Chechnya Rebels Undermine Own Cause

31 October 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Chechnya's rebel forces joined the war on terror last week, as a group of fifty commandos took more than 800 civilians of various nationalities hostage in a Moscow theater. The rebels, cloaking themselves in imagery of jihad, demanded that Russia cease the war it has been waging since 1999 to prevent the tiny Caucasian nation from breaking away. The rebels' bold move was answered after a three-day standoff by Russian forces who pumped the theater full of gas -- the specific chemical has not been named, raising concerns that it may be a prohibited chemical weapon -- and then stormed in to liberate the hostages from their incapacitated captors.

Until last week, the war in Chechnya had been on Moscow's back burner. Current President Vladimir Putin had staked his political career on a promise to finish the work that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, left undone when he withdrew Russian forces in 1996, granting Chechnya de facto autonomy. But Putin's military campaign proved no more successful than Yeltsin's, as the poorly trained and poorly equipped army was unable to defeat the nationalist rebels, and the President shifted his attention elsewhere while the conflict simmered on. The Russian public grew disillusioned with the war, and most came to believe that some sort of diplomatic solution was necessary.

After September 11, there were fears that many countries would use ?the war on terror? to justify crushing insurgent groups, and Russia's conduct toward the Chechens was an oft-cited example. However, the U.S.'s skill at keeping Russia preoccupied with fighting terrorism first in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq kept Putin from ever gearing up the rhetoric machine to launch a new push for subduing Chechnya. The Chechens, desiring a conclusive end to a war that they could not simply ignore, decided to make the connection themselves. That move is almost certain to backfire.

The reason the Russia-Chechnya conflict was so often cited as a cautionary example of "war on terror" rhetoric was because it seemed to be a good example of a conflict that wouldn't neatly fit George W. Bush's Manichean view. Though Chechnya is predominantly Muslim, and fundamentalist groups -- such as Shamil Basayev's faction, which led the theater attack -- do operate there, the major rebel factions' ideologies were rooted in secular nationalism. Further, the Russian army has displayed a callous indifference to civilian deaths and the growing refugee crisis afflicting Chechnya's neighbors. And while the army remains underpaid and undersupplied, the war still constitutes a huge drag on Moscow's finances at a time when the nation's economy has hit rock bottom.

In the Russian hostage crisis, the rebels -- in a new turn -- self-consciously adopted the appearance of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, a la al-Qaida or Hamas. Eighteen rebel women strapped explosives to themselves in imitation of Palestinian suicide bombers. They released a tape to the Arabic TV station al-Jazeera, which has become famous as the broadcaster of Osama bin Laden?s missives. In the tape, one rebel says, "each of us is ready to sacrifice for God and the independence of Chechnya. We seek death more than you seek life."

Most crucial to the new image of the Chechen rebels, however, was their target: civilians. The horror of September 11 and the nightclub bombings in Bali was multiplied, and reluctance to see the other side increased exponentially by the fact that those who died were guilty of nothing more than being citizens of the nation that the terrorists hated. Shooting at troops and military installations in the Caucasus allowed the rebels to claim that they were simply resisting Russian intrusion into their land. But by bringing 750 innocent theatergoers into it, the rebels have made all Muscovites -- and by extension Russians across the country -- feel like targets. It's no longer about kicking the Russians out, it's about taking down Russia.

The Chechens haven't become Islamic terrorists in the mold of al-Qaida or Jemaah Islamiyah. Those groups, while they had political goals, made no attempt to issue demands or exact concessions from the West. They simply attacked. The Chechens, on the other hand, used their hostages as blackmail, threatening to kill them if Russia did not withdraw from the war.

There was never any chance of Russia agreeing to those demands. It would have been political suicide, if nothing else, for Putin to give in to a stunt like this. And it has served to harden Russia's stance toward Chechnya. Where a war of attrition might have led Putin to follow in Yeltsin's footsteps, or submit to negotiations, the hostage crisis has toughened his already hard-line stance. On Monday, he gave the military greater latitude to deal with terrorist threats, opening the door for the war in Chechnya to become even more brutal. The Chechens have made themselves the type of enemy that reasonable people are unwilling to negotiate with.

The scale of the undertaking is also relevant. This was not a little mission that the overall nationalist movement can back out of if it turns out to be counterproductive. Nobody is listening to Aslan Maskhadov (the Chechen rebel leader) as he tries to disavow the mission and come to the bargaining table. The standoff and subsequent raid captured international attention, and will constitute the primary image of the Chechen rebel movement in the minds of most foreigners. They won't be able to think of Chechnya as anything other than an Islamic terrorist base.

It's unclear exactly why the Chechens adopted their new terrorist garb. Perhaps they hoped that international Islamist groups would come to their aid (Russia already suspects an al-Qaida role in the plot, though they've shown no evidence). Perhaps they simply wanted to shock Russia into doing something about the crisis.

Whatever the intent of their strategy, it is clear that the Chechen rebels' larger goal is an independent, or at least meaningfully autonomous, Chechnya. However, adopting an Islamic fundamentalist persona will only hinder them from achieving that.

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