It remained to be understood what role the Chechen question would play in relations between Russia and the United States. For many reasons, including oil, American diplomacy would prefer Chechnya to enjoy a wide range of autonomy. But he knows that the Chechen question is much more important for the Russian state than the Iraqi one. For the reasons I will try to summarize, Vladimir Putin’s Russia does not intend to give up control of Chechnya and is unwilling to allow its policy to be subject to the control and influence of the international community.
When in August 1991 General Dzokar Dudaev, hitherto commander of a Soviet Air Force missile post in Estonia, broke into the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Chechen-Ingushetia in Grozny and proclaimed Chechen independence, no one in Moscow was caught. unawares. Chechnya had been, since the years of the Great Catherine, the proudest, most rebellious and rebellious of the Russian possessions north and south of the Caucasus. The graphical representation of his relations with Moscow shows that they respond to an iron rule. Whenever the Moscow state goes into crisis, Chechnya rebels. Whenever Moscow survives its own crisis and regains control of the situation, the Chechens are severely repressed and brutally brought back into the ‘Russian homeland’. This happened after the Bolshevik revolution, during and after the German occupation of the Second World War, after the crisis of the Soviet state in the summer of 1991. Russia tolerated Chechen secession until, in 1994, President Boris Yeltsin and the his government decided that the time had come to correct the ‘mistake’ of 1991. The decision was made because Chechnya was one of the major oil crossroads in the region and because its secession, hitherto tolerated by Moscow, had created separatist outbreaks among other populations of the great Russian federal state, from the Tatars to the Acute. There was, however, another reason, no less important. General Dudaev’s republic had become the ‘mother house’,
The war for the reconquest of the lost territory lasted two years, from 1994 to 1996, and ended in a resounding Russian failure. The army made some unforgivable tactical and strategic mistakes, the losses among its ranks were high and public opinion, after having patiently tolerated the Afghan adventure of the 1980s, took advantage of freedom to publicly manifest its opposition to the conflict. As the 1996 presidential election approached, Yeltsin tasked General Aleksandr Lebedev with negotiating a peace agreement. The Chechens did not yet obtain independence, but almost total autonomy and the promise that they could choose their final status in a referendum within five years.
But they made bad use of the occasion. In the following years, Chechnya became the scene of civil and military feuds between political and private militias, criminal raids, kidnappings. After the death of Dudaev, possibly killed by a Russian missile in April 1996, the protagonists of the struggle for power were Aslan Mashkadov and Shamil Basaev. Elections were held that saw the victory of Mashkadov, but Basaev, after a brief collaboration with his opponent, tried to build a new role for himself and inspire a great Islamic revolt extended to the entire region. It wasn’t the first time. Even after the Bolshevik revolution some ambitious leaders had raised the green flag of the Prophet and tried to turn religious sentiment into Islamic nationalism. To achieve his goal, Basaev established contacts with the Taliban regime in Kabul and his movement began to take on a religious connotation. The result was a military foray into Dagestan and a series of deadly terrorist attacks between the summer and autumn of 1999. That was the moment when Yeltsin, now nearing the end of his second term, chose a dolphin in the person of Vladimir. Putin, then head of the Federal Security Service (the old KGB), called him to head the government. The second Chechen war, which broke out in the autumn, was certainly the political move with which the new prime minister prepared the presidential elections of the following March. But it was justified in Moscow’s eyes by the greater danger that the Chechen movement had assumed in the previous months.
In the beginning, the second war was somewhat different from the first. With some effective military operations, the Russian army managed to seize the major cities and conquer the territory militarily. But he soon found himself grappling with a situation no different from what the Americans would have faced in Afghanistan and Iraq: guerrilla operations and numerous attacks, in Chechnya and Russia. The most sensational was the raid of a terrorist commando in the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in October 2002. The Russian special forces killed the Chechens and freed the hostages, but their intervention resulted in the death of 120 spectators. Faced with such widespread and insidious resistance, Putin, with a move similar to that of the Americans in Iraq, he tried to create a friendly Chechen government to entrust with the most unwelcome and risky responsibilities. The government was entrusted to the Chechen mufti Ahmed Kadyrov. Elections were held and Kadyrov became President of the Republic. Putin was thus able to argue that Chechnya now had its own self-government. But it was difficult to imagine that the solution would be accepted by all dissidents and especially by the most radical factions of the Islamic movements.
In the following months, the rebels multiplied their efforts: a terrorist attack in the Moscow metro, an explosion during a rock concert and, above all, the killing of President Kadyrov in the Grozny stadium during a parade in May 2004. Putin searched to run for cover with new presidential elections in August. The man chosen in this case was Alu Alchanov, a Soviet police officer before the secession and Minister of the Interior of the Chechen Republic in Kadyrov’s pro-Russian government. Wasn’t it a quisling under the orders of the Kremlin, but it was certainly perceived as such by the factions of Aslan Mashkadov and Shamil Basaev. The world witnessed, before and after his election, a dramatic crescendo of terrorist attacks: two Tupolev planes shot down by an explosion within minutes, a bomb near a Moscow metro station and the raid of a commando in a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, where about twenty terrorists seized 1200 children, parents, teachers. When the situation escaped the control of the kidnappers and the Russian forces reacted by storming the school, the story ended with a tragic bloodbath: more than three hundred hostages dead, more than seven hundred injured. Putin’s plan for the solution of the Chechen problem had now failed. But the ferocity of the kidnappers showed that the Chechen camp was dominated by extremist factions with which it was impossible to enter into any negotiations. In this situation, the Russian president felt empowered to pursue his policy and announce that he would strengthen the country’s security. It was questionable whether a further crackdown in this area would reduce the democratic freedoms and civil guarantees of the fragile Russian democracy.
Chechnya is destined to be a thorn in the side of the Russian Republic for a long time to come.
The firmness with which Moscow defended its property title is likely to have had the effect of preventing Chechen separatism from infecting other national minorities. And it is therefore probable that Putin, by fighting the independence of the small Caucasian Republic, avoided the crisis of the Russian federal state. But the events of 2004 have shown that he has neither succeeded in crushing the rebellion nor in preventing the terrorists from continuing to be able to carry out their attacks with extraordinary dexterity within Russian territory.