Anti-terrorist operation still looks like war on Chechens

Russia's allegations don't entirely define nature of the fighting

War On Terrorism

The World

October 26, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Before Sept. 11, it took a stretch of the imagination to agree with Russia that an anti-terrorist operation could require 80,000 troops, create a quarter of a million refugees, lead to thousands of casualties and the leveling of cities, and go on for two years.

The Kremlin made that claim. It has consistently labeled its opponents in the Chechen conflict as terrorists, except when it has collectively referred to them as bandit formations. But to just about everyone else, the operation in the Caucasus always looked less like anti-terrorism and more like a straightforward war against Chechnya.

Then, last month, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared that the Russians were indeed fighting terrorists in Chechnya. In response, the Kremlin has embraced the United States, suddenly sympathetic European leaders have said they must rethink the nature of the conflict, and the United States has started to mount a vast military attack on terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

During the past few weeks, Moscow has enthusiastically made more allegations of Osama bin Laden's involvement in Chechnya. Similar charges were first trotted out when the latest round of fighting began, in 1999, and they appear to be valid. But they don't entirely define the nature of the fighting in the Caucasus.

"We call it an internal armed conflict," says Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch. That, he says, is a polite way of pointing out that there has been a concentrated use of weaponry, a high level of human rights violations and the mass shooting of civilians.

"Indiscriminate use of aviation and artillery, and cases when columns of refugees have been bombed," says Alexander Cherkasov of the Memorial Human Rights Center.

It still looks like a war, in other words, against Chechens.

Tentative contacts renewed

Recently, both sides have shown an interest in finding a way to stop the fighting. Tentative contacts were renewed this week when Akhmed Zakayev, the peace envoy for the Chechens, called the Russian president's representative for the region, Viktor Kazantsev.

Kazantsev said yesterday that the two agreed to meet and that their talks will probably start before Wednesday in Moscow. These would not be "talks with bandits," Kazantsev added, but a meeting to discuss "a number of questions."

The barely disguised willingness on Moscow's part to pull back from what has become a long-term, draining military operation - and to negotiate with those Chechens it deems worthy - has made the claim that this is an anti-terrorist operation ambiguous at best.

The conflict in Chechnya, in fact, seems to fit several different descriptions, none of them exactly wrong.

But whether it's a war or a police action or a special operation, one thing that stands out is the large number of civilian casualties. Although it is impossible to know how many have been killed since the fighting began, estimates place the number at between 8,000 and 30,000.

The troubles in Chechnya began with a first round of war in 1994. Russian troops marched in to re-establish Moscow's control over the breakaway republic. Casualties were enormous; the Russians, in the end, were all but defeated. They withdrew from Chechnya with an agreement that the status of the republic would be decided later.

Chechnya, which is as big as Connecticut, promptly descended into a warlord culture. Kidnappings - of Chechens, Russians and foreigners - proliferated. Gruesome videos showed victims being tortured, mutilated and in one case beheaded. A leader named Arbi Barayev arranged the kidnapping of five British and New Zealand telephone workers; their heads were later found along a roadside.

It was during this period, Moscow argues, that Islamic radicals began to filter into Chechnya from other countries, for training and agitation. The Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov adopted Sharia, the code of law based on the Quran. The Russians grew more alarmed.

But Chechen fighters under Shamil Basayev, a warlord who'd had a falling out with Maskhadov, precipitated the second war. In August 1999, they entered neighboring Dagestan and captured some mountain villages. Basayev apparently expected that all of Dagestan, which is Muslim, would rise up in a jihad against the Russians.

It didn't happen. Basayev and his men were chased back into Chechnya - during an interlude in which it seemed little fighting was going on. Moscow gained its pretext: Russia couldn't allow attacks on territory outside the troublesome republic. Russian troops began preparing to enter Chechnya's northern steppe.

In September 1999, shortly after the relatively unknown Vladimir V. Putin was named prime minister, apartment houses were destroyed by explosions in Moscow and Volgadonsk. More than 300 people were killed. Moscow blamed the Chechens, and the war was on.

Little solidarity shown

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