Rebel Will Not Rest in Peace

After a manhunt lasting several years, the Federal Security Service last week found and killed Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in the village Tolstoy-Yurt, close to Grozny. Tolstoy-Yurt, by the way, is named after the Leo Tolstoy, who served with a Cossack unit in the vicinity and fought Chechen rebels in the mid-19th century.

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The FSB received information that Maskhadov was hiding in Tolstoy-Yurt and killed him by blowing up the bunker where he was hiding. A disguised FSB representative announced on the government channel Rossia last Sunday that no attempt was made to negotiate a surrender or to apprehend Maskhadov alive.

The Chechen rebel movement consists of two main wings: nationalist separatists who want independence from Russia and Islamist radicals who are waging a jihad to crush Moscow's rule in all Muslim-inhabited regions of the Russian Federation. In 1991, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechen rebels declared independence. The long bitter history of Chechen rebellion and Russian repression -- and not Islam -- was the prime motivation behind the insurrection.

Until the Russian troops invaded Chechnya at the end of 1994, there was virtually no Islamist presence in the region. Later, the high death toll and destruction caused by the war sparked a mass movement to separate from Russia religiously as well as politically. At the same time, foreign Wahhabi missionaries moved into the Caucasus to preach, build mosques and train local apostles to spread their radical brand of Islam.

For more than 10 years, Chechnya and the surrounding regions were ravaged by war and economic deprivation. The more the Kremlin used brute force to impose its will on the Caucasus, the more the power and appeal of the Islamists grew. However, the majority of the population in Chechnya, while desperately wanting war to end, does not support the Islamists.

Obviously, Moscow's best chance to pacify Chechnya and check the spread of radical anti-Russian Islamism in the North Caucasus is to reach an understanding with Chechen nationalist separatists. Holding on to Chechnya does not make any sense anymore: The cost is too high, and the long-term chance of victory is zero. Too much innocent blood has been spilled to dream that there will come a day when the relatives and children of the dead will volunteer to become loyal Russian citizens.

Over half a million Russian servicemen have seen action in Chechnya since 1994. As many as 20,000 have been killed and 80,000 disabled. A significant portion of Russia's shrinking young male population has been physically and psychologically damaged in this conflict for no better reason than the Kremlin's desire to see the land of Chechnya finally conquered.

Maskhadov was not a terrorist. As a career army officer, he did not believe in terrorism as an effective weapon. Artillery Colonel Maskhadov left the Russian Army in 1992 to become the rebels' chief of staff because he was a nationalist, not because he was an Islamist. Maskhadov was ready to surrender to Moscow a large portion of future Chechen sovereignty in exchange for a formal declaration of independence and an international guarantee that the Russian military would never again invade Chechnya.

Why did the Kremlin assassinate him then? Why was Maskhadov denied dignity in death and his relatives denied timely access to his body? Chechen separatist sympathizers among the local population will surely hate Russia all the more for this affront. By disgracing Maskhadov, the Kremlin also dishonors its own military, which the deceased leader often defeated in battle. Most Russian generals that fought Maskhadov or negotiated with him held the late Chechen president in high esteem.

In being denied a proper burial, Maskhadov resembles many of his fellow Chechens, the men, women and children who were kidnapped, tortured and massacred by the Russians and their local Chechen henchmen. Under the rule of President Vladimir Putin, occupied Chechnya has many unmarked mass graves.

This, apparently, is the main reason the Kremlin wanted Maskhadov dead and refused to negotiate an end to the war. Even a partial troop withdrawal from Chechnya and the arrival of international missions could document the true level of atrocities, perhaps comparable to those of the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Kosovo. While Putin rules, there will be no peace. The Kremlin rulers do not want to go the way of Milosevic.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.