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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rooting for the Underdog in Chechnya and Iraq

The latest story is there might be Russians in Baghdad helping the Iraqis jam our U.S. Army weapons systems. Now that's nice to see -- the Old Evil Empire giving a helping hand to the youngest member of the Axis of Evil, kind of a big brother program for dictators.
-- Late-night television comedian Jay Leno


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When the war in Chechnya soured overnight, the Russian leadership was aghast at losing to a non-white subject people. So President Boris Yeltsin & Co. started barking shrilly about 10-foot-tall foreign mercenaries -- about female Estonian snipers in white tights, all manner of silliness.

They did so defensively; they knew their claims, even those with truth to them, sounded wild-eyed; they knew they were being tittered at, by a world that secretly (and not-so-secretly) reveled in the underdogs holding out against the bullies.

So how gratifying are the Russians secretly (and not-so-secretly) finding it, now that my countrymen and I are bogged down in a Chechnya of our own making?

What must Russians be thinking when they hear shrill American officials talk about 10-foot-tall foreigners secretly defending Iraq? Ten-foot-tall Russians, no less -- causing so much trouble for our military that the U.S. president has to call the Kremlin to complain.

Think how the past 15 years or so have looked in Russian eyes: the United States has gone from win to bigger win; the Russians from loss to petty loss.

When Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the demoralized Soviet Army out of Afghanistan in 1989, after 10 bloody years, it was for many Russians evidence of their ongoing collapse. That same year, U.S. forces would breeze in and out of Panama, dragging Manuel Noriega back to jail in the States. Soon after, as the Soviet Union itself was coming apart, came Gulf War I: An American-led coalition routed Hussein and held a ticker-tape parade.

In 1994, the Russians muddled into a staggering defeat in a patch of mud in their own country. The Americans were marching triumphantly into Bosnia; soon they'd be smacking the Serbs around and suffering not a single casualty. (And when the Americans bombed, the dictator they targeted -- Slobodan Milosevic, a snow-white Slav, no less -- caved, leaving the world talking of civilian deaths but also of American power.)

When the White House closed the circle, and announced after Sept. 11 we were invading Afghanistan -- Afghanistan, the Soviet Waterloo -- you could hear the Russians aching for our comeuppance. Aching, even as they recognized the ache was irrational; even as they overcame it and provided American forces some real assistance -- maps, intelligence, indulgence as we set up military bases in their backyard.

But now. Now, just when Russians resigned themselves to the way things are, we Americans, we invincible Americans, have finally done it. We've bitten off more than we can chew. At least the Russians think so -- you can see the gleeful relief in their response to the war. The Russians (and their little brothers, the Serbs) are not uniquely arrogant or incompetent or stupid -- they'd almost come to believe they were. Now they remember that those are not Slavic failings, but human ones.

Now, in fact, some Russians who know their history are remembering the specifics of their Afghan campaign. Specifically, they're recalling, with a small smile, that the Soviet Army easily and triumphantly rolled in and took over that first year. It was the mosquito-like guerrilla attacks that were ultimately too much -- the kind of harassment U.S. forces in Afghanistan are subject to.

Remember how the State Duma rose in hot fury to condemn the Bruce Willis vehicle "Armaggedon," over its portrayal of a rickety Mir space station staffed by an unshaven drunk cosmonaut? Remember the sullen rage when the ruble crashed, and the rest of the world began complaining Russia was a corrupt and crime-ridden place?

Contrast the spit-flecked fury of such days with the good-natured, even-keeled -- even amused -- reactions to American complaints Russians are meddling in Iraq. Some allegations hurt, because there's a fat core of undeniable truth in them; others are dismissed with a grin and a wave, because whether true or not, the accusations say far more about the accuser.

* * *



I covered the first war in Chechnya on the ground in the mid-1990s, and I don't use the analogy lightly. But I'm struck by how similar the conflicts seem -- both in some of the details, and in the big picture.

Chechens, too, were sick and tired of their dictator, General Dzhokhar Dudayev. Russians, too, took it as axiomatic their world-class army would liberate Grozny and be loved for it.

And surprise: When the Orthodox Christian armies arrived with a shock and awe bombing campaign, the Muslims weren't waving Russian flags or throwing flowers. Instead, they held their noses and rallied around a chieftain they hated. Overnight he went from being Dudayev the drug-running thug to Dudayev, symbol of Chechen independence. Even those who months earlier had been trying to kill Dudayev joined up to fight for him against the invaders; a common sentiment of such men was: We'll take care of Dudayev after the war.

The Russians got Dudayev first. But the war ground on; it had generated its own momentum, its own scores to settle, sacrifices to honor. Russian bombs and troops, by ripping into peaceful neighborhoods, had created five guerrillas for every one killed.

Some of this is almost certainly now happening in Iraq. Iraqis are rallying to Saddam Hussein with the same reluctance and distaste shown by Chechens for Dudayev; those on the fence are having a decision made for them, as our bombs kill their mothers, wives, children. Soon the war will have its own momentum, enough to continue even if Hussein is killed.

U.S. officials ought to know this, if only from Vietnam, the other Chechnya. Instead, as they meet unexpected guerrilla resistance, as they engage in street-to-street combat, they talk of Iraqis being forced to fight against their will by officers who execute those who waver. (And sure, that's probably happening -- but c'mon, is it the real explanation of why we're meeting stiff resistance?)

Nine years ago, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev was bragging he'd take Grozny in two hours with one paratroop regiment. This time around, it's a lieutenant of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld whose talk of a cakewalk to Baghdad has stuck in Americans' minds.

Grachev's splendid two-hour war is now eight years old, with some 200,000 Chechens dead.

In recent years, the world has begged Putin to admit stalemate and accept a political solution. Was there, then, a hint of too-studied innocence, of payback, in Putin's call for a political solution for Iraq?

With every hour, the latest butcher of Grozny reminded us, human casualties and destruction (in Iraq) are mounting, peaceful citizens are dying -- children, old people, women.

I don't recall Putin ever being so eloquent about the hours, days, weeks, months, years in which his government has been killing children, old people, women. But I can only half-heartedly complain about this; after all, it seems it's Putin's turn to be sanctimonious, and ours to be sulky about it.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. [www.thenation.com]. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.