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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Can't Oppose War




The disagreement between Russia and the West about the war in Chechnya is not yet another emotional quarrel, like the debates on NATO enlargement. Both sides got pretty bored with that argument by early 1997 and it boiled down to a tame point-counterpoint debate. Not so on Chechnya. This argument centers on the most basic fundamentals: What is and what is not the right thing to do as far as a state's behavior is concerned.


Russia and the West are quite clearly talking past one another on these issues. Moscow places emphasis on notions like "terrorism," "internal affairs" and "territorial integrity," while the watchwords of Western criticism of the war are "refugees," "civilian population" and "excessive force." Trying to find a common ground, for instance, during the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul, Western leaders used the traditional diplomatic "Yes, but" approach. "Yes, you can fight against terrorism and for your territorial integrity," they said to Russia, "but you should not target the civilian population." Unfortunately, this approach failed, as Moscow chose to dismiss the "but" part of the formulation and trumpet that it was the "yes" part that really counted.


So when Norwegian Foreign Minister and OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek came to Moscow to make good on some of the compromises reached in Istanbul, he did not get even a guided tour of Chechnya that he was supposedly promised.


The Russian Foreign Ministry feels confident playing this brand of hardball, knowing that a tough stance will be applauded by the political elite and the public alike. In the face of this aggressive defiance, the West resorts to the only language that enjoys mutual understanding on both sides of the debate: debits and credits.


The International Monetary Fund's departing managing director Michael Camdessus broke with the Fund's traditional guidelines of sticking to economic matters and said on Nov. 27 that he would let "world opinion" determine whether or not the Fund would continue lending to Russia. Russian leaders were shocked, since their previous experience led them to believe that financing the war with IMF funding was just fine.


Politicians here were initially outraged at this Western "pressure" and "interference," and Vollebaek had the bad luck of showing up just in time to catch the brunt of it.


Since then, grim financial forecasts have been circulating in Moscow, but the attitude of the authorities remains resolute: No price is too high for this victory.


But the West can hardly back up such financial blackmail (to call Camdessus' remark by its name) with a sound political position without contradicting itself - doing so would mean abandoning its politely diplomatic "yes, but" position in favor of a firm, flat "no." It would also mean hypocrisy.


Can the West really say that massive military force against suspected terrorists is out of bounds? Or that the norms of behavior prescribed by international law are more important than territorial integrity? Not after the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that allegedly served as a weapons factory for Osama Bin Laden, or after bombing Iraq.


Saying "no" to Russia would also mean that the U.S. led air war on Yugoslavia was by all standards of international law an illegal act of aggression.


The bottom line is that the West, in the late 1990s, has done a number of things that have undermined its moral integrity. Nobody in the West seems ready to apologize for the missiles that hit a passenger train full of Albanian refugees or for cluster bombs dropped on Kragujevac and other such "collateral damage."


So the West cannot in good conscience confront Russia for using bombs and missiles against suspected terrorists or for using military force to resolve a secessionist problem. In fact, the only thing the West can condemn is what it calls "excesses" in the Caucasus, because it has debased its own argument for condemning the war itself. This means that the Caucasus are beyond the reach of the West's bold new "humanitarianism," even if East Timor and Kosovo can benefit from it. It also means that Russia is essentially left alone to deal with Chechnya - and itself - as it sees fit.


In the end, the crisis is not really about Chechnya or the refugees or the indiscriminate bombings at all. It is about Russia. With this, the country has reached a watershed in its post-communist transformation. And while the government may only see the war as an electoral technology to rally pro-Kremlin votes, it has, in fact, become a very real patriotic war. For the Russian people who support it - and the majority do - it is a chance to break a pattern of humiliating failures and to overcome disorientation and chaos.


But what is billed as a national revival is a national catastrophe. This war is not as much a threat to democratic achievements - as Western experts assume - as it is a decisive way for the country to turn its back on them altogether.


The West might self-consciously criticize Russia and even impose some sanctions, but it cannot prevent this great state from committing suicide by throwing itself on the Chechen dagger. Russia cannot reinvent itself as a newly authoritarian or post-democratic power: Its only choices are to be a slowly reforming pro-European entity, or to be nothing at all.


Pavel Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and co-editor of the quarterly journal Security Dialogue. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.