Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Blind Eyes no More, and other Bad News for Russia

Robert Joustra


By Robert Joustra

April 26, 2013

All eyes turned to Chechnya this past week, with an as yet-apocryphal attachment of the Boston bombings to persistent post-Soviet warfare in the Caucasus. However, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Chechen identity, time spent in the Caucasus, and deep connection to their Islamic faith is not proof positive of their collusion in global, Islamic radicalism. But proof or not, Americans are waking up to a Chechen reality, long ignored by the international community as a matter of Russian “internal security,” that is one of the most brutal, destructive, and overlooked humanitarian disasters of the modern world.

The 1990s were the setting for two major Chechen wars, what one journalist describes as one of the two most savage wars he has witnessed, the other being Rwanda. The Chechen conflict’s roots stretch back to both imperial Russian and modern Soviet history. By the sixteenth century, the Chechens were one of several nomadic groups in the area defying the expanding Russian states’ authority. A 1929 Chechen revolt against collectivization culminated in a mass deportation of Chechen nationals to Kazakhstan in 1944, under the auspices of German collaboration. Nearly a quarter of the Chechen nation died of exposure, hunger, and disease.

When the Soviet Union fell, now former republics raced to ratify their independence. The full declaration of Chechnya’s independence threatened not only strategic oil reserves but also important pipelines that ran through Chechnya. In December 1994, the Russian government resorted to arms, retrospectively citing “counter-terrorism” as the justification. The shelling of Grozny surpassed the shelling of Sarajevo in the 1990’s by a factor of at least 50, and its destruction likened to that of Stalingrad during the Second World War.

What was an essentially post-Soviet conflict took on religious tones as radical Islamist fighters flocked to Chechnya for the second round of fighting in 1996. Several analysts have called this an Islamist hijacking, a foreign imposition of Saudis and other Gulf nationals, which was out of step with the “folksy cult of local Muslim saints, the worship of these saints’ graves and a relatively liberal attitude toward Shariah dogma” (Russia’s Restless Frontier, 30). However, the use of Islam as a political instrument was largely a reaction to or consequence of the war, not its cause.  As Chechnya’s first elected president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, said, “Russia… has forced us to take the Islamic path.” 

But all cats, says an old Russian proverb, are grey at night. As the Russian military machine got the upper hand, Chechens went on killing sprees in northern Russia, attacking schools, transit points, and theaters. In one attack in 2002, forty Chechens took 700 Muscovites hostage in a theater. All the terrorists and at least 130 hostages were killed when Russian special forces released a chemical agent.

Until 2001, Chechnya was a humanitarian disaster that drew global attention and condemnation. After September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to find common cause with President Bush and the American people. “We have the same problem,” said Vladimir Putin only days after the attacks.  “The Russian people understand the American people better than anyone else, having experienced terrorism first-hand.”

Russian expert Bobo Lo writes, “Indeed, in some of its initial reactions Moscow evinced a smug, ‘told you so’ attitude.  Having tried, but failed, to convince others that its conduct of military and ‘police’ operations in Chechnya was justified as part of humanity’s wider struggle against the scourge of international terrorism, the Russian government seized on the attacks of 11 September as proof of its foresight and judgment.” In so doing, Putin managed to transform the Caucasus into another front of the global war on terror and took a blank check from the bank of global morality for counter-insurgency.

This week Russian intelligence is working overtime to prove Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were Chechen Islamic radicals. “From freedom fighters to terrorists: identity of Boston bombers shifts U.S. attitudes toward Chechnya,” read one hopeful headline of RT News, a Kremlin-owned television channel. It would be naïve at this point to suggest Islamic radicalism is not part of the picture in the Caucasus, but it would be just as naïve, criminally so, to ignore Russian culpability. Putin wished for his own front on the war on terror to quell the Chechens and to pacify the West, and he got it. The days ahead will prove whether Boston paid part of that price.

- Robert Joustra is the Editor of Cardus Policy in Public and a lecturer in international relations at Redeemer University College.

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