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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen War Goes Into Its 4th Year

Three years ago Monday for the first time since 1996, news agencies reported that Russian air forces had struck targets on the territory of what was then a de facto independent Chechnya. Several days later, troops in armored vehicles rolled into Chechnya and the second war of the decade began.

Since then, the war has degenerated into a painful mixture of personal vendettas, rampant looting and torture, slavery and shadow business. The violence has gained its own momentum and broken loose from the control of those who launched it, making the prospect of total victory of either side or of their reconciliation dim.

As the war enters its fourth year, none of the federal government's declared goals has been accomplished, neither restoring constitutional order in Chechnya nor wiping out Chechen terrorists. Only the undeclared goal of bringing an obscure former KGB officer called Vladimir Putin to power was fulfilled.

There is no end in sight to the war unless negotiations are held with the Chechen separatists, but finding a negotiating partner who could speak for all Chechens and carry out any agreements would be difficult.

Although even by official estimates Russia has lost more than 4,500 servicemen in Chechnya in the past three years, Putin is under little public pressure to end the war, and his government has refused to negotiate with the rebels.

"The experience of the 1990s [when Moscow led the first unsuccessful military assault on Chechnya] shows that rebels and their sponsors outside Russia regard any negotiations, other than on the terms of their surrender, as a weakness and a signal for them to become more active," Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was quoted by Interfax as saying Friday. "A well-organized and coordinated rebuff should be our major response."

Putin, echoed by the Kremlin-appointed head of the interim Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, has insisted that the only issue open for talks with the rebels is their disarmament.

Last year, Putin proposed such talks to rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, whose envoy Akhmed Zakayev contacted Putin's envoy Viktor Kazantsev several times. But in the end, the rebels refused to accept Moscow's terms.

In August, Zakayev met former Security Council head Ivan Rybkin in another attempt to prod the Kremlin toward peace negotiations, but Moscow has shown no interest.

After the United States launched its crusade against Islamic terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, Moscow swiftly changed its rhetoric on Chechnya. If earlier the war there was called Russia's internal affair, today Russia in Chechnya "faces elements of foreign aggression," as Gryzlov put it Friday.

The military now wants to widen the war by going after Chechen rebels in the crime-infested Pankisi Gorge in neighboring Georgia.

The three years of war have claimed the lives of 80,000 civilians, prominent Russian and international human rights organizations believe. Federal authorities say the figure is much lower, and the presidential human rights envoy for Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, said the number of casualties would be established in a census in October, Interfax reported last week.

The huge losses could have been avoided if in 1998 the Kremlin had implemented a plan drawn up by then-Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a lawmaker representing Chechnya in the State Duma.

"Kulikov then proposed preventive strikes on the bases of terrorists in Chechnya, whose location was well-known to Russian law enforcers," Aslakhanov said. "Had the Kremlin made this unpopular decision then, there would be no enemies in Chechnya for Russia to fight now."

The war that followed has not succeeded in restoring order to Chechnya or stopping Chechen terrorists, he said.

"They are giving interviews to reporters while the Russian secret services say they are unable to locate them," Aslakhanov said bitterly. "It means that eliminating terrorists was not on the agenda of the Russian warmongers."

The major incentive for fighting in Chechnya is to profit from illegal trade in oil and timber and from taking local citizens hostages, he said.

Federal troops claim to have killed some rebel leaders, but others continue to operate freely. Khattab, an Arab warlord, was killed in March, but the circumstances remain fuzzy.

Federal troops have conquered most of Chechen territory but suffer daily losses from hit-and-run attacks by Chechen rebels and in the land-mine war.

The number of troops remaining in Chechnya is unclear. There were 80,000 there at the height of the conflict in early 2000, according to Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya.

His office now says it has no information on the number still deployed, and the Defense Ministry's press service said Monday that it is a state secret.

Throughout the past year, Russian officials have insisted the military phase of the conflict is over. They have been pushing for the return of more than 100,000 refugees to Chechnya and supporting Kadyrov's plans to establish a new system of government. Kadyrov's office wants to hold a referendum early next year on a Chechen constitution and elections at a later date for a Chechen president and parliament.

Chechen insiders have little faith in the viability of such moves in the current situation.

"The ordinary population of Chechnya is simultaneously embittered and dejected by the brutality of Russian troops and will pro forma resign itself to any initiative of Moscow," said Shamil Beno, the foreign minister in the government of late Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. "But as soon as troops leave the republic and the threat of terror for the local population slackens, Chechens, united by the syndrome of a victimized nation, will put up anti-Russian political and armed resistance."

Aslakhanov said he also believes the first step must be to bring peace to the republic, which he said requires that Moscow begin talks with Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997.

Alexander Iskandaryan, a Caucasus expert from the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, also supports holding talks with Maskhadov, saying that otherwise the guerrilla war in Chechnya will drag on for decades.

After the way Russia has treated them, Chechens will not give up the idea of independence, and to avoid further bloodshed, Russia should help them build their own state, he said.

Maskhadov failed to consolidate an independent Chechnya after federal troops withdrew in 1996, but to a great extent this was because Russia either torpedoed or neglected his attempts to obtain control over the rival warlords, Iskandaryan said.

Leonid Syukiainen, an Islamic expert from the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences, however, said the Chechens are the most to blame for their problems since deciding to split from the rest of Russia in the early 1990s.

"Many fewer people fled from Chechnya in three years of war than in the two years of peace in the de facto independent Chechnya," he said. "The media and human rights activists prefer not to talk about it."

Today, despite many problems, Moscow is restoring the social and economic infrastructure of the republic, but these efforts may prove useless if the Kremlin fails to work out a plan for restoring the cultural and intellectual environment in Chechnya, Syukiainen said.

A new Chechen society should be based on some ethnic and Muslim traditions and values, combined with Russian and global ones, he said, and this is where Moscow's plans for the restoration of Chechnya fall short.

"Take Islam, you will not see the word in these plans," he said. "It is not only a religion but also a way of life and a system of values.

"If the authorities don't tell people what place Islam will occupy in their lives, they don't have a moral right to rule Muslims."

Syukiainen said that in neglecting Islam in a republic populated mostly by Muslims, the authorities are handing this instrument of influence to their worst enemies: religious radicals.