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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Principles or Putin

From time to time, behind front-page news such as Saddam Hussein's arrest, beneath the high-altitude rhetoric of freedom and democracy, the government faces a ground-level, barely seen clash of principle vs. expediency. Recently the Bush administration came to one such crossroads in the matter of Ilyas Akhmadov.

"Why should one care?" Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser, asked last week, not just about Akhmadov but about the larger Russian-Chechen conflict in which Akhmadov is a player.

Brzezinski, speaking to a conference on Chechnya organized at the American Enterprise Institute by the New Atlantic Initiative and others, answered by locating the Chechen plight in the history of the 20th century -- during which, he noted, more human beings were killed in wars and extermination campaigns than in all previous centuries combined.

As targets for total elimination, and in proportionate losses, he said, three peoples suffered most during those 100 years: Jews, Gypsies -- and Chechens. Probably half of all Chechens died after Stalin ordered them deported in 1944 from their Caucasus homeland to a barren steppe far to the east. They starved, froze, stifled in cattle cars or were shot or burned by Soviet soldiers.

Decades later, survivors were permitted to return to their homeland, but in 1994 Russian troops invaded to quell an independence movement. They retreated in 1996 but invaded again in 1999, resuming combat that continues today in ugly guerrilla and counterinsurgency fighting.

Chechnya was home to about 1 million people a decade ago. In nine years of fighting, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, thousands have been "disappeared" by Russian troops and about one-fourth of the population is believed to have died.

"And how did they die?" Brzezinski posed a second question. "Amidst global silence, in solitude, with occasionally some people murmuring 'never again' -- but not really attaching much significance to them."

Those who survive are living in a "medical and ecological catastrophe," Chechen doctor Khassan Baiev said: the capital in ruins, much of the land poisoned by defoliants, children contracting leukemia, mothers unable to give milk, young men committing suicide or dying of heart attacks. "The whole nation is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome," Baiev said.

Some Chechens have turned to terrorism against blameless Russian civilians, launching horrific attacks in neighboring territory and at the center of Moscow. Some have moved from nationalism to radical Islamism; others have become gangsters who live off kidnapping and smuggling. Caught in the middle are the civilians, who, polls show, would settle for less than independence if they could only live in peace.

President Vladimir Putin has shown no interest in a negotiated settlement. He wants one thing from the world when it comes to Chechnya: to butt out. Lately he has been closing refugee camps in a neighboring province and pressuring Chechens to go home, to support his fiction that life there is normal. He bars relief organizations from monitoring this process. And he asks fellow world leaders to accept the proposition that every Chechen leader is a criminal terrorist, thereby justifying his refusal to negotiate.

Which helps explain Ilyas Akhmadov's fate. An officer in the Soviet army, then a student of political science, Akhmadov joined the Chechen army during the first civil war. In August 1999, he was named foreign minister in a government that the Chechens had elected (with, at the time, Moscow's blessing). Later that year, when Russia attacked, he went into exile to shuttle among Western capitals, advocating negotiations to end the war in his homeland.

So his application for asylum would seem to be an easy case. No one doubts he would be subject to repression if he returned home. He is the kind of figure with whom Russia must deal if peace is ever to return. Letters in support of his appeal were sent to the Bush administration by former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Alexander Haig, Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, and others.

Inside the State Department, officials debated whether to do the right thing. They then decided, at high levels, no, why make Putin angry? Why not let an immigration judge decide? Even more sordid, Akhmadov's family has not been allowed to join him here. Thanks to people of principle in other countries, his wife and three small sons managed to reach Sweden, but he has not seen them in two years.

So now, in deference to Putin, the administration is transmitting Russian "evidence" against Akhmadov to an immigration judge in Boston, and Akhmadov in coming months will have to present a defense. He may well win; a British judge, hearing a Russian request to extradite another Chechen official, recently threw out the case, in no small part after becoming convinced that Russian authorities had tortured their chief witness to obtain the evidence they wanted.

If the Akhmadov case plays out similarly, Bush administration officials may congratulate themselves on their shrewdness. He gets to remain and they stay on Putin's good side: a win-win situation. It is in the accumulation of such small victories that a great nation diminishes itself.

Fred Hiatt is editor of The Washington Post's editorial page, where this comment first appeared.