Article reprinted with permission from PINR
Russia’s predicament in its rebellious republic of Chechnya is fast spinning out of control and is threatening to become Russia’s second Afghanistan. After ten years of trying to control Chechnya primarily by military force, punctuated by a period of withdrawal from 1996 to 1999, Russia still has not been able to realize its aim of ruling the republic through a compliant local political leadership. At present, the situation in Chechnya is deteriorating so badly that Moscow is increasingly faced with a series of options, all of which are unfavorable to its strategic and security interests.
Located in the strategically significant Caucasus mountains, Chechnya’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population has never been reconciled to its incorporation into the Russian empire in 1859. Chechens declared an autonomous republic in 1920 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, but were later absorbed into the Soviet Union. In 1944, the Stalin regime accused the Chechens of cooperating with Nazi forces and sent hundreds of thousands of them into forced exile in Kazakhstan from where they were allowed to return in 1957. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechens again made a bid for independence under the leadership of air force general Dzhokar Dudayev. The Russian regime of Boris Yeltsin refused to acquiesce in Chechnya’s separation and invaded the republic in 1994, setting off a two-year war that ended in Russian retreat and de facto independence for Chechnya without international recognition.
During its brief period of independence, Chechnya became a failed state. The elected government of Aslan Maskhadov was unable to contain rampant crime, corruption, warlordism and Islamic revolutionist tendencies, which spilled over into neighboring Russian republics and into the heart of Russia itself. After a series of apartment house bombings in Russia in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen radicals, the Putin regime chose to invade Chechnya once again, driving Maskhadov underground and triggering a second Chechen war that continues to fester and recently has erupted with suicide bombings of Russian airliners and the seizure and bombing of a school in the republic of North Ossetia, resulting in hundreds of deaths and casualties.
The recent upsurge of violence in the Chechnya conflict stems directly from the assassination of Chechnya’s Russian-backed President Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9, 2004. Elected in October, 2003, Kadyrov had been Moscow’s hope for achieving legitimacy for its control of Chechnya. The chief religious leader of Chechnya’s Sunni Muslims, Kadyrov had backed the separatist forces in the first Chechen war, but became disenchanted with the failed experiment in independence and collaborated with the Russian occupiers after 1999, becoming head of a Russian-imposed governing authority. With the death of Kadyrov, Moscow lost the only local leader with sufficient support and prestige in the Chechen population to possibly secure legitimacy for Russian rule. Politically, Russia’s situation in Chechnya has reverted to what it was in the first Chechen war, in which it was defeated.
Russia’s Position in Chechnya
In Chechnya, Russia faces a situation that is strikingly similar to the one that it encountered in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it tried unsuccessfully to preserve that country as a client state against nationalist and Islamic opposition aided by the United States. Both Chechnya and Afghanistan are clan-based societies whose members share strong senses of national identity and independence, but do not have traditions of strong, centralized, political rule. When such societies function as effective polities, their governance is based on a fine balance of power among networks of clan alliances, which is easily disturbed and vulnerable to degenerating into fragmentation, localism and warlordism. Under the stress of war, Chechnya has fallen apart into an array of competing groups, some of which war against Russia and others which cooperate with it to varying degrees out of expediency.