World Ignoring Chechen War

22 October 1999

By Stentor Danielson

I'm afraid to ask if any of the Colgate students reading this article have heard of Chechnya.

After all, the world community seems not to have taken much notice of the breakaway Russian republic, either. Yet, there is certainly cause for concern.

In 1996, Russia's military was defeated by Islamic fundamentalists in the tiny Caucasian province, resulting in a sort of de facto independence. This summer, the neighboring republic of Dagestan suffered attacks by Islamic militants, which prompted Russia to once more bring its military force to bear against the region. A terrorist-targeting bombing strategy, followed by the advance of ground troops, has created a stream of refugees terrified of the Russian military. And nobody but Chechens and Russians seem to care.

The international community hasn't completely ignored the events. But though the most recent spate of violence began this summer, there have been no actions taken so far other than vaguely worded condemnations. For example, U.S. State Department spokesman George Foley urged Russia to "protect the rights of its citizens."

Regardless of what one may think the international responsibility is, it is undeniable that the reaction to the Chechnya situation does not match the reactions to other incidents of internal strife. When Slobodan Milosevic tried to end Kosovo Liberation Army actions in his country, NATO launched a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. When Indonesia failed to reestablish peace in East Timor after its independence vote, a United Nations peacekeeping force was promptly sent in. Granted, these situations are not identical to the events in Chechnya. But nobody seems to even be considering whether intervention might be warranted in Chechnya.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that internal warfare is the last thing any nation needs. This is especially true for Russia. With the post-soviet economy and government holding on for dear life, a long and ineffective war such as was waged in 1994-96 is a distraction that Russia may not be able to afford. But Islamic fundamentalist groups have backed it into a corner.

It's no secret that Russia is not handling the situation well. Though it claims to desire a diplomatic solution, Russia has rejected Chechen offers to come to an agreement. Refugees have returned to the area, only to find their homes looted or destroyed.

Russia is near, if not at, the top of the list of nations whose stability should concern both the United States and the world. Despite the problems it has faced since the fall of communism, Russia is still a very large country with very large firepower. When it finally gets settled, it will be even more of a power to be reckoned with.

The problem is not just a single enclave up in the Caucasus. The Chechen independence movement is founded upon Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism is a very real threat to Russian control throughout the south of the country. If Russia fails to handle the Chechnya crisis successfully, it may inspire militant groups in Dagestan and other areas to move ahead with plans for independent fundamentalist states, destabilizing southern Russia.

My point is not that the United States should send in the troops. I continue to strongly support a policy of military nonintervention. My point is that our complacency raises concerns about the true motivation behind decisions to intervene.

The only explanation that I can come up with is that Chechnya is in Russia. Other sites of intervention that I have mentioned, such as Yugoslavia and Indonesia, are weaker countries that could be pushed around if they give us a hard time. But because Russia is such an important player on the international scene, we don't dare do anything. We let them handle the situation in order to avoid antagonizing them.

This is, in a sense, a wise move. Internal conflicts shouldn't be allowed to suck in the whole world. That's how World War I started. If it takes a fear of Russia to keep us from nosing in on other nations' business, fine. But military intervention is not the only form of action that can be taken.

In our haste to let Russia handle Chechnya, we have forgotten the refugees that have been driven into the neighboring region of Ingusheita. Any mountains, including the Caucasus, are not the most fun place to be homeless and jobless, especially with winter approaching. This is a humanitarian crisis comparable to the problems that so concerned the world in other scenarios.

Yet the world seems unconcerned. We are content to let the people of Chechnya suffer without so much as a tent to crawl into at night while Russia attempts to subdue the rebellious factions. Given Russia's failures in its 1994-96 campaign, this does not appear to be a hopeful situation.

Given the problems that have and could arise from the Chechnya crisis, the situation should not be simply dismissed out of hand. The leaders of the world, especially those who championed efforts to intervene in Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere, need to take a good look at the situation in Chechnya. And they need to ask themselves why they hadn't before.

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