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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Is Chechnya Legally a War?




Since the end of the Cold War it has been stressed many times that establishing an effective framework of dialogue between East and West on security in Europe is of paramount importance. In 1997, after the Founding Act between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established a permanent NATO-Russia council, it seemed the framework was at last there. Today, with NATO's aggression against Yugoslavia and Russia's savage military offensive in Chechnya, the dialogue idea is in tatters. The permanent NATO-Russia council never seriously got down to business and today it's no more than an empty shell.


During NATO's recent war, all serious negotiations between East and West f even the essential problem of the deployment of Russian peacekeepers as part of the NATO-lead KFOR security force in Kosovo f were held on a bilateral basis between Russia and the U.S. on behalf of NATO.


Since the illegal bombardment of Iraq by the British and U.S. air forces a year ago, East and West are not talking. Instead, they are exchanging abuse as during the Cold War. But there is a difference: During the Cold War the confrontation in Europe was maintained "cold" by both sides of the divide by adhering to certain rules.


Today all rules seem to have collapsed and international law seems to have flown out the window. Last March NATO committed anact of aggression by attacking Yugoslavia. NATO forces also committed war crimes during the war by attacking civilian targets like the TV center in Belgrade and bridges over the Danube as far away from the war zone as Novi Sad. The new NATO official doctrine states that such "humanitarian" aggressions may be committed anytime in the future. Russia deplored the attack against Yugoslavia, but today Russia is tampering with international law by perpetrating massive war crimes in Chechnya. It has often been said that Russia has been trying to copycat NATO in its latest war in the Caucasus by using bombardments instead of ground troops, by displaying footage of aerial attacks at press conferences and so on. But it seems that the main lesson Moscow learned from the West during the war in the Balkans was that it's OK to violate the most fundamental principals of international law and that naked military force is the only true argument.


Western diplomats in Moscow, including the Swiss, who consider themselves the custodians of the Geneva conventions, have been approaching the Russian authorities since the conflict in the Caucasus began to ensure that Russians comply with internationally agreed-upon rules and customs of war. It soon turned out the Russian authorities simply do not recognize that international agreements f signed and ratified by Russia f apply to Chechnya, including the Geneva II protocol of 1977, which specifically deals with internal conflicts between a sovereign government and armed rebels. A deputy foreign minister told me lest week: "We do not recognize the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya to be an armed conflict. So we accept the Geneva II protocol in Chechnya 'partially.' Those parts of the protocol we like will act on and those we do not f will not. We certainly do not recognize Chechen fighters to be legitimate combatants protected by the rules and customs of war." Surely, Russia's position is legally ridiculous. The Geneva II protocol stipulates that there is an "armed conflict" when antigovernment rebels are organized and control territory. All combatants can then be expected to abide by the rules and customs of war. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said publicly that Chechen forces "still control parts of Chechnya." Does such a statement actually recognize that there is an armed conflict?


"No," said the deputy foreign minister. "I am a tired man and you, Pavel, seem to be full of energy. If you want to argue, I'll send you a lawyer from our ministry and he'll say 'No' to anything you say until you are blue in the face. Now get off my back, please."


If Russia does not recognize the jurisdiction of international law in Chechnya, no war crimes can be technically committed at all. Before and during the war in the Balkans, Western leaders often claimed that, in principle, they were upholding international law, but that "Kosovo is an exception." Today the West may see the results of its opportunism: an endless morass in Kosovo, a dirty war in Chechnya and a world without any universally recognized legal framework, where anyone any time may claim to be an "exception."


Pavel Felgenhaur is an independent, Moscow-based defence analyst.