 1999. Eventually a commission of inquiry under the direction of attorney Mikhail Trepashkin was established to identify the perpetrators. The investigation revealed that Russian secret police officer Vladimir Romanovich, who was identified by eyewitnesses, had rented an apartment in a basement of one of the buildings prior to the bombings. But Trepashkin was unable to present this evidence because the Russian secret police arrested him in October 2003 for “disclosing state secrets”. A closed court sentenced him to four years, while Romanovich was killed in a hit-and-run incident on Cyprus.
This is typical police business under Putin and the sort of thing that makes him a perfect partner for the Obama administration that is using the Bill of Rights as toilet paper to wipe its collective ass.
Putin made sure not to go easy on the Chechens, as Yeltsin had. He assembled a massive expeditionary force that was the perfect analog to Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. As soul mates in the great Muslim-bashing game, they were made for each other as Bush once observed: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” Besides looking into Putin’s eyes, it helped Bush’s successor in the White House maintain this bromance on a more practical basis. In 2011 Putin signed a $367.5-million deal with the Pentagon to supply 21 Mi-17V5 transport/attack helicopters for the Afghan military. After all, what are friends for?
Once the war began, Putin demonstrated the kind of brazen disregard for human life and world opinion that is currently on display in Syria. On October 22nd 1999, Russian Scud missile attacks on Grozny’s open-air market resulted in massive casualties. At first the Russians denied any responsibility but Putin eventually was forced to admit in the face of overwhelming evidence that his forces were responsible. But he had an excuse. “I can confirm that actually some explosion has taken place in Grozny’s market. But I want to draw attention of the press to, that we mean not just a market in the conventional sense, rather it refers to the arms market – that is how this place is called in Grozny. This is the base of weapons, an armory. And this place is one of the headquarters of the gangs. We do not exclude that the explosion that occurred there, is the result of clashes between warring factions”.
So you can see where Bashar al-Assad developed his PR techniques, from a past master of homicide and the unabashed big lie.