Three Monkeys Online

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Chechnya: Russia’s Second Afghanistan

The interest of the United States in the Caucasus is control over oil supplies from the Caspian Sea, which involves securing compliant regimes in the southern Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, where the oil is extracted, and Georgia, through which the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline will pass. As a consequence of this dominant interest, the United States is also committed to thwarting any attempt by Russia to expand its influence in the Caucasus. From the American viewpoint, Russian failure in Chechnya is welcome, as long as it does not get to the point that Chechnya becomes a base for Islamic revolution worldwide.

In the current strategic environment, the United States is constrained to give public support to Russian efforts to curb terrorism, but that does not mean that it takes Russia’s side in practice. Not only did the United States criticize the August 29 election as being “neither free nor fair,” but it has granted asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister of Maskhadov’s opposition government, leaving him free to pursue diplomacy aimed at winning international support for Maskhadov’s Republic of Ichkeria. The Putin regime has complained of an American “double standard” in the “war on terror,” but has been powerless to stop the American support of the opposition.

Maskhadov is pursuing a novel strategy of sending his government ministers into exile in different countries so that they can gain maximum diplomatic leverage. Culture Minister Akhmed Zakayev has been granted asylum in Great Britain; Health Minister Umar Khanbiyev is in France; Social Defense Minister Apti Bisultanov is based in Germany. Maskhadov’s dispersion strategy has led to publicity for his proposal to internationalize the Chechen conflict through guarantees of the country’s autonomy and to contacts with N.G.O.s. Whether N.A.T.O. powers are formally involved with the Ichkerian exile government is unclear, but at the very least they are granting it a measure of legitimacy and sending a signal to Moscow that they are not supportive of its success in Chechnya.

The United States and the European Union have called for Russia to negotiate with the separatists. France and Germany have played both sides of the table, distancing themselves from the United States by endorsing the August 29 election, but also urging negotiation. Their ambivalence is based on their desire for stronger relations with Russia to counter American influence in Eastern Europe and to build economic relations, particularly in the oil sector. At the same time, they also want Caspian Sea oil free from Russian control.


With no apparent favorable options, it is likely that the conflict in Chechnya will result in a setback for Russia’s geostrategic interests in the Caucasus. Faced with a population that remains ill disposed to Russian rule and is not organized coherently enough to make a bargain, and confronted by external powers that have an interest in diminishing Moscow’s influence in the region, Putin’s regime is in a bind from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to extricate itself. Over time, Moscow will be tempted either to withdraw or to apply massive force. In the short term, it will probably continue its failed policies, possibly with additional shows of force that will not change the basic situation.

The most likely scenario of prolonged instability will weaken Putin’s credibility and give him less leeway elsewhere in the Caucasus, providing an advantage to the N.A.T.O. powers.

Dr. Michael A. Weinstein is a professor of political science at Purdue University and an analyst with the Power and Interest News Report

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe.

Reprinted with kind permission of PINR.

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