assessments

Apr 23, 2005 | 03:00 GMT

10 mins read

Russia, United States: The Chechen War as a Geopolitical Battle

Summary
Moscow and Washington — the former trying to stop its own demise and the latter interested in seeing Russia weakened — both have huge stakes in the Chechen war, the outcome of which strongly will help to define Russia's fate. Rightly or wrongly, Moscow thinks Washington is working against Russia in Chechnya. Moscow's response to this will be to try to win the war before it is too late to prevent both its own collapse and the U.S. geopolitical conquest of the vital Caspian region where Chechnya is located.
The seemingly endless Chechen war has a crucial global dimension. Moscow aims to win the war, thereby reversing its systemic decline, arresting the creeping process of Russian disintegration and reclaiming its influence in the Caspian. Russia's rivals want to see Moscow lose or get bogged down and over-bled in this war — as the case is now — so Russia will be unable to challenge them as they assert their own influence over the Caspian, a region vital for both geopolitical and energy-related reasons. The United States, as the world's only superpower, is best positioned to replace Russia in the Caspian, especially if Russia withdraws from Chechnya. This is why Moscow is confident — and says it has multiple forms of evidence — that Washington is working against Moscow by supporting local Chechen rebels. Whether Washington's interactions with some Chechen militants go beyond politically supporting the insurgency's moderate wing cannot be verified through independent sources. President Vladimir Putin has not acted on this suspicion yet — possibly because he did not realize how quickly Russia's decline and the U.S. geopolitical advance into the former Soviet Union (FSU) would progress. However, Putin is likely to respond by trying to win the Chechen war while there is still time to save Russia and stave off the U.S. thrust into the Caspian region. Russia grudgingly accepted reversals in FSU countries around its borders, but it absolutely cannot tolerate losing Chechnya, an integral part of the Russian Federation proper. If Moscow does not win the war soon, it will be too late. Regardless of the level of Washington's involvement in Chechnya, perceptions do matter in geopolitics — sometimes more than reality, as STRATFOR has said and proven before. Such is the case in Chechnya. No matter how far U.S. President George W. Bush's administration goes in its contacts with Chechens and others in Russia's North Caucasus, the Kremlin always will assume the worst. This is why a very important — if not defining, on a strategic level — component of Russia's Chechnya policy will fight to exclude any chance that Washington will be able to use the Chechen war to gain influence in the Caspian region at Moscow's expense. Just as importantly, the rift between Russia and the United States will become a major spoiler, preventing the two countries from getting closer even if they make progress on other issues. The Kremlin rarely registers its displeasure with what it perceives as major U.S. interference against Russia in the Chechen war. However, in a televised address to the nation in September 2004 — just after the horrific Beslan school hostage-taking incident in which Chechen militants killed more than 300 hostages, most of whom were children — Putin could not hold it in any longer. Visibly angered, Putin told his compatriots that Moscow knew major foreign powers wanting Russia to collapse were backing the terrorists. Though he did not name any countries, nobody in Russia except a few pro-U.S. liberals doubted that Putin meant Washington and its allies. Sources in the Russian governing elite all confirmed that Putin did mean — and in fact, said directly off the record that he meant — the United States and United Kingdom. Russian intelligence sources say that London, a close Washington ally, was initially even more active than the United States in supporting Chechens. This goes deep into history, when British agents disguised as journalists delivered arms to the Black Sea coast to enable Chechens to fight the Russians throughout the 19th century. During the first Chechen war — from 1994 to 1996 — retired U.K. special forces officers trained British Muslim recruits in British territory to fight in Chechnya; some militants who attended that training and were later captured told the Russian government. A scandal in British-Russian relations erupted in 1997-1998, when de-mining instructors from a British private security firm — among whom there were U.S. citizens, and all of whom were former military — were found instead to be training Chechen militants to launch mine and bombing attacks against Russian troops. Moscow also is displeased with what it sees as a double standard in the United States and the United Kingdom regarding fundraising for militants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington made huge efforts to clamp down on Muslim charities raising money for Islamist militants fighting U.S. forces but did much less to curb fundraising for Chechen militants. Among the foundations and groups in the United States suspected of raising money for Chechen militants are the American Committee for Chechnya, Chechen Relief Expenses, International Relief Association, Islamic Relief Worldwide and Islamic Circle of North America. Also, Russia cannot be happy with the continuing active recruiting campaigns in the United States and United Kingdom that attract young local Muslims — both of foreign origin and converts — who regularly go to Chechnya to fight. The FBI reported in March that it was aware of a recruiting network in the United States, which attracts militants to fight in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and Somalia. For some reason, Washington and London cannot — and, Russians suspect, are not willing to — stop this Chechnya-focused recruiting. Washington and London have recognized and provide political support (though again, Russia suspects the support is more than just political) for the rebel government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which represents the Chechen insurgency's nationalist wing as opposed to its Islamist wing. This government's ambassadors, Ilyas Akhmadov and Akhmed Zakayev, are received by U.S. and British government officials in Washington and London respectively. The United States and United Kingdom granted both men asylum, and London also recently refused to extradite Zakayev to Moscow despite Moscow's insistence. Washington's main tool used against Moscow regarding Chechnya is the unrelenting pressure the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress constantly apply to Putin to make him negotiate with the nationalist Chechens. Since the nationalist and Islamist wings of the Chechen militancy are intertwined (most importantly, they have one unified top military command), Moscow fears that talking with one wing would lead to talking to both wings and eventually put Russia in an untenable position, where making peace with Chechen militants would lead to Russia's withdrawal and, thus, complete defeat in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Since Bush's election to a second term, Washington has upped the pressure on Moscow to come to terms with the Chechens. This increasing pressure could stem from the growing sentiment among the governing U.S. elite that Russia should be weakened and Chechnya set free. The main lobbying group on this issue is the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), whose co-chairs include former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig and former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Several ACPC members — such as Elliott Abrams, new deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy — have gained strong influence over shaping the administration's policy toward Russia and Chechnya. Washington's actions — and recent increase in pressure — regarding Chechnya have made Russia react and adjust its policies in Chechnya. In order to escape the growing U.S. pressure, Putin ordered the death of the official Chechen militant leader, Ichkerian President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov was killed March 8, leaving Washington with no legally acceptable figure to designate as a Chechen point man for negotiations with Moscow. But Russia's success was short-lived. Washington made a potentially deadly countermove and is now offering a direct financial lifeline to the people of the North Caucasus, including Chechens, among whom there are elders supporting the militants. If it succeeds, this new approach will seriously undermine Moscow's authority in the region. This prompted Putin to feel he urgently had to find yet another response to Washington's maneuvers regarding Chechnya, sources in Russia's Security Council said. At that time, new discoveries added to Russia's grievances and fears about Washington's alleged anti-Russian agenda in Chechnya and beyond. Russia's ongoing investigation into the activities of Rizvan Chitigov, the No. 3 Chechen field commander killed by Russian special forces in a target operation March 23, led the Kremlin to believe that Washington directly influences and helps the insurgency — even its Islamist wing — while using spies on the ground in Chechnya. When Chitigov was killed, he was wearing a U.S. Marine Corps dog tag with, "Chitigov Rizvan Umarovich. Chechnya. 1965," written on it in English. Russian investigators later discovered that Chitigov immigrated to Chechnya from the United States with the help of international Islamic foundations — including some with a presence in the United States — promoting Chechnya's separation from Russia and the establishment of Islamist rule there. While in the United States, Chitigov became a permanent resident, enlisted in the Marine Corps and completed a course on special operations and sabotage in one of the elite Marine training schools. (This information could not be verified by the U.S. Marine Corps.) Chitigov then used his skills in Chechnya to not only command operations but also directly organize terrorist attacks, such as the August 1999 bomb blast that killed one person and injured more than 40 others in Manezh Square, next to Red Square and the Kremlin. Chitigov also prepared chemical weapon attacks, leading the lab working on making bullets tainted with deadly chemical agents in order to make each wound fatal, Russian media reported. A Russian Federal Security Service spokesman said there are serious grounds to suspect that Chitigov — who once served as head of security for Khattab, the former top foreign Islamist militant in Chechnya who was killed by Russian security forces in 2002 — was a CIA agent. The CIA never confirmed or denied this, according to its standard practice. A phone call to the CIA regarding this issue was not returned. Putin knows he has little time to respond to U.S. policies on Chechnya — both real and perceived. His most likely response will be to try to win the war before it is too late for Russia to prevent both its own collapse and the U.S. geopolitical conquest of the Caspian region. The Russians already are accelerating and intensifying their efforts to win or at least achieve a significant military breakthrough in Chechnya and grossly diminish the Chechen militant forces. The first big move in this direction was Putin's sanctioning of a special campaign specifically targeting major Chechen field commanders and terrorist attack organizers. Putin indeed has little time. Russia's systemic crisis is deepening, and the U.S.-led geopolitical offensive into the FSU through Western-encouraged "revolutions" already reaches Russia's shores. In parallel, U.S. aircraft and forces are about to descend upon Azerbaijan, adding pressure on Russia to defeat the Chechen militants quickly; sources in Azerbaijan and Georgia say major support for the Chechens comes from inside both of those former Soviet republics. As with virtually everything Putin does these days, he is racing against time. But with Chechnya, much will depend on his will and the will of the Russian nation and army, so there is still an outside chance that he might succeed on this front that is so vital to Russia's future.

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