Book Review by Carl Gershman: ‘Chechnya’s Secret Wartime Diplomacy’
Russia’s recent invasion and annexation of Crimea and its instigation of a separatist armed rebellion in eastern and southern Ukraine have overturned the world order established after the Cold War. Most analysts have understandably traced Russia’s aggression to the revolutionary upheaval in Ukraine, which ousted a president beholden to Moscow in February and brought to power a new leadership looking to integrate Ukraine into the European Union. In fact, the process that has culminated in the current crisis began 15 years ago, when Vladimir Putin emerged almost out of nowhere, pledging to suppress a separatist rebellion in Chechnya. The small republic had a population of just one million, yet Mr. Putin claimed it posed a grave terrorist threat to all of Russia.
While many aspects of Mr. Putin’s rise are cloaked in mystery, its relation to the Chechen conflict is unmistakable: He took over the FSB, Russia’s security service, in 1998 in the wake of the First Chechen War, a bloody conflict ending in a stalemate that left the Russian forces weakened and demoralized. The following year, in August, President Boris Yeltsin appointed Mr. Putin acting prime minister, and in September Russia was rocked by four apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities that killed almost 300 people. Mr. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists for the bombings—but evidence uncovered from a fifth bombing attempt in the city of Ryazan, which was foiled by apartment residents, indicated that the FSB was behind the attacks.
But with Russians swept up in anti-Chechen hysteria thanks to the pro-Kremlin media, they accepted the official version of the incident, and the very next day Mr. Putin launched the Second Chechen War, vowing to “strangle the vermin at the root” and “waste them in the outhouse.” This gangster-like language presaged a war of unrestrained brutality: Atrocities included the destruction of entire villages; the use of bunker-busting bombs on civilians; and the blanketing of Chechen valleys with land mines.
Mr. Putin’s prime target was Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the resistance in the First Chechen War who had been elected president of Chechnya in January 1997. Mr. Putin insisted he was simply an Islamic terrorist like all Chechens who favored independence. Maskhadov vehemently resisted that characterization—and an important new book confirms that he remained a secular and moderate figure, even as Russia’s tactics grew more brutal.
“Chechnya’s Secret Wartime Diplomacy” consists of edited transcripts of 24 audiotapes that Maskhadov recorded in 2000-03 while he was on the move with a small group of guards. The tapes were secretly transmitted by courier to his foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov, who had left Chechnya when the war broke out to provide diplomatic representation abroad.
With phone and other electronic communication too risky because it might reveal Maskhadov’s location, the tapes provided a way for him to instruct Mr. Akhmadov. Since the two were unable to speak directly, there were often tensions and misunderstandings. But these transcripts, supplemented by Mr. Akhmadov’s own commentary, provide a vivid and hitherto unavailable perspective on the war. They also answer many important questions about Maskhadov and the Chechen struggle.
The book confirms, for example, that the late journalist Anna Politkovskaya was correct in designating Maskhadov a “Westernizer” within the Chechen resistance, meaning that he wanted to adapt European laws and human-rights norms to Chechnya. “We have strongly rejected any Wahhabism, fundamentalism, extremism,” Maskhadov said in the very first audio letter, recorded in July 2000. Yet he was also trying to unite his forces against Mr. Putin and prevent a civil war from developing. As Mr. Akhmadov writes, every time Maskhadov succeeded in achieving unity, a terrorist act like the Beslan hostage crisis of 2004, would “drive us into another dead end.”
The tapes also show that Maskhadov was constantly seeking a negotiated settlement. “It is necessary to make utmost efforts to stop this war,” he says in one of the last tapes, dated April 18, 2002. “At any cost, as soon as possible!” Though a number of peace plans were put forward by outside observers, both Russian and Western, the Putin regime showed no interest whatsoever in negotiations.
Maskhadov’s finest moment came at the beginning of 2005, when he announced a unilateral cease-fire that all the Chechen forces observed, and then followed it up with a letter to Javier Solana, the E.U. foreign policy chief, outlining a settlement that would take into account Russia’s “legitimate security interests.” The initiative was ignored by the international community and welcomed only by Russian democrats from such organizations as Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, who rightly saw the cease-fire as a historic opportunity.
But just 10 days after the letter was sent, Maskhadov was killed by Russian forces in the Chechen village of Tolstoy Yurt. In keeping with the savage way they were conducting the war, the Russians put his half-naked body on public display and ignored requests from his family to return it—probably fearing that his burial place might become a shrine. Mr. Akhmadov writes that Maskhadov’s death spelled “the end of our wing of peaceseekers.”
Looking back on their correspondence, Mr. Akhmadov writes that “Maskhadov did not fully appreciate the hardening of the Russian position. But who did?” It’s true that Maskhadov continued to think that he was dealing with the Russia of the ’90s, and that a negotiated settlement might be possible. Yet there are also points in the transcript when he appears to recognize that something fundamental had changed. “This war reveals surprising things now,” he says in an early tape. “Everything . . . was different from the way we perceived it.” The difference? “Today the FSB rules Russia, the war is being waged by the FSB.”
This deeply troubling insight remains relevant, as the West tries to deal with a regime that threatens its neighbors and makes the world a much more dangerous place.
11.06.2014 – The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.