Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No More Afghanistans

The terrorist siege of hostages carried out by Salman Raduyev's gang in Kizlyar and the confused attempt of the federal troops to liquidate it shook Russian society. The recent taking of new hostages in Grozny and in the Turkish port of Trabzon also raised questions in the Russian news media over how to stop the wave of terror.

As is usual in such situations, an extreme mood has taken hold. Advocates of showing a "strong hand" insist on renewing a massive military operation to destroy Dudayev's forces. Radical adherents of the idea of national self-determination, on the other hand, demand the end of any federal interference in Chechnya's affairs, an immediate withdrawal of troops from its territory and recognition of its independence.

Both options in their extreme form are dangerous. The attempt to carry out either policy would lead to more bloodshed and the inevitable political breakdown of federal authority. A renewed large-scale war would likely draw Chechens in Dagestan to Dudayev's side. Besides, his main military bases are concentrated precisely on the Dagestani borders of eastern Chechnya. Given the inability of the Russian air force to carry out precise bombings, there is no reason to doubt that bombs would land not only on Chechen but also Dagestani villages. Such an option could be likened to the spread of war in Vietnam to Cambodian territory during the '70s.

The other option could lead to a situation similar to the one in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of federal troops. This would leave a political vacuum in the north and central regions of Chechnya, where there is a longstanding rivalry between the Chechens and Cossacks as well as between the Chechen clans in the mountains and on the plains.

It would be naive to think that the present Moscow-backed anti-Dudayev opposition would voluntarily lay down its arms. Moreover, Dudayev is more and more surrounded by "field commanders," such as Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev and Raduyev, who have their own armed detachments and their own clans, each of whom are beginning to claim independent political roles for themselves. If there were no longer a common Russian enemy to unite against, then criminal and military chaos would most likely ensue.

This process began to develop at the beginning of 1994, when first Umar Avturkhanov, then Ruslan Labazanov, Beslan Gantemirov and Ruslan Khasbulatov put up armed opposition to Dudayev. This brought about increased tension and a dangerous rise in arms among the Cossacks living along the northern Chechen border. Now, the chances that Chechnya can avoid civil war and conflict between Chechens and Cossacks are even slimmer.

What led Dudayev to carry out such senseless attacks on Gudermes and Kizlyar? The reasons for the similar attack on the Budyonnovsk hospital last year can be understood as a desire to stop the Russian troops at any price, who were at that time chasing Dudayev supporters from all the large villages into the hills.

Terrorism is always a sign not of force but despair. Basayev reacted in desperation to the successes of the federal troops. But for a half year prior to the hostage taking in Kizlyar, the war had essentially stopped. During this time, there were slow negotiations and only minor skirmishes. The Russian Army surrendered one position after another and was even incapable of stopping a series of successful attempts on the lives of high-ranking representatives of federal power in Chechnya.

Why then did Dudayev feel the need to end this rather advantageous peace, and with methods that put a stain on the image of his "noble war"?

Since last November, Moscow was carrying out what might be called a "peaceful attack" against Dudayev, leading not so much a physical as a psychological war. The central role in this was played by his long-standing enemy, former leader of the Soviet republic of Chechen-Ingushetia, Doku Zavgayev. Many remember his leadership as a time in which Chechens lived reasonably well.

Zavgayev was also able, through elders and the fighters' relatives, to reach agreements with Dudayev supporters not to attack key population centers and to reconcile them to the idea of living under local authorities loyal to Zavgayev. An increasing number of influential figures from Dudayev's circle, including Maskhadov himself, spoke about the possibility of dialogue with Zavgayev. Zavgayev was also able to reach a public agreement with Yeltsin that would have given Chechnya an honorary "special status" in Russia and granted amnesty for all those who were willing to give up their arms.

Finally, the election of Zavgayev as head of the Chechen republic on Dec. 17 gave him almost presidential powers. It became clear that Dudayev was loosing political ground. However undemocratic these elections may have been -- the elections held four years ago that brought Dudayev to power were no less undemocratic -- it cannot be denied that many Chechens who were tired of war participated in them with enthusiasm.

The attempt of Dudayev to prevent Zavgayev from gaining legitimacy through his attack on Gudermes was not successful. However, the more recent acts in Pervomaiskoye have, both in Chechnya and in Moscow, aroused in some people the desire for revenge and for victory. It would be good if the threatening promises of the Russian president to "strike at the bases" are not kept, as they have been in the past, since they are likely to affect peaceful inhabitants. One would hope that the experience of the last 14-month struggle with Dudayev shows that the Chechen leader can only be conquered through a "peaceful attack." As for terrorism, it will be with us for some time. At least as long as there are people who sympathize with the goals and ideas that inspire modern bandits to carry out martial deeds against women and children.

Arkady Popov is an expert at the Inter-Ethnic Relations Department of the Presidential Analytical Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.