Russia's Ruinous Chechen War

A member of law enforcement forces stands guard during a rally to protest against satirical cartoons of prophet Mohammad published by Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Grozny, Chechnya, January 19, 2015. Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters


The Russian Federation may be falling apart -- and its war against Chechnya is showing why. Unfortunately, most observers of the war in Chechnya miss the larger implications, limiting their analysis to the struggle for independence of one small region. Moscow blames radical Islamists for the trouble. Despite the undeniable role of fundamentalists in the Caucasus, however, Moscow had a greater hand in the federation's decline than it cares to admit.

Russia's latest war with Chechnya was sparked in August 1999 when radical Islamists, many of whom had infiltrated from Chechnya, staged uprisings in the neighboring southern Russian republic of Dagestan. Russian troops were sent and, despite Moscow's reassurances that the conflict was under control, the operations had evolved by September into the second full-scale war between Russia and Chechnya in five years. The innumerable deaths, the relentless bombardment of cities, and the torrent of refugees are eerily familiar, recalling the horrors of the 1994-96 Russo-Chechen war.

The Russian army -- even while weakened and demoralized -- has been more successful this time; Russian officials are proclaiming swift progress. But no real solution -- military or political -- is in sight. Instead, Russia is drifting back to the hoary Soviet practice of the big lie. It blames the bombing of marketplaces and civilian dwellings on Chechen terrorists and "bandits" while praising its own military for pinpoint strikes that supposedly destroy terrorist strongholds without hurting civilians. Russian leaders dismiss eyewitness accounts of civilian casualties as propaganda or as a double standard employed by the West, fresh from its Serbian war and out to weaken Russia. The Russian news media, too, like their state-controlled predecessors, are sticking to the official story. Only the military setbacks that began in mid-January have forced Russian leaders and the press to be more candid about the extent of Russian losses in the Chechen war. Nonetheless, honest debate is seldom tolerated, as even prominent Russian advocates of democracy and reform equate criticism of the war with

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