Putin, Chechnya and imperialism

The Mulroney-Schreiber affair has brought the little Central Asian country of Chechnya back into the headlines. Mulroney’s very bizarre defence for acting as Schreiber’s paid salesman, includes a reference to peddling military vehicles to Russia for use in “peacekeeping” in Chechnya. In this context, it is useful to look in some detail at the situation in Chechnya. The article posted here, makes the case that Russia’s oppression of Chechnya is a classic example of Great Power Imperialism. There is nothing remotely resembling “peacekeeping” in its actions there.

This article (slightly revised with updated references) was originally written in February 2000. It is of course marked by its context. Eight years ago, Russia was only two years removed from the catastrophic winter of 1998 where some pensioners were literally dying of starvation.[1] We could not know at the time that eight years later, Russia would be at the centre of the “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India China) resurgence of economies in the Global South. But given these limitations, it still is useful as a documentation of the imperialist nature of Russia’s relationship to Chechnya.

The butcher of Chechnya[2]

FEBRUARY 2000 – Vladimir Putin is the butcher of Chechnya. There is really no other title that so captures the essence of the new president of Russia. When former president Boris Yeltsin elevated Putin to the prime minister’s office in August 1999, he was a complete unknown with virtually no public recognition or support.

He changed that by presiding over a racist campaign against the Chechen minority in Russia, accusing them of instigating the terrorist bombings that had killed upwards of 300 Russian civilians.[3] Putin’s campaign of racist scapegoating was followed by an artillery and air assault on the small republic of Chechnya and then, in the fall of 1999, an all out invasion of the republic with a massive army of 100,000.[4]

The butchery of this war is his one and only political act to date. The racist patriotism he whipped up in the course of that war is what allowed his Unity Party to go from obscurity to capturing close to 25 per cent support in the December elections.[5] This support was sufficient to allow Yeltsin to resign and elevate Putin from the prime minister’s office, to the much more powerful presidential suite, on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

The very purpose of the war was to elevate Putin to power. In the summer of 1999, the Kremlin rulers looked to be in deep trouble. Yeltsin was thoroughly discredited, and there was no candidate on the horizon, trusted by the billionaire oligarchs who control the economy, in a position to take his place. But war-frenzy has diverted the attention of millions from the everyday despair of their lives. And Putin has ridden that frenzy to power.

Yeltsin, from 1994 to 1996, had presided over an appalling war against Chechnya where that country was “reduced to a wasteland” with “100,000 people killed.” In spite of this barbarism “Russia failed to impose its will on the breakaway republic. A tiny Chechen force, rather, had imposed upon the Russian army a humiliating defeat.”[6]

Putin is using “terrorism” as an excuse to avenge this defeat, and his war, like Yeltsin’s, has led to terrible atrocities. The capital of Chechnya, Grozny, has been under constant bombardment for weeks. “There is nothing to eat in the city,” said Maria Gakisheva, 61. “They are bombing us from the air and from the ground. There are a lot of dead bodies in basements because people are afraid to leave the basements to bury them.” Gakisheva left Grozny January 14, but says many people cannot leave. “Those people will not make it out of there if they get a safe corridor. They are like skeletons. They are too weak to leave. They can only be carried out,” she said.[7]

“The Russians are simply destroying the Chechen nation,” said Ramazan Isbriev, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer. Isbriev was considering supporting the Russian invasion as an alternative to the chaos that has reigned in Chechnya since the 1994-1996 war. But the brutality of the Russians has changed his mind. “They call this an anti-terrorist operation. And in 1994 they said they were restoring constitutional order. What will they say in 2004? They’ll invent something else.”[8]

For a few days in early January, the Russian brutality went so far as to see any Chechen male between the ages of 10 and 60 accused of being a potential terrorist. Boys and men of this age were ripped out of refugee columns and sent to segregated prisons for interrogation. “It’s madness,” said Aminat Deniyeva, a mother of an 11-year-old who was unable to escape from the war because of the crackdown. “What can a child do? He can’t even lift a machine gun. It’s too heavy.”[9]

We don’t know how many thousands have been killed, maimed and wounded. At least 200,000 people in the tiny republic have been forced from their homes.[10] At least 1,000 Russian soldiers have died in the process.[11] The new president of Russia is indeed the butcher of Chechnya.

Welcomed by the West

Yet both liberals and conservatives in the West have greeted this butcher with open arms. An unsigned front page article in the liberal Toronto Star gushed: “A Putin presidency would … be good for Russia and the West. The 47-year-old moderate … would bring a welcome note of stability to Russia’s chaotic administration. He would ensure that Russia stays on the path to democracy, rather than sliding back to its authoritarian past.”[12] Britain’s conservative magazine The Economist wrote: “Russia needs a strong leader, able to get laws passed and obeyed, and institutions built, rebuilt or cleansed of corruption.”[13] U.S. President Bill Clinton said, “the United States can do business with this guy.”[14]

The praise from these conservatives and liberals did not stay at the level of words. There are bags of cash in the pipeline to assist Putin’s new regime. Just two days before Yeltsin’s surprise New Year’s Eve resignation, the World Bank announced it was lending Russia $100-million to “develop its coal sector.” A Russian official hinted that soon to follow would be a renewal of lending to Russia from the International Monetary Fund.[15] That renewal of lending will release billions of dollars into the hands of the Russian ruling class.

The hypocrisy of this stance by the West is breathtaking. Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo committed far fewer acts of barbarism than Putin has committed in Chechnya. Yet Milosevic was greeted with bombs and artillery, while Putin is greeted with smiles and cash. How do we explain the difference?

Making Russia open for business

Part of the answer can be found through an examination of the ten year old campaign to make Russia and its former allies in Eastern Europe, open for business. Western multinationals, and their governments, have a long term interest in prying open the markets of the old Russian empire to make profits.

Look at the conditions that are attached to the World Bank loans. Two of these conditions are that Russia show progress in closing money-losing mines, and that the government move away from subsidizing uneconomic production. In other words, the World Bank’s principal concern is not murdered civilians in Chechnya, but rather encouraging an increase in the number of bankruptcies in the already devastated Russian economy and a parallel increase in the number of unemployed workers.

The west also has its eyes on the great prize of oil from the Caspian Sea. This sea – which is central to the Chechen region – contains the largest known reserves of oil outside the Middle East. For months, western governments – in particular the United States – have been manoeuvring to ensure that the pipelines to carry oil from this sea pass through countries loyal to the West and not Russia. Chechnya is central to Russia’s attempt to control the flow of oil from the Caspian Sea. But a Chechnya, shattered by war, will be in no shape to compete for such a prize. The western powers, then, care not a whit if it is burned to the ground.

Old enemies and new enemies

But more than just economics is at play in the region. Russia may have lost its empire. But it is still the second biggest nuclear power in the world. The United States and the West have every interest in systematically reducing the size and power of the Russian nuclear arms cache. The Clinton administration is pushing hard for the Russian parliament to ratify the Start III treaty, which would require cuts in Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. To get Russian co-operation on this, it would be imprudent to rock the boat too much on the issue of Chechnya.[16]

Probably more important in the calculations of the Western powers is the new threat that has emerged with the decline of Russia – China. The U.S. won the Cold War against the Soviet Union. It has now, increasingly, identified China as the new big “threat” on the world scene. It has used a barrage of propaganda about this “threat” to justify the push for an anti-ballistic missile system. This hideously expensive Star Wars fantasy envisages ringing the United States with missiles to “protect” it in the case of a nuclear strike by an enemy. One of the countries to be “protected” by this umbrella of “defensive” nuclear missiles would be Taiwan. China sees this as a direct assault on its vital interests, and is strongly opposed to the ABM treaty. Getting Russia onside is critical to allowing the U.S. to legitimize its push for anti-ballistic missiles.

All of these calculations are far more central to the thinking of Western political leaders than any humanitarian concerns in Chechnya. They will mouth these concerns from time to time, but they have absolutely no intention of doing anything serious to stop the butchery.

Making the world a more dangerous place

The net effect of all this is to make the world a far more dangerous place. The Unity Party, which backs Putin, does not have sufficient support to govern in its own name. The rich “oligarchs” who are the backbone of the Russian ruling class know this, so they found Putin some allies. The results of this alliance were shown in the recent round of elections to the Duma, or parliament.

The oligarchs control all the television stations. To get airtime on those stations, you had to agree with the Kremlin’s line on the war in Chechnya. That meant vast quantities of air time for Putin’s “Unity Party” (created out of whole cloth just last year) and for the two parties he can most rely on – the Union of Right Wing Forces (or SPS), and the so-called Liberal-Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a party so far to the right, many have labelled it fascist.[17]

“All three parties got a lot of administrative and financial support from the Kremlin in the campaign,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow. “Zhirinovsky and Kiriyenko (leader of SPS) were on TV screens all the time. This was part of the deal: ‘You support the government and we give you the government’s resources.’ It was a cynical campaign, but it demonstrates the efficiency of the Kremlin’s information technology.”[18]

The Putin presidency has made the world more dangerous in more direct ways. His only claim to fame has been his war mongering in Chechnya. He has followed the logic of this open militarism to revise the way in which Russia plans to use its nuclear arsenal. Previously, Russia’s stated position on the use of nuclear weapons was they would be used only if the existence of the country were threatened. The new position, approved by Putin on January 6, 2000, now envisages the use of atomic weapons “to repel armed aggression,” a much less specific term.[19]

So the “strong man” so praised by the Toronto Star, The Economist, and Bill Clinton, is a man who brings in his wake the shadow of authoritarianism and the far-right, and an increased threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

Shattered dreams of 1989

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – beginning the process that was to lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union – this was not what we were promised. We were promised the triumph of the market which would go hand in hand with the triumph of liberal democracy which would go hand in hand with an “end of history” making the world a more peaceful place.

By 1998 we had seen the first of these dreams collapse. The terrible implosion of the Russian economy in that year, virtually wiped out the middle class. The economy is now 40 per cent smaller than it was in 1991.[20]

We have now seen the ideals of liberal democracy become deformed into elections manipulated by billionaires who control the press, elevating to power people like Putin who allies himself with the likes of Zhirinovsky. And the “end of history” has seen a series of “Great Russian” wars against oppressed minorities, and the elevation of the threat of the use of nuclear weapons.

In the wake of the collapse of the hopes of 1989, liberals like the editors of the Toronto Star, have turned in desperation to search for a “strong man” who can put the Russian house in order. Throughout the Cold War, these same liberals painted terrifying pictures about the Russian spy apparatus, led by the KGB. Putin is a lifetime senior member of the KGB and its successor organizations. But suddenly, this is no obstacle to his credentials as saviour of Russia.

From heroes to zeroes

For the moment, Putin is riding high and is the darling of the west. But the ground he is standing on is riven with fault lines. His entire rise to power has been predicated on a successful war in Chechnya. Should this war unravel, he will be in trouble.

Putin is having credibility difficulties. In early January 2000, The Independent in Britain published a report, which, if true, would undermine Putin’s entire rationale for going to war. The paper obtained videotape on which a Russian officer, captured by the Chechens, says that Russian special services, not Chechen terrorists, were responsible for the apartment block bombings – the bombings that were the pretext for the war. On the video, shot by a Turkish journalist last month before Russian forces cut off Grozny, the officer identifies himself as Alexei Galtin of the GRU (Russian military intelligence service). “I did not take part in the explosions,” he says, “but I have information about it. I know who is responsible for the bombings … It is the FSB (Russian security service), in co-operation with the GRU, that is responsible for the explosions in Volgodonsk and Moscow.”[21] Rumours about Special Forces involvement in the bombings have been circulating for months. Should the war turn against the Russians, people just might start to believe them.

Putin is also having military difficulties. January 9, Chechen fighters seized strategic buildings in towns the Russians had held for weeks and months, killing dozens or maybe hundreds of Russian soldiers in the process. In just one of the towns, bodies were everywhere. “They say it was three or four, but in fact 30 died!” yelled a Russian soldier standing next to an armoured personnel carrier as a small group of journalists walked past. “Write that!”[22]

The Russian army is very vulnerable, in spite of its massive size. Many of its foot soldiers are terrified young teenagers, poorly armed and with little training, far from home and with no idea what they are fighting for. “I don’t feel safe in this machine at all,” said one young teenage soldier to a western reporter, pointing to his overheated tank. The soldier, who would only give his first name of Sasha, said, “I don’t understand why we’re fighting.”

“Several soldier’s in Sasha’s unit said they had been drafted just six months ago, after graduating from high school. Sasha … was drafted in June, when he was 18.” This in spite of government assurances that no conscripts will be used who have less than a year’s experience. “When asked whether his men were ready for battle, the unit commander said: ‘Somewhat: We shouldn’t be going at all,’ he added.”[23]

The military setbacks provoked the first open criticism of the campaign by major Russian newspapers. “Every day of the war is bringing more and more casualties,” said an article in Kommersant. “The experience of the past Chechnya campaign shows that people quickly become tired of war, while its initiators turn from heroes into political zeroes.”[24]

It is from this process of crisis and splits in the Putin camp that a real alternative to the crisis in Russia could emerge. There is a small but growing anti-war movement in Russia. Plans are underway for protests against the war in Chechnya in March.[25] “In December, a militant anti-war demo in Moscow lasted 10-20 minutes before a third were arrested and the rest dispersed.”[26] There are the beginnings – albeit small – of an independent workers’ movement, the only social force with the power to tackle the terrible problems facing Russian society.[27]

We should have no illusions that these are any more than the first baby steps on the way to the type of mass resistance that will be necessary to put forward a real alternative in Russia. After two generations of Stalinist state capitalism, the language of socialism and the workers’ movement has been discredited in Russia, and it will take years and many struggles to put things right.

What is needed are some very simple steps:

• an immediate end to the war;

• self-determination for the Chechen people and all the oppressed people in Russia;

• seizing the money of the oligarchs who are strangling Russia’s economy to enrich themselves; using the money to create jobs and rebuild social services;

• fighting for an independent workers’ movement, the only social force capable of regenerating society.

These steps may be simple, but they will not come spontaneously from either the liberals or the conservatives who alternate between welcoming Putin and “cluck-clucking” over his authoritarianism. These simple steps are equally completely incompatible with the so-called “socialism” that ruled in Russia from the time of Stalin.

Rediscover these simple steps and you rediscover the genuine socialist tradition, a simple tradition of solidarity, freedom and human emancipation.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Moshe Lewin, “The collapse of the Russian state,” Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 1998, www.mondediplo.com
[2] Revised version of Paul Kellogg, “The butcher of Chechnya,” (unpublished), February 2000
[3] Geoffrey York, “Putin urges blockade of border with Chechnya,” The Globe and Mail, Sept. 15, 1999, p. A18
[4] “US DEPT OF STATE: Daily press briefing,” M2 Presswire, November 9, 1999, p. 1 ProQuest document ID: 46278360
[5] Olivia Ward, “Murder and mafia – it’s a Russian election,” Toronto Star, December 12, 1999, p. 1: Paul Quinn-Judge, “Russia’s election surprise,” Time, December 31, 1999, Vol. 154, Iss. 27, p. 210.
[6] Christian Caryl, “War against the people,” Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), June 9, 1998, p. 1
[7] Associated Press, “Russian Press Effort to Move Deeper into Grozny,” The New York Times, January 16, 2000
[8] Geoffrey York, “Russian plans backfiring in Chechnya,” The Globe and Mail, January 15, 2000
[9] York, “Russian plans backfiring”
[10] Andrzej, Rybak, “Fear and loathing keep Chechens far from home,” Financial Times, February 12, 2000, p. 5
[11] Sergei Venyavsky, “Russia covering up war casualties,” Toronto Star, January 27, 2000, p. 1
[12] “Welcome change in Russian leadership,” Toronto Star, January 2, 2000, p. 1
[13] “Putin the Great Unknown,” The Economist, January 8, 2000, p. 19
[14] Cited in Jim Hoagland, “Clinton should be careful with fawning praise,” The Gazette (Montreal), February 24, 2000, p. B3
[15] Julie Tolkacheva, Reuters News Agency, “Russia wins loan from World Bank,” The Globe and Mail, December 29, 1999, p. B11
[16] Jane Perlez, “Chechnya Challenge: War Threatens U.S. Strategic Goals,” The New York Times, November 15, 1999
[17] For example: Vladimir Solovyvov, Zhirinovsky: Russian Fascism and the Making of a Dictator (London: Addison-Wesley, 1995)
[18] Geoffrey York, “Election puts Kremlin in powerful position,” The Globe and Mail, December 21, 1999
[19] Reuters, “New Russia Defense Doctrine Lowers Atomic Threshold,” January 14, 2000
[20] Anders Aslund, “Russia’s collapse,” Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 1999, Vol 78 Iss 5, pp. 64-77
[21] Cited in Helen Womack, “Russian ‘confesses’ to bombings; Blasts at Moscow buildings,” The Spectator (Hamilton), January 6, 2000, p. C1
[22] Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Takes Chechen Town, but Can it Keep It?” The New York Times, January 14, 2000
[23] Andrew Kramer, Associated Press, “‘I don’t understand why we’re fighting:’ Russian teenage soldier” The Globe and Mail, December 28, 1999
[24] Geoffrey York, “Chechen rebels trap Russians in daring raids” The Globe and Mail, January 10, 2000
[25] “War and Human Rights,” March 3, 2000, www.hro.org/war/166.htm
[26] Steve Kerr, “Russian Anti-War Movement,” from International Solidarity with Workers in Russia, http://members.aol.com/ISWoR/english/index.html
[27] Steve Kerr, “Workers’ action is the key” Socialist Worker (Canada) 323, January 5, 2000