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Uncanny Reflection – The Destruction of Chechnya

NATO’s bombing of Serbian forces and Russia’s action in Chechnya have some chilling similarities writes Simon Cooper

When we hear the Russian bombers coming we say here comes ‘humanitarian aid’
Resident of Grozny

Like a funhouse mirror, the brutal mass-bombing and shelling of Chechnya by Russian forces resembles a distorted version of NATO’s bombing of Serbian forces in Kosovo. And while there are differences, as Clinton and Blair are keen to point out, the complicity of the West in the Chechnya situation is both real and multilevelled. Firstly, Russia has taken a leaf out of NATO’s manual on how to wage contemporary warfare. Secondly, the United States has long been a supporter of Russian attempts to dominate Chechnya. Finally, the muted response by the West to such overt barbarism has as much to do with investments in the global economy, natural resources, and ideological attempts to restrain perceived growth of fundamentalist Islam as it has to do with the issues of opposing a powerful and nuclear-capable nation.

Despite some coverage, the media response, in proportion to the amount of killing and terror that is evident in Chechnya, has been restrained. While Russia over the past six weeks has relentlessly bombed cities and villages, resulting in indiscriminate destruction, causing over two hundred thousand people to flee to neighbouring Ingushetia, there has been precious little coverage in the media of a crisis that equals, if not surpasses, the one in Kosovo. Whereas dozens of television cameras were able to convey the multifaceted scenes of terror in Kosovo, we are yet to see anything comparable in Chechnya. One can speculate on the reasons for this. One is that Russia has ensured that media contact is minimal – it is fighting its own version of an ‘information war’. Few reporters are willing to go to an area made so obviously dangerous by random bombing, combined with threats of kidnapping. Russian shelling has destroyed local media structures, along with everything else. The lack of television coverage means that Russia can deny much of what it is doing, the attack on Elistanzhi and the bombing of five Red Cross vehicles (killing two staff and twenty-five civilians) being two notorious early examples.

Another reason may be the effects of the new post-1989 division between so-called Central Europe and what remains of the East, a kind of replication of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘new poor’ at a national/regional level. In other words, if it is not in ‘Europe’ then it does not get priority – at some level it does not even exist. Perhaps it is all too much to cope with so soon after Kosovo. Here we have another example of forced movement, bombing from above, except that the same side is doing both the bombing and the forced emigration. Yet if Kosovo remains in limbo, with little in the way of positive results, if the ‘humanitarian’ values espoused as the reason for the high-altitude bombing in the Balkans have withered with time, is it not possible to find a degree of convergence between NATO-style abstract destruction in the name of humanitarianism, and the more obviously odious form destruction takes in Chechnya?

Since the breakup of the USSR, the republic of Chechnya has been a source of consternation for Russia. Claiming an independent heritage and a different ethnic composition (largely Muslim), Chechnya also contains much of the rich oil and gas deposits of the Caucasus. In 1994 Russia attempted to submit Chechnya to its will, first through what is known as the Russian ‘Bay of Pigs’ disaster, when Russian soldiers disguised as Chechens attempted to infiltrate the region, and were comprehensively routed. Six months later this was followed by open invasion. In the end Russia withdrew, having sustained large casualties in fighting a vicious ground war. There have been subsequent incidents of Chechen terrorism, including several bomb attacks in Moscow in ‘retaliation’.

This time, it is different. Russia has followed the model of the United States in Iraq and NATO in Kosovo and has conducted war at a distance. When the weather is clear Russian airplanes have made over 150 sorties a day. On 3 November the Russian airforce commander complained that his pilots had dropped so many precision-guided bombs that they were running short. At the time of writing the bombing has increased. Not that precision seems to have been of much importance. The city of Grozny is decimated, its central marketplace and hospital destroyed. It may even be that the airforce and army do not even know what they are hitting, with many Russian pilots having received minimal training. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent reports that the most common sound in Chechnya is that of the notoriously inaccurate Grad missile launcher.

There is no doubt that in the short term many in Russia are reaping the benefits of this new style of mediated destruction. The approval ratings of Prime Minister Putin have soared as he vows to teach a lesson to the ‘bandits, terrorists and gangsters’ in Chechnya. That this can be done without apparent risk of the humiliation and defeat of Russian soldiers, as in the first war, means that Putin’s military posturing has made him currently the most popular Russian politician. By conducting this ‘safer’ NATO-style war, Russia gains a double revenge – against Chechnya after the humiliations of the 1994-6 war, and against the West – as Russia reasserts itself after being largely left out of the negotiations in Kosovo. The assertion of national power also provides a useful deflection away from the recent money-laundering scandal that rocked Moscow.

There is also a more material gain. It seems that Russia is determined not only to liquidate Islamic rebels (an attempt which has largely failed), but also to regain control of the Caucasus via first gaining control of Chechnya – the gateway to the rich energy resources of the Caspian and Central Asia. Notably, Russia’s ‘recovery’ has been led by profits generated from oil and gas. Indeed Russia’s current account surplus may top 20 billion US dollars, thanks to oil and gas revenue, something that was no doubt made clear to the IMF on a recent visit.

The West has been slow to criticise Russia for conducting the form of abstract terrorism it is now engaged in. Reasons are easy enough to find. Firstly, the Clinton administration has been a long-time supporter of Russia’s attempt to dominate Chechnya. Indeed in the first campaign of 1994-6 President Clinton was highly vocal in his support for Russia, comparing Russia’s ‘struggle’ with Chechnya to America’s civil war, even going so far as to call Boris Yeltsin a Russian Abraham Lincoln. The fact that Chechnya is largely Muslim, and the fact that bombs had been planted in Moscow by Chechens has allowed the rhetoric of the ‘war on terrorism’ to flow freely. In December last year the New York Times declared that ‘Mr. Yeltsin is justified in using military force to suppress the [Chechnya] rebellion’. Only very recently, Madeline Allbright expressed US support for Russia against fundamentalist terrorism. Al Gore has said that he will be even tougher than Clinton on Muslim fundamentalist campaigns of violence. This general tenor has created a paradoxical effect upon the world stage. At the same time as President Clinton was ordering Indonesia to get out of East Timor (albeit without real commitment), his administration was supporting a savage invasion of Chechnya, in the name of a war on terrorism. While support has recently waned in the light of Russia’s open and ‘disproportionate’ campaign of terror, this complicity explains the West’s muted criticism, and both the United States’ and Britain’s affirmation at this point that they will not attempt to impose sanctions.

The relation between Russia and the global economy points toward a further level of complicity. Some commentators have called for the United States to stop financial assistance to Russia, as this is clearly, at some significant level, underwriting the war on Chechnya. Yet, while this may happen, the United State is reluctant because of the effect this might have on the global economy. As Rupert Cornwall writes, ‘Economic sanctions could backfire by triggering loan defaults or a repeat of Russia’s 1998 financial crisis that might destabilise international markets’ (Independent, 6 November 1999). For a number of reasons then, it would seem that the hands of the United States are tied. If Prime Minister Putin thumbs his nose at the West, gaining in popularity as he does so, it is perhaps this knowledge that the West simply cannot afford to risk another financial collapse that underscores his immunity to criticism.

After the disaster in Kosovo, and after the destruction of the Chechen republic, it is increasingly clear that the only solution to such racial and territorial aggression is a strengthened United Nations able to intervene on the ground and outside of regional or national interest. While this is a tall order, it is the only realistic possibility. In the last six months we have seen that neither the United States nor NATO is able to act as the world’s policeman. The style of intervention – abstract killing at a distance, the generation of genuine, if often fleeting, upwelling of humanitarian support via media concentration – has proven highly selective, as well as ultimately ineffective. Now Russia has used the methods of the West in a brutal parody of Kosovo-style intervention. The West is unwilling to act due to varying degrees of complicity, its media almost turning a blind eye to the problem.

Note: For the full version of this article, see issue 44 of Arena Magazine.