War Protesters Scarce




All countries have the right to defend their people from terrorists. Russia is no exception. The Russian military campaign in Chechnya, however, has moved well beyond the earlier limited objective of combating terrorism. The new strategy and the means being deployed to execute this strategy suggest a new ulterior motive - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's presidential election campaign.


If the original motivations and objectives of the Russian counteroffensive were the right ones, the means now being deployed are the wrong ones. The Russian military should have kept its focus on the Chechen commanders who invaded Dagestan. Instead, the Russian forces currently occupying northern Chechnya now seem poised to seize the Chechen capital. If anything is to be learned from the failed Russian intervention in 1994-96, however, it is that Russian occupation of Grozny will only strengthen the resolve of Chechen guerrillas, not defeat them. This new Russian offensive is also likely to provoke new terrorist attacks in Russia, not deter them.


In moving beyond the more limited objectives of pursuing terrorists within Chechnya, the current conventional invasion has also undermined opportunities for cooperation in fighting terrorism between the elected government of Chechnya and the Russian government. Before the Russian invasion, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Moscow had a mutual enemy in Shamil Basayev. Maskhadov might have been willing to cooperate with Russia in seeking the arrest of Basayev and his comrades before the Russian military invasion. Now that Russian forces are threatening to invade Grozny, all Chechens - including Basayev and Maskhadov - have united to defend their homeland. If fighting terrorism was the central aim of the Russian intervention in Chechnya, the recent escalation of the conflict has been counterproductive.


The most appalling aspect of the current intervention, however, has been the means deployed. Lobbing missiles into markets is a crime against humanity. What is even more appalling is that Putin has denied responsibility for these deaths, suggesting absurdly instead that the recent slaughter of innocents in Grozny resulted from gunfights among rival Chechen gangs. The prime minister - who months ago appeared to be the first Russian leader in a long time ready to take responsibility for his actions - is now running from that responsibility.


As grotesque as the means deployed may be, the real objective of the current campaign is Putin's presidential bid. If fighting terrorism were the real aim, Putin would have met with Maskhadov long ago to devise a plan to arrest Basayev. Instead, Putin is spearheading this large-scale offensive into Chechnya as a means to thrust himself onto the national political stage. So far, the strategy has succeeded as he is now the second most popular political figure in Russia, next to former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Over the long haul, this strategy could backfire if the Russian troops in Chechnya meet resistance and take heavy casualties. Commanders on the ground might also take the war into their own hands and ignore Moscow's political games. With no other cards to play but the Chechen gambit, however, Putin is willing to take the risk. He may also be counting on early presidential elections, as he is privy to information about President Boris Yeltsin's health that other candidates do not possess.


Killing innocent people to win an election is sinister. Yet, Putin's plan is not the last gruesome detail in this story. The plot thickens when one discovers who is backing Putin - Russian liberals. For Russian "liberal" politicians and entrepreneurs most concerned with who will become Russia's next president after the elections in June 2000, Putin is their best bet. Putin, they believe, is the one politician loyal to their economic interests who can defeat Primakov or the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov. For these liberals, a Chechen war is the lesser of two evils.


The current silence on Chechnya from Russian liberals is depressing. Why have we not seen Grigory Yavlinsky and his Yabloko party organize demonstrations to protest the slaughter of innocents as they did during the assault on Grozny in 1994? Why has Anatoly Chubais - a Putin associate from St. Petersburg and the man probably most responsible for Putin's rise to power - not urged restraint? And where are the courageous reporters who provided real news from the front line during the last Chechen war? In 1994, liberals could blame the disastrous decision to invade Chechnya on sinister characters in the Kremlin - like presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov - over whom they had no sway. This time around, however, it is one of their own - Putin - who is in charge.


Clinton administration liberals have likewise been slow to respond. During the Kosovo war, President Bill Clinton and his advisors led us to believe that NATO forces were fighting for the human rights of the innocent Kosovars. And in situations where the United States was not prepared to intervene militarily, such as in East Timor, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright nonetheless stated that we must express our moral outrage against crimes against humanity everywhere. To date, the U.S. response to this crime against humanity has been muted. No one has even called these attacks crimes against humanity. In addition to telephone calls to their Russian counterparts and public denunciations, Washington must use every means available to try to prevent the invasion of Grozny. In this situation, U.S. leaders can use financial leverage and personal relationships with Putin's allies to try to help stop this war. Failure to do so raises questions about the commitment to human rights not only in Russia but also in the United States.


Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a professor of political science at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.