Saturday, 29 March 2014

Where was the outrage over Chechnya?

There's plenty of outrage in the West over Russian actions in Ukraine. Where was all this bluster in the 1990s when Russia waged war on Chechnya? Tariq Ali wrote a great article for The Guardian today raising this very question. He concluded:

The Crimean affair led to barely any loss of life, and the population clearly wanted to be part of Russia. The White House's reaction has been the opposite of its reaction to Chechnya. Why? Because Putin, unlike Yeltsin, is refusing to play ball any more on the things that matter such as Nato expansion, sanctions on Iran, Syria etc. As a result, he has become evil incarnate. And all this because he has decided to contest US hegemony by using the methods often deployed by the west. (France's repeated incursions in Africa are but one example.) 
If the US insists on using the Nato magnet to attract the Ukraine, it is likely that Moscow will detach the eastern part of the country. Those who really value Ukrainian sovereignty should opt for real independence and a positive neutrality: neither a plaything of the west nor Moscow.

Putin inherited the legacy of Russian policy in Chechnya. He has capitalised on this enormously over the years in different ways and it's a record worth exploring. In his bid for power Boris Yeltsin had conspired with the leaders of Soviet republics to dissolve the Soviet Union. In the aftermath secessionists in less convenient parts of the former Soviet Union, including Chechnya, which would make a bid for independence from Russia as soon as the old Communist leaders were overthrown. Yeltsin had gotten more than the powers he had sought at home. The Chechen nationalist Dzhokhar Dudayev was elected President of Ichkeria - effectively the independent Chechen state - in the midst of increasing instability and tension in the region. With the eruption of armed conflict in neighbouring North Ossetia the Chechens feared the presence of Russian troops and the prospects of escalation.

Dudayev initiated a state of emergency after Russian troops moved to the Chechen border. He had already faced a coup attempt from his opponents. The opposition would turn to armed means of deposing Dudayev in 1994. By this point Yeltsin was keen to bolster his popularity at home after his economic policies had led to disaster. The instability in Chechnya offered an opportunity for Yeltsin. The Russians lent support to the armed opposition in order to overthrow Dudayev and crush his example of independence. Dudayev held his own from October to November against the forces Yeltsin had mobilised. Eventuating in the Battle of Grozny the Russian government was humiliated after the Chechens captured a large number of military vehicles and personnel. It was meant to be a swift clandestine operation to topple the government.

Still looking for a boost in ratings Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to all factions in Chechnya (though not his own forces) demanding that they disarm and surrender. Knowing that this wouldn’t happen, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to invade and restore order and defend Russia’s territorial integrity. The Russian Security Council had already set its plans to intervene before Yeltsin even made the ultimatum. The Russian army began bombing the Chechen air capabilities and within ten days the invasion was underway. Just as Brezhnev had mistakenly thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be successful within weeks the Russians now thought the Grozny government could be toppled. The war would rage for two years before a ceasefire was signed on Russian terms. Dudayev was assassinated. Yeltsin would survive the Presidential elections of 1996. Estimates of the killed range to 100,000 along with 500,000 people displaced.

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