The West and Chechnya: The diplomacy of Realpolitik
They had been marching for hours and they were tired, so there was no fanfare when the small guerrilla troop arrived at the farmhouse where I was hiding. In the dim light of kerosene lamps I caught my first glimpse of the tough Chechen guerrillas Russian President Vladimir Putin insists on labeling "terrorists and bandits." They looked like partisans the world over, clad in a motley array of uniforms and improvised half-uniforms, some lacking even proper boots but all of them festooned with ammunition and armed to the teeth with captured Russian rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers.
I looked into their war-weary faces and I was surprised at their youth. They were boys who were no longer boys. So many of the older veterans have been killed that the Chechen resistance depends increasingly on adolescent volunteers. Of the dozen fighters before me none was older than nineteen, most were even younger - the smallest of them, barely taller than his bazooka, was merely sixteen. They would be my escort on the pre-dawn trek on a forest path scarred by shelling to reach their hidden stronghold less than two kilometers from Russian army positions, and later we would march alongside an enemy artillery barrage, the night sky illuminated by incandescent yellow and red bursts of high explosive. Chechnya was on fire.
The scenes of my Chechen journey are still sharply drawn in my mind's eye. The memory of fear, the kindness and generosity shown by Chechen civilians and guerrillas alike, the countless stories of horror and sacrifice that color the nightmare of Chechnya at war, are also just as vivid a year later. Last spring, together with a French freelance camera crew traveling by car, horseback and on foot I was smuggled across five hundred miles of Russian territory to reach rebel-held Chechnya. Our five-week clandestine expedition for ABC News Nightline began many months after Grozny, the shattered insurgent capital, fell. The majority of western journalists, like members of watchdog groups, had either been expelled or forced to endure strict Russian censorship that confined them to the peripheries. But we eluded the Russian gauntlet to live amongst the fighters and the resistance network in the heart of the combat zone, and our effort remains unmatched even now. Our film is still the last visual testimonial to emerge from guerrilla territory and the only face-to-face interview with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov since the latest conflict began.
Since coming home I have tried to no avail to have another news
organization sponsor my return to Chechnya. I have also tried to speak
out as a journalist witness to the slaughter in the Caucasus, and I
always met silence. When I approached the European Editor of NPR she
told me that her own reporters, while having mostly failed to reach the
sharp end of the war, had done a "conscientious" job. I replied I had
earned the authority to offer my views because I had seen it, and she
never called me back. With rare exceptions I've watched Chechnya's
all but vanish from American television screens and newspapers, that is
until the monstrous events of September 11th.
To my dismay I listened to a State Department spokesman link Chechnya
Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. Wartime expediency and alliance-building
demands Russian support for our efforts in Central Asia, so it seems
Chechnya will be sacrificed on the slimmest of evidence. Speaking in
Washington recently, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stated with
conviction that Moscow "respects international law, international norms
and human rights." We have said nothing to dispel this fantasy.
Pragmatism toward Moscow now entails tacit acquiescence of a genocidal
But Chechnya is home to new gulags, the so called "filtration camps"
where 30,000 Chechen POW's and prisoners of conscience languish in
bestial conditions, bereft of even rudimentary medical care and
routinely subject to torture, starvation and execution. Any Chechen can
be arrested without charge or face capital punishment without trial.
Chechnya's cities and villages are smoldering ruins constantly subject
to wanton bombardments meant to sow terror through the indiscriminate
targeting of civilians. Out of a pre-war population of roughly a
million, after two years of carnage one in seven is now dead. Those
permanently disabled, blinded, limbless, or crippled by psychological
wounds are too numerous to count. Many are children. Chechnya is fast
becoming a nation of invalids and grave diggers. It is also a nation of
refugees: there are some 250,000 of the dispossessed living in the
squalor of makeshift camps, short of everything except misery. Disease
and malnutrition is rampant among them and the onset of winter leaves
them prey to the elements. International humanitarian organizations are
largely barred from rendering any aid.
The Russian army and interior ministry troops routinely carry out what
are euphemistically labeled "cleansing" operations. Ostensibly meant as
search-and-destroy missions against the resistance, they are in
another facet of Moscow's scorched earth policy. One of the villages
where I hid in a safehouse was "cleansed" this past summer. A Russian
column arrived and soldiers promptly began to summarily shoot down able
bodied men in front of their families, including boys as young as
while dozens of other men were taken to the nearby woods and did not
return. The crackle of automatic weapons fire could be heard in the
Women of all ages were also gang raped in front of their families.
who resisted were lucky if they were only beaten severely - some were
murdered after the soldiers had pleasured themselves. Scores of other
villagers of all ages and sexes were rounded up and driven away for
"interrogation." Then followed a further orgy of pillage and looting as
the soldiers ransacked houses and then set them alight. Families of
victims seeking to claim their dead for burial were forced to pay the
soldiers ransom money before the Russian column left the village, the
soldiers cheering and guzzling the vodka their officers had
It was not an isolated incident, but an example of Moscow's
state-sponsored terrorism witnessed in hundreds of Chechen villages
terrible mathematical certainty. Eyewitnesses and survivors filed a
detailed account to emissaries of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe, but the OSCE never issued a formal complaint to
the Russian authorities nor has any investigation ensued.
When I interviewed President Maskhadov (a man who assumed leadership of
his nation in a transparent democratic election overseen by the UN and
the OSCE) at a secret base in Chechnya's mountains, he told me bluntly
that "if we lose this war we will be exterminated, we will be wiped
so we must win and we will win." All the young fighters I came to know
repeated the same stark logic, since they understand the meaning of
genocide. As god-fearing Muslims they are proud to call themselves
Mujahadeen and many wear the green headbands that mark them as Islamic
holy warriors, but they bear no ideological or spiritual resemblance
whatsoever to the medieval primitives of the Taliban or the murderous
zealots of Al- Qaeda.
The Chechens are an ancient culture rich in folklore, music and poetry.
Their language, Chechen-Ingush, is some 2,500 years old. Their
particular brand of Islam is anchored by the ecstatic and decidedly
pacifist mysticism of Sufic tradition. Judged excessively permissive
liberal in its expression of spirituality by rigid conservative Muslims
elsewhere, Chechen Islam is rejected as heretic and particularly
loathsome by ultra Wahabis such as Bin Laden. The rhythmic chanting and
dance-like trance of the quintessential Chechen ritual of faith known
the Zikr, which can see men, women and children joyously celebrating
together, is regarded as especially odious by fundamentalists.
Chechen mysticism is culturally specific and not readily compared to
other Sufic traditions. The body of Chechen Islam, which loosely
to the Sunni tradition, reveals itself as one of the most tolerant,
vibrant and esoteric forms of Islam anywhere in the Muslim universe. It
follows that the Chechen constitution recognizes and guarantees the
equality of the sexes - no doubt proof of further apostasy to those
inclined to execute radios and televisions. Putin's selling of his
brutal war in Chechnya as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic
radicalism is little else than calculated propaganda.
The entire fighting strength of the Chechen forces numbers no more than
7 to 10,000 combatants. Dependent on what war material it captures,
lacking heavy weapons, devoid of an air force, chronically short of
everything from ammunition to radios and medicine not to mention boots,
uniforms and helmets, it is laughable anyone would consider such a
ragtag army as posing an expansionist threat. The Chechens fight only
retain their hard won right to self-determination, an objective they
have striven to achieve in various unsuccessful uprisings since the
of Peter the Great. Still reeling from the wholesale destruction and
loss of life endured in their 1994-1996 war of independence and never
having received as much as one Ruble of the reparation and
reconstruction funds that cemented their peace deal with then Russian
president Boris Yeltsin, it was with reluctance that the exhausted
Chechens mobilized to resist the latest Russian invasion of their
The bulk of the tiny Chechen regular army was decimated during the
second battle of Grozny and the costly retreat that followed its fall.
As before, the task of fighting the occupier then fell to ordinary
citizens forced to take up arms. In this sense the Chechen resistance
both a classic guerrilla force, and a citizen army filling its ranks
entirely from volunteers and drawing sustenance, aid, shelter and moral
support from the same larger civilian population which it defends and
from which it originates.
Despite impossible odds the Chechens have proven themselves masterful
and resilient practitioners of unconventional warfare, often negating
the size and weight of Russian firepower by striking unexpectedly then
quickly melting away into the rugged mountains and forests they know so
well. Chechnya's is a war of raids and ambushes that constantly leaves
the Russian enemy frustrated and surprised. What the guerrillas can do
little to prevent are the inevitable arbitrary reprisals, which the
occupying army, rarely able to come to grips with them on its own
routinely carries out against the civilian population. Moscow's
indiscriminate retaliation serves only to enrage the Chechens further
and steel their resolve never to surrender.
In contrast to the hapless, often demoralized and poorly led Russian
conscripts, who make up the bulk of Russia's expeditionary force - an
occupying army further weakened by endemic corruption, alcohol and drug
abuse, a high suicide rate and desertion - the men and women who serve
as Mujahadeen and elsewhere in the underground remain highly motivated
and dedicated to their cause, willingly able to perform prodigies and
endure sacrifices time and again on the very edge of human endurance.
I came to know some of the fighters who had survived the winter retreat
from Grozny , where thousands of fleeing civilians accompanied the
retreating Chechen fighters and the only escape from the doomed city
through a minefield under heavy fire from the encircling Russian
Every moment's delay meant more would be cut down as the cumbersome
of refugees and guerrillas remained exposed to the withering barrage,
unable to turn back or advance. Then came an order: volunteers among
fighters were asked to deliberately detonate the mines and open a path
for the rest to follow. Shouting "God is great", the guerrillas threw
themselves onto the mines. Hundreds died, but thousands got away. This
is how the Chechen army lived to fight another day.
The teenage partisan I met told me how he had watched his best friend
intentionally blow himself to bits so he might live. It had weighed
heavily on him, but tears had only come later. He asked me, "so, do I
look like a terrorist and a bandit?" No, he didn't. Neither did the
twenty-year-old former medical student who described how the Russians
had burned with flame-throwers the wounded comrades the Chechens had
left behind. He understood what it means to be taken prisoner by the
The partisans fight because they are secure in the knowledge that if
they do not they will be destroyed as a people and a nation. They are
Muslims and their faith gives them great strength, but they are not
fanatics, they are courageous and their god is a tangible presence for
them in a way few of us in the West recognize any longer. But what
soldier does not pray on the battleground? The partisans often live and
fight in view of the villages and fields where they were born, so there
is no mistaking what it is that they defend.
As a clan-based society Chechens fight in tribal and family-based
So it is alongside kinsmen, cousins, brothers and neighbors that they
enter the fray. This too makes them stronger, but when one of them
the wound is even deeper since no one is a stranger. There is none of
the spit and polish found in armies elsewhere, none of the rigid
hierarchy and deference to rank. Theirs is an informal army, a
meritocracy where the most able natural leaders come to the fore.
Such egalitarian organization is a concept intrinsic to the Chechens'
fiercely individualistic culture, and it lends itself well to the
defense of a nascent democracy, as Chechens have known a tribal form of
proto- democracy since antiquity. It is how they have always ruled
themselves, and how they wish to rule themselves now. They have never
known a prince, a despot or an aristocratic class. Such things are an
alien concept and all traditional Chechen leaders have always arisen by
popular acclaim. They are Chechen Mujahadeen, and they have nothing to
apologize for. They are neither superhuman nor evil, but patriots of
flesh and blood who wish to be free on their own soil. Why would we
Washington has asked Maskhadov to sever all ties with terrorist
in Chechnya. He cannot do it: he never had relations with them to begin
with. Maskhadov is an able soldier who served as Chief of Staff of the
Chechen forces in the last war, and a straight-speaking statesman
democratically elected by his people. His government is a signatory to
the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare. He is a moderate
leading a centrist, pro-Western government, who longs for an honorable
and equitable peace with Russia, but he lives as a wanted man, a price
on his head.
Since the current war began Maskhadov and his tiny but indefatigable
diplomatic corps -led by his eloquent Foreign Minister, Ilyas Akhmadov - has begged the United States, the European Union, the OSCE, and the United Nations to intervene and bring the war to an end through outside mediation, all to no avail. He admits that in the passion of war abuses have been perpetrated by his side, but also acknowledges that they pale both in scale and frequency in comparison with Russian atrocities. Leading human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch corroborate his findings. Among Muslim leaders he was one
of the first to unequivocally condemn the terrorist outrage of
11. He has vowed to provide, despite his limited means, whatever
contribution he can in efforts to break the global terrorist network.
The response from Washington and Europe is muted at best - except to
admonish him for harboring terrorists.
Much is made of the Islamic foreign legions supposedly fighting in
Chechnya. The hard truth is that there are perhaps 80 or 100 such
volunteers, probably fewer. The majority of them are ethnic Chechens
from neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia and elsewhere from the Chechen
Diaspora as well as perhaps a few Turks, Azeris and Arabs.
Similar conspiracy theories abounded during the Bosnian war, but when
the smoke cleared the Muslim foreign volunteers were revealed as a mere
handful - as they will prove to have been in the Caucasus. The primary
suspect cited by the West is a naturalized Chechen commander known
simply as Khatab. Sometimes identified as a Jordanian or a Saudi,
is a strict adherent of the Wahabi sect and a skillful battlefield
leader serving as chief deputy to General Shamil Basayev, perhaps the
most legendary of all the Chechen commanders and himself a
fundamentalist Muslim. That Khatab has any links to Al- Qaeda has never
been proven with any certainty. Moreover, the number of fighters under
Basayev and Khatab represent only a small percentage of the Chechen
resistance, and both guerrilla leaders have remained dutifully
subordinate to Maskhadov's authority as commander in chief.
More telling is that not even the majority of Khatab's fighters are
necessarily strict Wahabis, but serve in his unit out of clan and
regional loyalty. I spent time at one guerrilla base where the
answered to Khatab in the chain of command. During the last prayer
ritual of the day only half the unit bothered to formally pay homage to
Allah. There was no friction or resentment among the more devout
guerrillas for this omission, and all recognized one another as
in arms. All Chechens profess a belief in Islam but many expound, if
an exactly secular outlook on life, then at least a less rigorously
strict expression of this faith. In happier times there is plenty of
good tobacco, vodka, music and joie de vivre in Chechnya. Islam can be
an intrinsic cultural component in the identity of a people without
dominating every facet of their behavior - something as true in
as it is anywhere else in Islam.
It has also been conveniently forgotten that in the immediate aftermath
of the last Chechen war, a minority of fundamentalists who tried to
co-opt the struggle for liberation and impose Sharia law were promptly
crushed, to the overwhelming approval of the general population.
Certainly the slaughter of the Chechen war and the complete
of the outside world has helped to radicalize a minority among the
fighters and helped to introduce a strain of Wahabism. It poses a risk
in the post-war period if an independent Chechnya survives the current
conflict, but the salient truth is that the majority of Chechens cling
steadfastly to their own idiosyncratic form of Islam and have no wish
be burdened by extremist theocracy any more than they desire to be
oppressed by a foreign power.
The real danger in isolating and abandoning Maskhadov's Chechnya is
Western indifference and realpolitik will only help to foment the
desperation and anger that feeds the very same Islamic radicalization
wish to quell elsewhere. In purely military terms, with Chechnya
fighting for survival and having no hope of outside intervention or
we can hardly expect Maskhadov to spark a simultaneous internecine
conflict against allies fighting a common Russian enemy. We must trust
him to keep order in his own house when the war concludes, aid him if
cannot do it alone, and help ensure now that an accommodation can be
reached with the tiny fundamentalist minority in his camp so that
further civil war can be prevented.
The West has done well neither to repudiate nor to stereotype the whole
of Islam as intrinsically fanatic, bloody minded and backward, just
because the unforgiving and narrow Wahabist tradition has found a
messianic and extremist champion in Osama Bin Laden. While we pay this
supposedly broad-minded view lip service, whether we admit it or not we
are easily predisposed to recognize Islam only in terms of the suicide
bomber, the terrorist, the burqa, puritanical intransigence, brutal
repression and hostility towards modernity. In this incomplete and
uninformed judgment, we are not free thinkers and consider Islam
We have done so with Chechnya.
To our shame as democracies we have allowed the slaughter in the
Caucasus to go unchecked. In the interest of realpolitik the Western
world has stood idly by and celebrated Putin as a reformer and a
trustworthy friend. When a newly inaugurated Putin returned
to Moscow following his first state visit to London, the war only
increased in its ferocity. Now embraced by Washington, Putin has sought
and obtained further endorsements for his actions throughout the
European Union, and an arrogant Kremlin now has the vindication it had
The message we are sending is clear: we will acquiesce in genocide,
since Russia's state terror can be overlooked and legitimized when it
serves Western interests. But this view can only mean greater agony for
the Chechens while staining the conscience of the West. If our
for justice in the global struggle against terror is only for the
strong, it will be no justice at all. Ariel Sharon was outrageously
wrong when he evoked the appeasement of 1938 as Israel's potential
Israel is not the new Czechoslovakia, but Chechnya is.
Chris Kline,a former London Correspondent for Bloomberg News Radio and
CNN Mexico Bureau Chief, is an award winning international freelance
journalist and documentary maker. Kline heads Frontier Dispatches, an
independent U.S. based production company dedicated to conflict
coverage. Kline is a contributing writer for the Sunday Times of
His broadcast work is distributed in Europe by Journeyman Pictures, the
UK's leading maker of front-line films.