Putin's Iron-Fisted Failure

With the death of Aslan Maskhadov, gunned down by Russian Special Forces on last Tuesday, the world is witness to the moral bankruptcy and tactical failure of Russia’s war on Chechnya. After six years of unrestrained warfare, Russia has failed to “pacify” the Chechens, as the recent Moscow theater and Beslan incidents show, and all that President Putin has to show for his savage war is a leveled Grozny, countless body bags, and, now, the assassination of a moderate Chechen leader.

Maskhadov had been elected President of Chechnya in a somewhat dubious but mostly fair 1997 election, after successfully leading the Chechen resistance movement from 1994-1996. After his electoral victory, however, he was unable to establish an effective state and the country disintegrated into a Somalia-like state of warlordism. In response to a Chechen warlord’s invasion of Dagestan, and Chechnya’s general state of lawlessness, Russian military forces invaded in 1999. Putin left Russian military forces free to violate internationally accepted norms of warfare, presumably with the hope that ferocious and indiscriminate use of force would cow the impudent Chechens.

There is much to lament about Putin’s Presidency, from his promotion of the siloviki (former military and KGB officers), to his gradual elimination of independent media outlets. But the Chechen conflict has been Putin’s most dramatic—dramatically horrific—failure. With the confidence of a cowboy and the sophistication of a schoolyard bully, Putin favors using a tank to crush a cockroach. Throughout the war, calls for moderation and respect for basic human rights have been dismissed as unreasonable restraints on Russia’s ability to achieve a long-term solution.

Although the Russian approach to Chechnya has clearly failed to lead to peace, or even to open the door to a negotiated solution, Putin persists in his approach. He may well feel locked into a strong stance on Chechnya because it was his original political platform and the basis of his popularity. He hailed the war as a rallying point for reviving Russia’s territorial unity and national pride and as a clear signal of Russia’s military will to Western nations and to Russia’s other ethnically-based would-be separatist regions.

However, I favor the “Putin is half-crazed” explanation. If his irrational persistence in Russia’s clearly failed approach to the Chechen conflict were not enough, I would point to a few choice press conference quotes. When questioned on the Chechen conflict, Putin’s impassive KGB demeanor has slipped on a number of occasions, betraying his crude vocabulary and coarse mindset. Asked to describe Russia’s goal in the Chechen conflict, he stated that it was to “whack the bandits in the john [toilet].” At another press conference, questioned about the use of fragmentary bombs in Chechnya, Putin responded, “If you want to become an Islamic radical and you want a circumcision done, I invite you to Moscow. We are a multi-denominational country. We have specialists in this question. I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way so that afterwards nothing grows back.” Not quite the language of a sane leader of a liberal democracy.

Putin, however, has been quick to celebrate Maskhadov’s death as a validation of his Chechen policies, as justification of the indiscriminate use of force as a solution to difficult problems. Putin’s celebration would be the rough equivalent of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon putting a hellfire missile through Mahmoud Abbas’s window, celebrating the defeat of Palestinian terrorism, and ignoring Hamas. While the moderate, democratically elected Chechen leader Maskhadov lies dead, other, more radical Islamic fundamentalist fighters are still at large. In particular, Shamil Basayef, the mastermind of the horrific Moscow theater and Beslan hostage takings, runs free. In fact, Basayef may well feel that his unrestrained tactics have been vindicated with the evident failure of Maskhadov’s moderate approach; whereas Maskhadov’s conventional guerrilla tactics—even the occasional call for a peaceful solution—led him to ineffectual death in a hovel, Baseyef, operating without moral compass or any sense of restraint, continues to achieve spectacular “successes,” such as the Beslan triumph.

In reality, with the death of Maskhadov, Russia has shot itself in the foot by eliminating a moderate Chechen leader. Although Putin will continue Russia’s tank-to-cockroaches approach, even an iron fist can not squeeze water (or peace) from a rock.

Piotr Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson editorial comper, is an economics and Slavic Languages and Literature concentrator in Currier House.