In This Review
The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union?

The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union?

By Matthew Evangelista

Brookings Institution Press, 2003, 352 pp.

It is hard to think of a more likely pair of candidates for historical enmity than the Russian government and the Chechens. In the nineteenth century, Russia's expansion into the Caucasus was slowed by the opposition of local mountain peoples, of whom the Chechens were among the most fierce. Vicious frontier wars raged for much of the century and ended with the death or forced migration of hundreds of thousands of highlanders. The Chechens were targeted again in 1944, when the Soviet government packed off the entire nation, as many as half a million people, to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. They were "rehabilitated" only in 1957, when they were allowed to return in diminished numbers to their autonomous republic in the northeastern Caucasus.

It is no surprise, then, that the loosening of Soviet control allowed this history to come to the fore yet again, fueling two new rounds of warfare: from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to the present. But as Matthew Evangelista shows in his impressive new book, predicting violence in Chechnya was easy. Explaining why it erupted when it did, and why the conflict now appears intractable, is far trickier.


There are at least three broad ways of thinking about the origins of the Chechen conflict. The first focuses on history and culture. Altitude, as the saying goes, determines attitude, and one cannot observe the history of Chechen resistance to Russian rule without acknowledging the power of highland cultural norms -- codes of honor, a martial tradition that blurs the line between political rebellion and ordinary brigandage, the organization of society around rival clans -- in inspiring and sustaining violence. Political Islam has also played a role, in either its indigenous Sufi varieties or the militant Wahhabi form imported from the Arab world in the 1990s.

A second explanation attributes current problems to the legacy of the Soviet system itself. A standardized Chechen language was developed by Soviet linguists, just as many of the cultural symbols praised as timeless markers of Chechen identity were codified -- and in some cases manufactured -- during the Soviet period. Even Djokhar Dudaev, the trilby-wearing first president of Chechnya who was killed by a Russian rocket in 1996, learned what he knew of military tactics from the Soviet air force academy.

The problem with these two views is that there are plenty of conflict-prone regions in Eurasia that have inherited the same Soviet legacies but have still made the transition to postcommunism in relative peace. Consider Dagestan, a case that features prominently in Evangelista's book. Unlike any of the neighboring republics in the north Caucasus, the very name "Dagestan" -- the mountainous place -- is ethnically neutral, and for good reason: the republic is home to a bewildering mix of ethnic and linguistic groups. And many of these groups have histories of opposition to Russia at least as bloody as the Chechens'. Shamil, the great highland warlord and leader of the anti-Russian struggle in the nineteenth century, was a member of the Avar ethnic group, now the largest component of Dagestan's population. One could also name the Cherkess and Ingush in the Caucasus or the Crimean Tatars in Ukraine, all of whom were the victims of mass deportation from the 1860s to the 1940s, as evidence that suffering alone rarely motivates rebellion. In most of Russia's regions, the legacies of the past -- whether Soviet or pre-Soviet -- produced a preference for accommodation with Moscow after 1991. Only in Chechnya did they lead to war.

A third explanation for the violence of the 1990s thus concerns the idiosyncrasies of individual personalities and collective decision-making, and this is where Evangelista centers his analysis. Chechnya was not fated to end in violence. War came about because elites in Moscow thought it would serve as a deterrent to separatism elsewhere. Boris Yeltsin and his advisers were convinced that the growing militancy of the Chechen leadership in the early 1990s would produce a domino effect, a cascade of independence movements that would end in the disintegration of Russia itself. Similar concerns pushed Vladimir Putin in the direction of war, but calculations about his own political career may also have been at work. The rise of criminality and terrorism during the uneasy armistice from 1996 to 1999 turned Russian public opinion in favor of "doing something" about the Chechen menace, and Putin was able to ride the wave of popular support for a renewed war all the way to the presidency. There is little doubt that the resumption of violence in the fall of 1999 helped cement Putin's hold on power; since then, it has provided a convenient excuse for backtracking on some of the genuine reforms that came out of the otherwise disastrous Yeltsin era.


If Yeltsin's war was purportedly about preserving the union, Putin's has now become about defending it -- against bandits, terrorists, and radical Islam. Both rhetorical devices have played well in Washington. There was Bill Clinton's shameful comparison of Chechnya with the American Civil War, as if international norms on the use of force -- especially against one's own citizens -- had not evolved in a century and a half. Since September 11, Putin has cast Chechnya as simply another theater in the global war on terrorism. That claim is less easy to dismiss than the portrayal of Yeltsin as a latter-day Lincoln. There are, no doubt, some Chechens who are fighting for national liberation, but their numbers are diminishing. The dogs of war -- people such as Salman Raduev, who recently succumbed to "internal bleeding" while in Russian custody, and Shamil Basaev, the mastermind of multiple hostage-taking episodes -- have now taken the helm. And their ties to the shadowy world of violent Islamist movements are manifold.

The human and material costs of the two Chechen wars are impossible to gauge with precision. Especially in the second war, the Russian government has restricted press access, and the profitable industry of kidnapping, a favored practice on all sides, has ensured that even the most intrepid observers have generally stayed away. But the broad outlines of the wars' devastating effects are clear. Tens of thousands of people have been killed -- many, perhaps most, of them civilians. The level of Russian military casualties is approaching that sustained by the Soviet Union during its ten-year quagmire in Afghanistan. Cities have been leveled by Russian bombs, and hundreds of thousands of citizens have been made refugees in neighboring republics and countries. The conflicts have had a negative effect on Russia's international standing and have helped push the country toward illiberal quasi-democracy, if not outright authoritarianism. They have brought terrorism to the heart of Moscow -- most recently in October 2002, when Chechen fighters seized an auditorium full of theater-goers, setting off a crisis that ended in the deaths of nearly 130 hostages during a gas attack by Russian security services. The war has thus had a doubly deleterious consequence for the Russian state: keeping it at arm's length from Western institutions while making it the West's partner in the minds of radical Islamists.

What might once have been a usable war now looks like an unwinnable one, and Evangelista's book is a detailed account of how things came to be this way. It is based on an exhaustive survey of the emerging memoir literature as well as on the work of prominent Russian analysts and journalists whose writings are not generally available to foreign readers. What the book lacks in the from-the-battlefield perspectives of Carlotta Gall, Thomas de Waal, and Anatol Lieven (all of whom covered the 1994-96 conflict), it more than makes up for with a compelling synthesis of new insights from Russian soldiers, scholars, and policymakers.


It is jarring, therefore, to read Evangelista's chapter on war crimes and international policy, a chapter that should have been the centerpiece of a broad indictment of U.S. and European responses to the war. It is instead a curiously emotional attack on Lieven, Jack Matlock, Robert Bruce Ware, and other leading Western experts. Evangelista's main charge is that these analysts have "sought to rationalize" -- by which he seems to mean "justify" -- Russian brutality, especially since 1999. He says that these writers' "poor understanding in general of international law" has led to their "ready acceptance" of indiscriminate bombing, civilian deaths, and numerous violations of basic human rights, all in the name of foiling separatism and fighting terrorists.

These are sweeping and serious accusations. They are also highly inaccurate, if not libelous, and Evangelista needs far more than a series of selective quotes to buttress them. It is simply ridiculous to imply that Ware, arguably America's leading authority on Dagestan and a writer intimately familiar with the suffering of civilians in the north Caucasus, or Lieven -- who, as a former war reporter, knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of Russian bombs -- have somehow given Moscow a pass on wartime atrocities. There is nothing in the work of these writers that even hints at a "rationalization" of the war. They have simply made the important observation that the United States and other countries often find themselves wagging a finger at Russia for acts that are uncomfortably close to ones that they themselves have committed -- and, in the murky environment of the war on terrorism, may commit again. The enforcers of international law are also often its violators, and to note this paradox is not to endorse the policies that might follow from it. It is odd that Evangelista is unable to tell the difference.

Evangelista means to offer a critical analysis of Western, especially American, policy on Chechnya, and the intention is laudable. The substance, however, is sometimes sophomoric. "How has Russia managed to avoid the status of international pariah," he asks, "that Slobodan Milosevic earned for Serbia by his prosecution of wars in the former Yugoslavia?" The answer is that Russia is not Serbia. Russia's prosecution of the war has obviously been reprehensible. Mop-up operations have regularly led to civilian "disappearances" and deaths, and Moscow has been generally unwilling to prosecute its own officers and soldiers for known atrocities. As a matter of ethics, there is little doubt that the level of human suffering produced by the Russian government is at least as great as in conflicts in which the international community has intervened with force. But merely pointing out the inconsistency here is a lame critique. America's stance on Russia's conduct in Chechnya is simply in a different category from its policies on other egregious human rights violations -- say, those in the Balkans or Iraq. Inconsistency, after all, is the indispensable prerogative of great powers.


Evangelista is right to challenge the Yeltsin government's claim, now muted under Putin, that the war was necessary to preserve the union -- that a failure to stand tough in Chechnya would give a green light to other would-be separatists. Evangelista argues convincingly that the Russian government's reactions to the problems of state weakness, particularly its resort to extreme violence, have actually made the problem worse. But the "flexible, negotiated federalism" advocated by Evangelista, the kind of arrangement worked out with many other Russian republics and regions after 1991, has not come without a price. This new-fangled federalism is in reality as far from good governance as the centralism of the Soviet era.

This point deserves further elaboration: Russia is still something close to an empire -- an electoral one, perhaps, but a political system whose essential attributes are simply not those of a modern state. Central power, where it exists, is exercised through subalterns who function as effective tax- and ballot-farmers: they surrender up a portion of local revenue and deliver the votes for the center's designated candidates in national elections in exchange for the center's letting them run their own fiefdoms. Viceroys sent from the capital keep tabs on local potentates but generally leave them to their own devices. State monopolies or privileged private companies secure strategic resources and keep open the conduits that provide money to the metropole. The conscript military, weak and in crisis, is given the task of policing the restless frontier -- fighting a hot war in Chechnya and patrolling the ceasefire lines of cold ones in the borderland emirates of Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan. Such arrangements do make for federalism of a sort, but in an older sense of the word. The concept comes, after all, from Rome's practice of accommodating threatening peoples by settling them inside the empire and paying them to be foederati, or self-governing border guards. It is federalism as an imperial survival strategy, not as a way of bringing government closer to the governed.

The problem with this system is not its fragility; as a form of political and economic organization, especially over vast stretches of territory, it has a track record far longer than that of the nation-state. It is, however, incompatible with the basic norms of liberal democracy and the free market. And that points to one of the chief criticisms that can be leveled against Western policy on the Chechen crisis: the insistence on interpreting the violence in the Caucasus as an embarrassing deviation from what is otherwise a path toward democracy. There may be plenty of reasons for the United States to tread lightly in its handling of the Chechen question. But treating Russia differently because it is a modern, democratizing state with an unfortunate terrorism problem is not one of them.

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  • Charles King is Associate Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is finishing a book on the politics and history of the Black Sea.
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