Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NEWS ANALYSIS: Force May Result in Chechen Civil War




Moscow's outrage at the dramatic kidnapping of its Interior Ministry representative to Chechnya has Moscow reaching for airstrikes and economic blockades, but such weapons would likely turn smoldering internal Chechen conflicts into a full-blown civil war.


Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said over the weekend that Russia will respond with "force" to the high-profile kidnapping Friday of Major General Gennady Shpigun.


"This is not a threat," Stepashin said in an interview broadcast live on NTV Independent Television on Sunday night. He promised "the toughest measures to support law and security" in the Northern Caucasus, and said: "This is an objectively necessary adequate reaction to what is happening."


As the Russian military seems neither willing nor able to send troops into Chechnya, what Russia appears to be considering is a mixture of airstrikes and an economic and military blockade. In Chechnya, however, such measures are certain to fan the flames of conflict, undermine Moscow's only friends there and bring more chaos to the region.


Order in Chechnya will only co me about through a subtler approach, said Sergei Kovalyov, a former presidential human rights commissioner and the most prominent critic of the Russian war in Chechnya. Kovalyov, in a telephone interview Monday, advocated constructive engagement in Chechnya, not renewed bombing and economic sanctions.


"This is the time for secret, fine-tuned shuttle diplomacy," Kovalyov said. Sadly, he added, there is no one in the Russian government capable of carrying out such negotiations.


In the meantime, Chechnya is steadily heading toward civil war f and has been for some time, said Andrei Babitsky, a Moscow-based correspondent for Radio Liberty who has reported from Chechnya since the early 1990s and tracks events in the region.


Stepashin's proposed economic blockade and the establishment of strict border controls would only speed up that process, he said, because they would destroy what little is left of the Chechen postwar economy.


The population of Chechnya shrank from 1 million before the war to 350,000 at its end in 1997, according to Andrei Mironov, a Moscow-based independent television producer who spent a year in Chechnya during the war.


Mironov, Babitsky and other analysts said most of those remaining in Chechnya rely on financial aid from relatives working outside the region. Cutting communication and transport ties would mainly punish these people f who are as fed up with the "warlordism" of Shamil Basayev and others as Stepashin.


But it is by no means certain Moscow will be moved by such concerns.


"If there will be any new cases of terrorist acts or grave crimes, the bases and places of congregation of bandits will be destroyed f according to international practice," Stepashin said on NTV television Sunday night.


Stepashin has yet to give concrete outlines of his plan to restore order to the region. He has prepared a list of tough measures Russia could use against Chechnya, but he has said he will make them public only after they are discussed and approved at a Security Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday.


While a combination of airstrikes, an economic blockade and stronger policing of Chechnya's borders may sound like an attractively low-risk, low-cost solution for Russia, Chechnya-watchers worried about the lack of any clear policy guidelines, which they said would make for a disturbingly muddled approach to any escalation of hostilities.


In particular, few saw airstrikes as of much use.


"Just ask the Americans who are bombing Iraq," said Babitsky. "It is not effective."


The field commanders that Russia might wish to target with such strikes include Basayev, whom Stepashin has accused of involvement in Shpigun's kidnapping; Ruslan Kharkharoyev, a Bamut field commander notorious for his ties to kidnapping; or Salman Raduyev and Arbi Barayev, two other breakaway field commanders. But all of these men move around frequently, and none has a single stronghold vulnerable to the mass air power the Russians apparently are looking to deploy.


"It is difficult to do anything against Basayev, he moves between [the town of] Vedeno and Grozny all the time," Babitsky said.


As with the American Iraqi policy, airstrikes may be an idea driven more by the political logic of needing to be seen to be doing something than from the security or diplomatic logic of trying to bring peace to the troubled region.


"All the tough talk is out of helplessness and an inability to do anything," said Mironov.


While Russia has done its best to ignore Chechnya over the past two years since the election of the moderate and vaguely Moscow-leaning President Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya has been gradually breaking apart. Various former field commanders from the Chechen army have divided the mountainous country up between them. These commanders act as warlords controlling different districts, villages and cities.


President Maskhadov's inability to control these warlords and establish a firm system of centralized rule has been the weakest point of his government. He has been hampered in these attempts by cash-strapped Russia's continuing failure to come good on the millions of dollars in funds for reconstruction that were promised under the 1997 peace treaty that brought the Chechen war to an official close.


Two weeks ago, Maskhadov attempted to force a solution by abolishing parliament and establishing the rule of Islamic Shariah law in the republic. He also decreed the establishment of a Shura, a council of elders representing different clans, to replace parliament.


But the move backfired when several field commanders opposing Maskhadov, led by Basayev, formed their own Shura.


On Monday, the alternative Shura ordered its troops put on a state of alert, ready to respond with force if the Russian military were to undertake "any aggressive steps," Russian media reported.


As such statements indicate, any aggression on Russia's part is likely to play into the hands of the more extreme elements in Chechen society f the factions that are Russia's most bitter enemies.


Escalations in hostilities are likely to make Maskhadov's position in Chechnya even shakier: If he sides with the Russians, more Chechens will oppose him, but if he doesn't, Russia will lose its last chances to influence what is happening in the region.


Whatever Russia decides on now, peace is a long way off for Chechnya, analysts said.


"How can you pacify Chechnya?" Babitsky said. "Only when a new generation of politicians comes to power, could anything change."