Main Causes of the Present Russian Aggression

By Roman Khalilov
Date: December, 12, 1999


Today, when there are already more than 300.000 refugees, and some estimated 6.000 of Chechens have been killed and more than 8.500 Chechens have been wounded, question are asked about causes of present Russian aggression against Chechnya, which is the second genocide of the Chechen nation in last five years.

As the tragedy of Chechen nation and the fate of Russian democracy attracts worldwide attention, deep and full analysis of the causes of the war and the war itself will certainly be a subject of future debates among historians of modern history, academics of International Relations and Lawyers of International Law.

Thus, leaving this difficult task to them, I hereby attempt to give brief and short analysis of the causes of the war and some events that are thought to have contributed to the beginning of the present war. This analysis, therefore, is not aimed at achieving any academic recognition but only done in an attempt to clarify certain points, which presently cause much controversy and result in sometimes completely different claims.

I will suggest here that four main causes have led to the breakdown of the present war. Namely: 1). Disastrous and humiliating defeat of Russian Army in Chechnya in August of 1996, 2) Political situation in Russia in the face of coming Parliamentary and Presidential election, 3) Chechen failure to erect and maintain political stability in Chechnya during the period from 1996 to 1999, and 4) Response of International community to the last war (1994-1996) and the post-war (1996-1999) political and economical problems of Chechnya. At the end of this essay I intent to try to define relative importance of the four causes.

1) Disastrous and humiliating defeat of Russian Army in Chechnya in August of 1996: Events of August of 1996 in Chechnya and those that led to them are perhaps well known and hardly require detailed explanation. Nevertheless, short restatement of some key facts might be useful. To those who have little or no knowledge of Chechnya and history of Russian-Chechen relations much of the story might seem like a story told by a writer of fantastic advantages full of unprecedented bravery, distinguished heroism and perhaps somewhat unbelievable happy end. However, for Chechens this was a story full of blood, tragic tears, unrecoverable losses, and full devastation of their homes and their motherland.

At the beginning of the breakdown of former Soviet Union, Chechens were given hope that their 300 years old struggle against the mighty and cruel Russia was about to end. Following this hope Chechens declared independence of Chechnya on 1 November 1991- a new page of Chechen tragic story was about to be written. Russian response to the Chechen declaration of independence was based on anything but respect of Chechnya and the right of Chechens to self-determination.

Having failed to succeed in its half-criminal attempts to destabilise Chechnya, Russia on 11 December 1994 began its cruel war against Chechnya which was to last up to August 1996 and end with humiliating defeat of Russian Army which was followed by an agreement signed between Russia and Chechnya by Head of Russian Security Council, General Alexander Lebed and head of Chechen Army, General Aslan Maskhadov. The fantastic Chechen victory can hardly be put in better words that those of Corlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal: "And - most incredibly - a small Chechen guerrilla army that had been dismissed as 'bandit groups' brought the Russian army to its knees and forced it to withdraw." ("A small Victorious War" C. Gall & T. De Waal).

Despite the obvious Chechen victory the cost of the war was incredibly high. Some estimated 80.000 people were killed in the war and a whole Chechen economy, infrastructure, both private and public premises, were almost totally destroyed. Perhaps, most harmful damage done to Chechens by the war was the fact that it created generations of fighters and total unemployment. These two things were to expose the real danger of their coexistence in the post-war period.

On the other hand, the war turned once victorious Russian Army into shameful mass of armed forces members of which often preferred to conceal their membership of the humiliated and unpopular army. Generals and politicians were blaming each other for the Russian defeat in Chechnya. Furthermore, NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was seen by many Russian officers and politicians as almost direct result of the defeat: it seemed that Russian army was no longer thought to be capable of causing a real threat to the West (except, of course, Russian nuclear arsenal).

In addition, hundreds of Russian tanks and other armed vehicles that were destroyed by Chechens during the war meant that Russian traditional weapons were less attractive to their previous buyers. This, of course, meant that powerful arm-sales lobby in Russia was also interested in restoring the traditional image of Russian arms.

These facts together meant that Russian top generals and interest groups in the area were ready to exploit any opportunity to 'restore face' by a new war. And the new war was, of course, to be directed against Chechnya. However, two pre-conditions were required to begin the new war: political will on the side of Russia, and support of Russian population - which, inter alia, meant that traditional 'freedom-loving' image of Chechens was needed to be changed in somewhat barbaric and terrorist one.

2) Political situation in Russia in the face of coming Parliamentary and Presidential election:

It is, perhaps, by now almost undisputed that Elzin and the family (the term 'the family' is widely used in Russia and refers to not only biological members of Elzin's family but also to top level officials and oligarchs who feel that they have much to fear once Elzin is gone) has been desperately looking for an acceptable candidate (acceptable in the sense as being able to guarantee the future of the family) to replace Elzin.

Finding such a candidate was crucial for Elzin because he feared being prosecuted not only for war crimes committed in Chechnya but also for the events of November 1993 in Moscow (the dissolution of Russian Parliament by using Russian military which is believed to have taken about 1.000 lives).

The family, in turn, not only hoped to keep the power but also feared being prosecuted for corruption.

Here, we come to the obvious question: that is, 'Why the wartime prime minister of Russia, Mr. Chernomyrdin, was not acceptable for the family. The answer to this question lays in both the wartime behavior of the Prime Minister and his personal wealth. During the war, Chernomyrdin somehow managed not to be associated with Russian aggression (indeed, he seemed to have created somewhat peacemaker's image of himself during the June 1995 events in Budyonnovsk). Most of the time he always pretended that he was dealing only with economic problems of Russia. In my personal opinion his behavior was well chosen: if the war was to be praised he could have almost at any point of time claimed laurels of the winner of the war, if the war was to be condemned - he was not to be blamed neither for the failure nor for the atrocities of Russian army.

His personal wealth also mattered a lot. Chernomyrdin's future is dependent on political changes in Russia only to minor degree. It is believed that he managed to create not only unimaginable personal wealth but also a great deal of both personal influence within Russian business (particularly, "GAZPROM") and the ability to sustain unfavourable changes in the leading actors in 'behind-the scenes' deals of Russian politics. Thus, not surprisingly, he has hardly had been in trouble since he left the Prime Minister's office.

Since then, there have been (except the present one, Mr. Putin) three Prime Ministers of Russia. The first of them, Mr. Kirienko, seemed to have been chosen as only a short-term instrument to be used while a search for a more appropriate candidate was under way.

The second of them, Mr. Stepashin, might have been a reasonable choice: he was strongly associated with the first war in Chechnya and his future was almost totally dependent on the will of the family because he had neither a significant amount of personal wealth nor a substantial degree of influence. However, the family was not sure that he could win the presidential elections and he got fired.

The third of them, Mr. Primakov, was seen as if not powerful then at least a respected one. He might not have been 'the right choice' for at least three reasons. First, he was too old - the family needed someone who could last long. Second, his future behavior might not have been seen as a predictable one. And finally, to be 100% sure the family needed someone that was ready to cover himself with Chechen blood - the best guarantees of future behavior.

Finally, however, the family made its choice - it was Mr. Putin. Putin was, perhaps, the best candidate that the family could ever have wished for. He was young and ambitious and was ready to pay almost any price to succeed. He was a political 'nobody', which meant that his future success depended almost totally on the 'good will' of the family. Furthermore, he was ' a raw material' that had no value for the family's key rivals - so, there was no danger of a betrayal. Once chosen for the task, he was to pass a beginner's test of being in charge of the FSB (it should be noted here that all of the last three Russian prime ministers have had direct connection with the KGB and later with FSB) in which he succeeded. And as a result of a determined search for the means of survival on the side of the family, he got the job of a Prime Minister and became a potential candidate for the office of Russian President. By then, the time was right to create 'the desirable' image of Chechens.

3) Chechen failure to erect and maintain political stability in Chechnya during the period from 1996 to 1999:

In Chechnya that time the Russian Secret Service and Russian Military Intelligence were enjoying their first victories in the attempt to destabilise Chechnya and to create the much-needed image. There were two ways of achieving the objectives. First, the Islamic factor, if developed, was useful means of playing the game of the 'danger of Islamic State' of Chechnya. But this factor alone might not have been sufficient. Thus, the second way which would make the first even more powerful was 'to show' the world that freedom-loving Chechens that have much been praised by the first wartime journalists in Chechnya were 'becoming' 'kidnappers', 'killers' and so on.

It all seem to have began at the time when Russian 1994-96 military campaign's failure was becoming more and more obvious. It is, unfortunately, out of the limits of the information that I posses to state when was the first case of kidnapping in Chechnya. Nevertheless, one thing is obvious: the roots of the evil lay in the Russian practice in Chechnya at the first part of the first war. Faced with, perhaps, unprecedented resistance, heavy casualties, and a systematic cases of surrender of Russian soldiers, the top level Russian intelligence was working hard to find the ways of out of the disaster.

Various ways such as indiscriminate bombings of Chechen villages till Chechen fighters were asked by their own families to leave in order to limit the damage done by the bombings, attempts to 'buy' certain Chechen leaders, systematic jailing Chechen male civilians, and creating 'new' pro-Russian 'Chechen governments', were tried. However, none of them seemed to work.

Then, the only solution seemed to have been to discriminate Chechens and their struggle. Soon, killings of members of the Red Cross mission in Chechnya followed. However, the attempt to make public believe that behind the attack were Chechens seemed to have failed, mainly because even 'the inventory' minds of Russian Intelligence failed to find any rationale reason for Chechens to carry out the attack.

Next, step was to let Chechens know that they could get paid for human lives. However, it was still impossible to make Chechens to kidnap people. This evil was not yet known to Chechens. The solution, however, was soon found. Russians began to offer money for releasing captured Russian soldiers and officers. The amounts offered often made Chechens wonder where the money was coming from - the limits of the budget of Russian military was very well known. Here, it is important to remember that at the first part of the first war Chechens simply would give the Russian captives to their mothers without any conditions (the facts were very well covered in the media). Once Chechens saw that this was one of the very few available to them ways of obtaining means of survival, the Russian Intelligence success was achieved - it just required to be further maintained.

However, when the war was over there were no longer Russian soldiers and officers to be captured. And, then, it was the beginning of Chechen disgrace, which is, perhaps, yet to be realized and asked for forgiveness. Foreign journalists, aid workers, businessmen, and some of the Chechen collaborators with Russia during the war became victims of criminal elements in Chechnya.

Although it is impossible to justify the followed cases of kidnapping, in order to be objective one needs to know the economical and social conditions in Chechnya right after the war. As it was mentioned earlier, Chechnya literally was ruined by the war. Strong and well-planned economic and social programs were needed. And yet it was impossible to have them in the absence of any kind of investment, access to foreign markets, and the ability of Chechen government to finance even its basic expenditure. Thus, faced with estimated 95% of unemployment, which, of course, meant that these 95% of workable citizens of Chechnya and their dependants had no income and indeed no means even to deal with basic needs, Chechnya almost inevitably was to face increased criminality.

However, this was not the only evil to be faced by Chechens and Chechen state. Islamic factor was increasingly playing its part of the drama. For Russia to succeed totally was needed strongly developed contradictions within Chechnya between those who believed that Chechen State should follow its civil Constitution and those who favored a State based on Islamic Law.

For the government of Chechnya (which favored civil state and norms of International Law) faced with unsettled status of Chechen State and at least a potential danger of new Russian aggression, to use force (although it would have been perfectly legitimate since in no state an armed opposition can be accepted) meant the possibility of dividing Chechnya into two parts, which, of course, was desirable for Russia. Thus, whatever criticism of Chechen government can, perhaps, rightly been raised, the government succeeded in its main duty of keeping peace in Chechnya.

However, the greatest damage was still to come. Russia could not afford to take any chances: it needed to be certain in its success. The fighting in Dagestan was to play its part. Although some of the details of the events of the August 1999 conflict in Dagestan are relatively well known, the events that led to this are often misrepresented.

A number of Dagestanian villages (here, I would like to refer the reader to a map of 19th century Chechnya, which can be found in John F. Baddeley book 'The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus' first published in London 1908 - perhaps, the villages became Dagestanian when Chechens were deported to Kazakhstan in 1994) in the border of Dagestan and Chechnya had declared a Sharia law and this had been ignored for a time by official authorities of Dagestan and Russia.

Moreover, a movement for Dagestanian independence from Russia was also in progress within Dagestan. A relatively strong and lightly armed group of Dagestans was the core of the movement, which was mainly based in the villages. Perfectly aware that a military action against them would cause calls from the movement for help from Chechens, Russians launched their military operation. When Russians began to use heavy artillery and aircraft, the calls for help were addressed to extremists within Chechnya.

Whatever the actual facts might be, one thing is pretty obvious: a large number of volunteers from Chechnya headed by Khattab and Shamil Basayev entered the territory of Dagestan and by doing so diverted some of the fire from the armed Dagestanian group.

This conflict requires a detailed and deep analysis that is out of my present intentions. Nevertheless, two facts seem to be obvious by know. First, this was not military intervention of Chechnya to the Russian/Dagestanian territory since none of the troops of official Chechen army took part in the conflict. And second, Shamil Basayev who led the intervention to Dagestan was either fooled or somewhat manipulated by outsiders. This is so because Shamil Basayev, whatever impressions he might make, is not an Islamic fundamentalist but a Chechen nationalist. Thus, he could have been led by anything but not the desire to build an Islamic State in Dagestan. This, however, is not the case for Khattab - I believe that he, indeed, is led by Islamic Fundamentalist Ideas.

It might be seemed that the war in Dagestan, which was presented by Russian propaganda as a Chechen intervention, was a sufficient excuse for the new Russian aggression against Chechnya. But this was not the case - Russian public opinion was not still ready to accept a new war against Chechnya. To understand this, one needs to know Russians: although Dagestan is a part of Russia and Dagestans are citizens of Russia, the conflict in Dagestan was somewhere far away for many Russians - to claim a certain territory a part of Russia is one thing for Russians but to feel about the inhabitants of that part in the same way as Russians do for Russians is a completely different one. Thus, the masterminds within Russian intelligence were about to bring 'the threat' of Chechens to the very hart of Russia - Moscow.

The unfortunate fate of victims of 'terrorist' attacks in Moscow, which were followed by the same attack in Volgodonsk (another Russian city) is well known and all human beings in this world should feel sorry about them. By no means I intent to decrease the degree of their tragic suffering, but one also must be objective to Chechens who were traditionally blamed for the attacks.

Although Russian masterminds achieved their goals by the tragic outcome of that attacks, it is hardly possible to say that Russian FSB's arguments in blaming Chechens for the attacks were even simply intelligent.

First, the FSB failed to produce any evidence that Chechens were behind these attacks. And if the FSB, the daughter of the former almighty KGB, cannot produce not only any evidence but also link any Chechen national to the attacks, what does it implies? - It is for you yourself to answer this.

Second, even during the most awful and difficult times of the last Russian aggression against Chechnya, even after Russian troops murdered about 400 civilians in a Chechen village called Semaski in April 1995, even when first Chechen President Djohar Dudaev was murdered by Russians, even when the truth about torturing of Chechens in Russian 'filtration camps' was revealed, never Chechens did blow up any civilian buildings.

Third, these attacks did not bring any benefits to Chechens nor they could have brought.

Forth, in an incident in Ryazan (another Russian city), which happened just after the explosions in Moscow, Russian security forces were caught red-handed planting explosives in a block of flats (of course, the FSB claimed that it was caring out 'a training exercise').

And finally, none of Chechens claimed responsibility for the attacks. One would think terrorists should proudly take credit for their work - unless, of course, they are members of Russian Security Service.

4) Response of International community to the last war (1994-1996) and the post-war (1996-1999) political and economical problems of Chechnya:

When Chechens declared their independence, many of them somewhat naively believed it would have a favorable response from both the Western democratic world and Eastern Islamic world. This was so because, on one hand, they believed that the West would welcome the fact that another nation was getting out of the brutal rule of Imperial Russia which was followed by Godless Soviet Union. They thought that the West would help them to exercise their right to the freedom of self-determination and to build a real democracy.

On the other hand, they hoped that Islamic World would welcome the liberation of Chechens from the evil's hands and would employ a policy of recognition of much needed but even much more deserved Chechen independence. Unfortunately, none of these dreams were to become reality.

However, when the first Russian aggression against Chechnya began, the hopes were once more in the air. Chechens, this time believed that at least a gross abuse of human rights should not be tolerated. Nonetheless, their hopes deceived them once again.

Next time was when Chechnya defeated Russia. This time Chechens thought that they have proven their right to be free by being able to defend their country and by paying a heavy price of 80.000 lives for their independence. Once again naive Chechens were fooling themselves: the World was not just, although they thought it was.

The international community did nothing not only to recognize Chechnya but also to help Chechnya to recover from the damage of the war. Chechens saw it finally but they were not the only ones who saw it - Russia also saw that the International community was quite willing to ignore Chechnya and by doing so was in effect freeing Russian bloody hands once again.

When NATO (thanks God) intervened to Serbia to stop the genocide of Kosovars and when we all were told that Bosnia and Kosovo must never be repeated, Chechens thought that at least now they were secure from future genocide. This hope was even more increased when the UN intervened in the East Timor to stop the mass killings that were taking place there.

Paradoxically, in turned out that Chechens were about to experience another genocide of their nation by the very same enemy - Russia. Now they only can hope that the International community and International Humanitarian Law shall not betray them this time. Whether they are still naive remains yet to be seen.

Finally, judging the relative importance of the four main causes, outlined above, it seems prudent thing to do to ask a question: "Absence of which of the four main causes would have prevented the war? It might be up to the readers to answer this question themselves but it seems to me that the answer is that: absence of the present political situation in Russia in the face of coming Parliamentary and Presidential election would have made it impossible for Russia to wage a new war against Chechnya.


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