Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Ulster: The Chechen War and Its Consequences

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Ulster: The Chechen War and Its Consequences

Article excerpt

After capturing Groznyi in February 2000, Moscow claimed victory in the war against Chechnya. Generals and officiaLs anticipated the war's end by the presidential election of 26 March 2000, and Moscow announced its "final offensive" to destroy the Chechen forces by 26 February.(1) Nevertheless, Russian armed forces in Groznyi remain vulnerable to the approximately rive hundred Chechens there. Because estimates of Chechen strength vary on a daily basis, Russian intelligence evidently knows neither the number nor location of the enemy forces it faces. By June 2000, Chechen terror attacks against Russians in and around Chechnya had already begun to seriously demoralize Russian troops, forcing the General Staff to admit that it had underestimated the size of Chechen forces.

Thus, Russian and foreign observers increasingly admit that no end to the war is in sight, although Russian troops will remain as long as it takes to destroy the Chechen forces.(2) It is equally difficult to define what would constitute a Russian victory other than Chechnya's utter devastation. In this sense Chechnya, like Northern Ireland, appears to be an internal war that will last for years. And as with "the troubles" the home government is (or was until the Blair government took power in Great Britain) pledged to win to preserve the state's unity.

Chechnya's Strategic Implications

The Chechen war's strategic implications are now appearing at home and abroad. Even local commanders have begun to grasp that only a political settlement with a recognized Chechen authority can extricate Moscow from Chechnya sooner rather than later. Because Moscow cannot sustain large numbers of regular troops in Chechnya--it has halved troop strength since February 2000--and therefore cannot win the war soon, local commanders have urged a political settlement. They did so to force the government's hand, but Moscow rejected their attempted dictation.(3)

Thus apart from the war's danger to Russia's political stability and territorial integrity, continued warfare could further undermine control over the military. The long-standing public infighting between the chief of staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin, and Minister of Defense General Igor Sergeyev over fundamental issues of defense policy reflects Russia's precarious control over its armed forces. Chechnya's aggravation of this weakness highlights the threats posed by this internal war--Russia's third since 1993--and confirms that "however the second Chechen war ends, it will determine not just Russia's territorial boundaries, but also what kind of Russia it will be."(4) Indeed, Russian political trends since the war began are troubling. Those negative trends have appeared in Russia's foreign, domestic, and defense policies and oblige us to ponder the consequences of either prolonged war or Russian victory.

We must also define what victory would mean. Moscow neither knows how to conclude a political settlement to the war nor has a viable concept of what it would entail. Nor will it negotiate with any truly authoritative figure who could end the war and command internal support in Chechnya. Moscow's efforts to put Chechen clients in power and restore a political order either depend on Russian military support or have fallen apart. Therefore, this war could escape political definition or control, the framework within which Clausewitz tells us that political violence must be bounded lest it become violence and war for their own sake. Then the entire Russian Federation would become the theater or theaters of war, as internal war became its own justification. Moscow itself is already the war's center of gravity, from which all the foci of Russian power emanate. So if Russia loses, the repercussions will be felt there, not in Groznyi. And they will be profound.

Yet it remains difficult, if not impossible, to define a Russian victory in terms other than Tacitus's phrase that the Romans made a desert and called it peace. …

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