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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Threat of Chechnya

The unfolding civil war in the self-proclaimed republic of Chechnya undoubtedly presents a potential danger for Russia. But it is surely not the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation that is threatened. In the Caucasus, as throughout the former Soviet Union, the rage for national sovereignty has already passed its peak. In large part, this is the result of the policies of Chechnya's rebel president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who in only three years of relative independence has managed to create the kind of ugly "criminal-revolutionary" government that has only become possible in the 20th century.

Of course there remain a number of marginal nationalist-extremist organizations such as the thoroughly militarized Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus -- which gained repute during the bloody war in Abkhazia and has extremely close financial links with the Dudayev regime -- or the semi-fascist Boz Gurd (Gray Wolves) party that has emerged from the Azeri Popular Front. However, none of the real political forces in the region today has dared to come out in support of Dudayev and his call "to repel Russian aggression." The republics neighboring Chechnya are consumed by their own, very painful ethnic and economic problems. The overwhelming majority of people in these regions is firmly convinced that a confrontation with Russia would only add to their troubles. Therefore, Dudayev's attempts to frighten Moscow with the specter of a "new Caucasian war" are just bluffs.

Nonetheless, the threat to Russia from Chechnya is quite real. But it is a threat to Russia's democracy, not its territorial integrity. Contemporary Chechnya has become too tempting a training ground for Russian politicians and generals who want to prove themselves in the glorious battle for "an integrated and indivisible Russia."

From the military standpoint, the Russian Army would have no trouble liquidating the rebellion in Chechnya, and popular support among the Russian people for such an operation is certain. After all, even the country's "democratic" newspapers have been calling on President Boris Yeltsin to -- at last -- use his constitutional powers and let real professionals finish things up once and for all with the breakaway region. You can imagine what the "patriotic" papers are saying.

Experience, however, shows that a successful initial blitzkrieg soon turns into a drawn-out and ineffective effort to hunt down small partisan bands scattered in the mountains. If the Kremlin does decide to move into Grozny, it will face the eternal dilemma of all colonizers: Either it will try to maintain its human face and avoid massive civilian casualties by leaving the pacification of Chechnya half finished -- at the risk of making Yeltsin a laughingstock -- or it will make an all-out assault on the enemy's potential bases, which would amount to a punitive action against the entire population.

The decision to resolve the Chechen matter using all available military means would not only drive away the government's remaining support among the democratically minded electorate; it would also inevitably increase demand for an entirely different kind of leader. The people will be drawn to someone who is more committed to Russia's status as a world power and to the "restoration of order" than to political stability and continuing the unpopular but necessary economic reforms.

The last thing Russia's fragile democracy needs is generals advertising themselves as the pacifiers of rebellions, especially those who won their laurels by battling organized and -- perhaps most importantly -- non-Russian and openly anti-Russian guerillas. Considering that the public has little confidence in politicians these days and that violent crime is rampant throughout the country, it would be tempting for some military figure brought to national prominence to try to become the savior of the fatherland, especially since it would be very easy for fiery orators in the parliament and the press to prompt the people to ask for such a deliverance.

Russia has a long tradition of worshiping gallant generals who have earned their reputations pacifying Russia's frontiers, including Alexei Yermolov who conquered the Caucasus, Mikhail Skobelev who pacified Turkmenistan and the legendary Alexander Suvorov, who began his career by putting down an insurrection in Poland. Even though the public has denounced the war in Afghanistan, all of those who led the effort have already been enveloped by the heroic-romantic aura of "real men" and "honorable soldiers." The "patriots" and the "democrats" are fighting among themselves to draw these heroes into their camps. Yesterday, Rutskoi; today, Lebed.

If some Russian Pinochet is going to emerge today, the Chechen situation is clearly his most likely launching point. What would happen next is too obvious. The Russian political scene does not have an Eduard Shevardnadze or a Heidar Aliyev who will be capable of seizing the initiative from some ardent Russian commander and of at least partially containing the consequences.

People may object that Chechnya is not to Russia the same kind of problem as Abkhazia is to Georgia or Nagorno-Karabakh is to Azerbaijan. This is true, and for this reason Russia has the luxury of being able to wait while Chechnya's leaders sort out their own problems. The Chechen people must finally decide for themselves what they want: UN approval for Dudayev or some sort of normal life for their children. It may not seem very heroic or even constitutional just to stand on the border and watch this nation's torment. However, nothing more sensible has yet been proposed for this unfortunate land, or for Russia as a whole.

Arkady Popov is an expert at the Inter-Ethnic Relations Department of the Presidential Analytical Center, and the editor of the government bulletin Politics in the Conflict Zones. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.