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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Dizzy With Success




"The plan has not changed. Nothing in particular has happened to make us start thinking that something unusual has happened." - acting President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, discussing the war in Chechnya.


It is time to stop the war - and to start asking some hard questions about how it came about in the first place.


Whatever acting President Putin may say, the fighting is not achieving any of its stated aims. In fact, it is subverting every one of them. The war is fostering more disorder, more terrorism, more banditry and more suffering for ordinary people.


In a recent tour of Chechen territory under the control of federal forces, our reporter Yevgenia Borisova found no electricity, no gas, no heat, no functioning schools, no pensions or social payments, no humanitarian aid, no gainful employment. What she did find was the Russian military tightly controlling media access to and from Chechnya - to the point of having soldiers confiscate scraps of paper with anything written on them from those passing through checkpoints. And in village after village, she heard tales of innocents killed by airstrikes; she heard detailed accounts of an early December massacre of 41 people by wilding Russian troops in Alkhan-Yurt; she was told of entire communities passing the hat to pay "tribute" bribes to Russian officers; and she saw trains of cowed yet protesting refugees rolling, in a forced repatriation to the war zone, back into Chechnya.


Ms. Borisova, by the way, is a Russian citizen. The Russian government likes to insist that unflattering reports about events in Chechnya are filed or influenced by prejudiced foreigners. The reality is that the best, most damning case against the war has been assembled by Russia's own people - among them Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty, Vyacheslav Izmailov of Novaya Gazeta, Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch, and of course the heroic Maria Eismont, who files dispatches from Grozny and elsewhere for Reuters and Vremya MN.


Alas, as in the Soviet era, the government seems to look upon truth itself as a disloyal saboteur.


Schooling Terrorists


The Sunday after Russian Orthodox Christmas, explosive devices set in three huge apartment buildings in the southern town of Armavir failed to go off. Terrorists had breached gas mains in the basements of the buildings and rigged flares to timers. By the time police discovered them, the flares had already gone off as planned, but the gas had apparently leaked away through other holes in the basement walls.


Consider this incident for a moment. Each of these buildings was nine stories or more. Had the explosions destroyed them, hundreds would have been killed; indeed, the death toll could have well dwarfed that of all previous bombings combined.


Putin's military operations - not a whim of fate - are supposed to be stopping such terrorism. But how? In Putin's words, we will simply "waste" the terrorists "in the toilet." In other words, we will kill every last one of them. The reality, of course, is that Russian forces have not even been able to prevent leading, high-profile guerrilla leaders like Shamil Basayev and Movladi Udugov from doing as they please - even visiting other nations. How are they going to find, much less deal with, thousands of anonymous partisans?


This primitive approach of killing all the terrorists could only work if it was actually about killing all of the Chechens. Period. Otherwise, every "terrorist" killed will have a son or a brother or a nephew - or even a mother or a sister or niece - who will then become a "terrorist" in turn. The aerial bombing campaigns, which have destroyed entire communities, have no clear military purpose. Instead, they are the equivalent of a terrorist factory - for what is more likely to produce a man willing to take up arms against the state then a state that kills his parents, his wife, his children?


A Not-Great Game


The Taliban this weekend formally recognized Chechnya's independence. The U.S. State Department, for the first time ever, met with Chechnya's foreign minister. It was apparently a low-level affair, a mere nod-and-handshake in a Washington hotel lobby. Turkey, meanwhile, is drawing a nervous Georgia into talk of a "Caucasus Security Pact." Turkey grandly agrees Russia can probably participate too.


In the capitals of the West, Russia's political allies can't figure out how to justify sending more financial aid; in the Moslem world, they are watching Moscow replace Washington in public opinion as "the Great Satan."


None of this - none - is remotely in Russia's national interest. (It may, of course, suit Washington and Ankara just fine.) And it is unfolding inexorably - even as Putin turns aside whistling that "nothing in particular has happened to make us start thinking that something unusual has happened."


Who Is Winning?


As near as we can see, the only beneficiary of the war so far is Putin himself. He looks decisive, ruthless. He is former KGB - a strong hand - yet vocally supported by leading "liberals" like Anatoly Chubais and Sergei Kiriyenko. To many Russians - who, like us, see corruption in government as a major threat to national security - he probably looks the man to restore order. And already he is making changes - putting a former KGB man in to replace Pavel Borodin at the murky presidential household affairs directorate; demoting ministers with unsavory reputations; promoting those respected by Western observers.


So far, however, we see government officials shuffled - but not sacked. We see a Central Bank under the same management as the people who brought us FIMACO, the offshore shell company where the bank has parked the national reserves, earning unspecified profits that have gone in unspecified directions. (Readers of these pages may know we have called repeatedly for a thorough purge of existing Central Bank management, for an investigation and for increased parliamentary oversight of the bank.) We see ORT, the national state-run Channel 1 television station, firmly in the hands of its de facto editor-in-chief, Boris Berezovsky. (Berezovsky even admits the authenticity of transcripts of his phone conversations with ORT anchor Sergei Dorenko - as published in Novaya Gazeta, they have those two discussing how best to pin a murder allegation on Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, among other things.) We see Yury Skuratov, the suspended prosecutor general, still on the outs - apparently for the crime of finally starting to do his job - and, by the way, deriding Putin as a corrupt lackey for corrupt family interests.


A Change of Subject


In August, the most heated topic of Moscow discussion revolved around reports that billions of dollars from Russia had been laundered through the Bank of New York. (It is our opinion, by the way, that the Bank of New York hullabaloo was as loud and shrill as it was because Russia-watchers abroad felt sheepish about having been slow to grasp the significance of FIMACO; for these people, the New York Times-approved Bank of New York scandal was a welcome opportunity for a make-up call.)


And then, a dramatic change of subject. Suddenly, Russian television was full of the horrors and disorders of Chechnya. The invasion of Dagestani mountain backwaters by Basayev's bands, the apartment bombings - these would come later. But even today, even after those larger events, what sticks with many people is the television footage of a Chechen fanatic beheading his victims with a sword; of the emaciated kindergartner held in Chechnya for months for "ransom."


It was not entirely a new theme. In March and April, Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun was kidnapped off of his plane on a Grozny runway (his whereabouts remain unknown); a bomb ripped through a Vladikavkaz marketplace, killing more than 50 people; and a car bomb packed with nails, screws and empty gun shells and parked in residential St. Petersburg failed to detonate, but would have been deadly. August and September saw Basayev's attacks - and then the apartment blasts, in Moscow, Buinaksk, Volgodonsk, which left nearly 300 dead. There are strong reasons to believe Chechen partisans are behind every single one of these terrorist events.


However, authoritative voices have argued that the Kremlin itself - or elements in the Kremlin "family" - may have abetted, encouraged or even framed the Chechens.


This theory has been put forward by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who has over the years repeatedly accused oligarch Berezovsky of ties with Chechnya's worst terrorists and kidnappers (Berezovsky has brokered the release of many kidnap victims).


It has been floated in testimony to the U.S. Congress by Yabloko party Duma Deputy Yury Shekhochikhin and on the floor of the State Duma by Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.


It has been put forward in print by no less famous a journalist than NTV's "Itogi" anchorman, Yevgeny Kiselyov. And in Chechnya proper, it is taken as axiomatic by villagers that the war is about putting the "family's" successor into the Kremlin - and nothing else.


The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets has published what it says are transcripts of phone conversations between Berezovsky and Chechen terrorists, in which Berezovsky is described playing a role in organizing Basayev's invasion of Dagestan. In a startling response, the Berezovsky-controlled Nezavisimaya Gazeta in October suggested, in an article by editor Vitaly Tretyakov, that Berezovsky might indeed have done that.


Tretyakov wrote then that it was "obvious that the Chechens in Dagestan were lured there" by "Russian special services." (Is it obvious? If so, isn't this worth investigating?) Tretyakov added his "personal hypothesis" that Berezovsky might have unwittingly assisted those special services, "or even more likely - he could have acted in concert with them." (To what end?)


In Moskovskaya Pravda, meanwhile - days before the first bombs rocked Moscow - well-known journalist and retired army Colonel Alexander Zhilin wrote that Kremlin insiders, including Berezovsky, were circulating a written draft of steps to sow disorder as a way of reaping power.


"The plan is to carry out some high-profile terrorist attacks," Zhilin wrote.


Days later, the first terrorist bomb hit Moscow, ripping through the Manezh shopping center and killing one person. Apartment blasts followed.


Let Parliament Investigate


No one has ever taken responsibility for any of the terrorist attacks in recent months. That is not exactly Chechen style - Basayev and other warlords have often worn their worst crimes as badges of honor.


Instead, we have seen these fascinating Moskovsky Komsomolets and Moskovskaya Pravda reports of a Kremlin intriguing with terrorists. We have seen Segodnya, another national newspaper, report of a meeting in Paris between Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin and Basayev.


We have seen The Independent of London report on a videotaped "confession" of a Russian GRU, or military intelligence, man, who tells his Chechen captors that he and others engineered the Moscow apartment blasts.


And for that matter, we have Sergei Stepashin's sacking as prime minister - and Stepashin's opaque claim that he was sacked because "he could not be bought."


It is time for a major national investigation of the apartment bombings - one run by a parliamentary commission, or perhaps by a special prosecutor selected by parliament and granted a free hand to work.


We would humbly suggest Stepashin be the first to testify. He should be asked under oath: Who made his staying as prime minister (and, presumably, as Yeltsin's successor) conditional on his "being bought"? Bought to do what? Next up for consideration ought to be these purported M-K Berezovsky tapes.


Is it not possible to determine the authenticity of the voices on an audio tape - to determine whether the tape is real?


And if the M-K tape is indeed authentic, then is Tretyakov's "personal hypothesis" of its meaning sufficient, or does parliament have a responsibility to dig deeper?


Conspiracy Theories


Some will hotly reject calls that the apartment bombings be investigated by parliament. They will say it is a police matter; they will accuse those willing to entertain even fleetingly a Kremlin role in terrorist attacks on innocent Russians as "Russophobes," or cranks.


We'd respond that it is not The Moscow Times that has first suggested this. It has been discussed in the Russian Duma and the U.S. Congress, and in the newspapers of Paris and London and Los Angeles; and it is time the air was cleared.


We'd also respond that the Central Intelligence Agency has mined Nicaraguan harbors, and been behind Middle East car bombs that have killed innocents; that the conventional wisdom is that broad official conspiracies led to the carnage in Kosovo and East Timor; that American presidents have looked to the polls in prolonging the carnage in Vietnam and in invading, say, Grenada.


Such behavior is not unheard of - even in nations where democracy and rule of law are considered strong.


Nor is any of this Russophobia, or naoborot. What to us constitutes Russiaphobia is to assume that Russia is not capable of conducting a real, democratic, parliament-led investigation of terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds; that it shouldn't even try.


It is also Russophobia, in our view, to clench one's teeth into a grin and insist Putin is "the best bet" for Russia - simply because he looks inevitable.


For that matter, what could be more xenophobic toward Russia's citizens than lazily accepting the warped official logic - that "Chechens" are behind the Moscow apartment blasts, so "Chechens" must die, and Grozny apartment blocks must be destroyed by federal aviation? Don't the hundreds of thousands of innocents deserve at least some court to hear their pleas?


Parliament should demand a halt to the war, and it should open an investigation into the terrorist attacks.


We would also suggest that ordinary Russians reconsider their enthusiastic support for acting President Putin's policies.


So far, Putin has appealed to the worst natures of the Russian people - and the people have applauded.


It would be dangerous and foolhardy - not to mention utterly immoral - to look upon this with complacence as a temporary problem, one to be addressed March 26 and no sooner.