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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya War Making Not Breaking Terrorism

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

When terrorists seized some 750 hostages in the Teatralny Tsentr Na Dubrovke, the world awoke, bleary-eyed, and struggled to remember the Chechens. Mini-histories of the conflict were hastily assembled to refresh our memories. These tended to emphasize a similar crisis from seven years ago: Guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev led 150 of his men into a Russian village, Budyonnovsk, where they took 1,000 hostages and blockaded themselves into a hospital. In the ensuing stand-off more than 120 civilians died (most of them killed by Russian gunfire during a bungled raid). Eventually, Basayev's men negotiated safe passage back to rebel lands and freed the hostages.

But a timeline that moves from "Budyonnovsk, June 1995, Chechen terrorists seize hospital, 120 dead" to "Moscow, October 2002, Chechen terrorists seize theater, 117 dead" omits a lot. Consider that one month before Budyonnovsk, Russian forces strafed a Chechen mountain village, Vedeno, and killed 11 women and children cowering in a shelter -- a mundane occurrence, as the carpet bombing had by then killed thousands of civilians, except that these particular 11 were all Basayev's relatives. Basayev has said this was when he decided to take the war to Russian territory.

And is there room in the timeline of terror for "Samashki, April 1995, more than 100 civilians killed"? For months in 1995, Russian forces had engaged in a well-documented wave of atrocities, including rapes and murders. Instead of reining in such behavior, the Russian government apparently decided to make it policy. In April 1995, the Sofrino brigade -- an Interior Ministry unit that had not yet seen combat in Chechnya, much less lost any men to it, so this was cold and calculated war crime -- was marched into the village of Samashki. Two days of terror followed, in what was officially described as a zachistka -- "a cleansing." Grenades were tossed into occupied homes; village elders were shot at point-blank range.

We have seen eight years of such horrors. And we seem to have lost all ability to consider the record dispassionately. In discussions of Chechnya, people choose sides based on whether they are predisposed to like or dislike "Russia" (by which they usually seem to mean "the Kremlin"). They then choose from a gruesomely long menu of atrocities in building their side's case -- and complain indignantly whenever anyone quotes from the other side's list of horrors. Dare to mention Russian forces executed a woman who was eight months pregnant? You'll be reviled for not mentioning the three New Zealanders and one Brit whose decapitated heads Chechens lined up on a road side. And so on. It's a never-ending non-discussion. Few who have closely followed the war can even agree anymore on "who started it" -- as if that still matters.

We should all feel sorrow and sympathy for Russians today. No one should ever have to hear their countrymen pleading on cellphones to be saved from execution by masked fanatics; to see their children crying in a theater wrapped in explosives.

Liberals in the State Duma are demanding an inquiry into how so many Chechen rebels could march into downtown Moscow; into what gas the government used, and why it did not see to proper medical preparations before using it. Americans asked similar questions of ourselves after 9/11 -- why were our police and fire fighters hampered by bad communications? how could a box-cutter bring down an air plane? -- because to drag such weaknesses into the light is a step toward defeating them.

Unlike the attacks on Sept. 11, however, the terrorists in Moscow had a political demand: Stop the war. Open peace talks. American and European officials have long urged the same. Yet Vladimir Putin rejected negotiations, insisting he would not be "blackmailed" by terrorists.

One could have sympathy for Putin's rationale, and for his decision to send in gas and troops. That was a tough call, the kind that I would not wish on my worst enemy.

But Putin's talk now of a massive military response is much harder to find sympathy for. He is about to expand on eight years of deliberate, horrific, sustained and unpunished war crime -- one that has surely manufactured and empowered more terrorists than it has ever destroyed.

The Kremlin seems incapable of recognizing this -- of remembering the Samashkis alongside the Budyonnovsks. So it plans to shout "al-Qaida," and hopes the world will avert its eyes and let the war continue.

What's ironic is that this hope is fervently shared by the worst elements in Chechnya itself.

Recall that the hostage-takers sent videotapes to al Jazeera, the Qatar-based, Arabic-language television station, of veiled women standing before a banner inscribed "God is great" -- again in Arabic. Why Arabic? That language is not spoken in Chechnya. Clearly, the intent was to hijack Chechnya's suffering and struggles -- to put it to work for international terror's recruiting and fundraising videos.

It's generally agreed al-Qaida has men, perhaps a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred, in Chechnya; and that Chechen fighters have received support from places like Taliban-era Afghanistan. It also seems likely the Moscow terror attack was inspired by the needs not of Chechnya, but of international Islamic terror. (The terrorists demanded peace talks; but they had to know their actions would prolong the war.)

Chechnya is not al-Qaida; and neither Putin nor al-Qaida should be allowed to pretend otherwise. The real problem in Chechnya is not the Arab fighters -- it's Russia's wildly brutal rule. The Russian military has reduced this patch of the Caucasus to the sort of Hobbesian hell we associate with ... well, like Afghanistan. Groups like al-Qaida thrive in such places. They arrive when things are bad, and make them worse; village-by-village "cleansings" only swell their ranks. So whether judged as realpolitik or on moral grounds, the war in Chechnya has been a failure. It's time for us to honor all victims of terror -- whether Moscow 2002, New York and Washington 2001, or Samashki 1995 -- in seeking peace negotiations.

Matt Bivens is a fellow with the Nation Institute. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.