Vienna, December 11 – Fifteen years ago today, President Boris Yeltsin sent Russian forces into Chechnya, thereby launching what has become known as the first Chechen war that ended with what one analyst calls “a Brest peace for a nuclear power” and set the stage for both the second Chechen war and continuing violence across the North Caucasus.
In a commentary on this anniversary, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful analysts of development in the Caucasus, argues that continuing debates about whether that war could have been avoided and about why Moscow suffered defeat have obscured three important lessons from that conflict (www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=9285).
Yeltsin’s campaign in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, he observes, “ended for Russia with a serious defeat not so much military and political and psychological.” Indeed, the Khasavyurt accords represented in a certain way “a Brest peace for a nuclear power,” one that the loser could not be expected to put up with for long.
But however that might be, Markedonov insists that 15 years later, the first Chechen “campaign” provides some important lessons which he says have not yet been assimilated by many in the Russian government and population and which, if they are not learned and made the basis of policy, will point to even more problems ahead.
First, he says, the conflict in Chechnya in the mid-1990s, “demonstrated that autism in relation to Chechnya is impossible.” Russia could have “thrown out Chechnya,” he says, “but a Chechnya awash with chaos and civil war could never leave Russia.” And consequently, “the idea that it was simply possible to ‘live through the conflict’” is without foundation.
Second, Markedonov continues, that war showed that “a military operation without a social-economic (and that must not be confused with spending government funds!) and political (which must not be confused with handing over the republic on a rental basis to ‘a group of comrades’!) will not achieve the goal of the rehabilitation” of Chechnya.
That goal is critical for Moscow because from a Russian perspective “Chechnya is not foreign territory. In relation to ‘a foreign land,’ ‘carpet’ bombing’ or ‘targeted attacks’ may be possible.” But all these military methods, Markedonov argues, are ineffective or worse when used on “one’s own citizens (or with those whom we would like to see in this capacity.)”
And third, the first post-Soviet campaign in Chechnya showed both how little information and knowledge Moscow had about a place it defined as part of the Russian Federation, a reflection of “the absence of serious public interest of Russian citizens toward Chechnya,” a lack that has not yet been remedied.
“At the end of the day,” Markedonov says, “the powers that be may be mistaken and confused, but the autism of society is a much more dangerous thing.” For most Russians, Chechnya is of interest in only two cases: if one of their relatives is drafted and might have to serve there or if Russian television shows its latest “low-budget, pseudo-patriotic serials.”
Unfortunately, 15 years after the start of the first post-Soviet Chechen campaign, the Moscow analyst says, “what is really taking place in the North Caucasus republics is agitating foreign observers much more than it is our fellow [Russian Federation] citizens.” That does not mean they are behind the Chechens as some think, but it does have serious consequences.
As a result of this inattention and ignorance, not everything that is necessary for “the successful integration of Chechnya into the all-Russian space” is being done. Instead, that republic is being treated as “’a separate island,’ even though it is not surrounded by any body of water.”
Consequently, 15 years on, Chechnya “continue to be important for both for the powers that be and for civil society” in the country as a whole. And unless both recognize that the Chechen challenge is not over even if the “counter-terrorism operation is declared complete and begin to assimilate these unlearned lessons, these problems are not going to go away.