TOPICS > Politics

War Without End

January 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Russia ‘s endless war. Special correspondent Simon Marks prepared this report.

SIMON MARKS: This is the side of Chechnya the Russian government wants you to see. For a week in November, the Russian authorities allowed a U.S. television photographer to embed himself with the military in Chechnya. He was given extensive access to Russian military operations in the breakaway region…

(Speaking Russian)

SIMON MARKS: …from the dawn briefings of troops… (gunfire) …to daily armed patrols … and to so-called bandits taken into official custody. More than a decade after the Russians first sent troops into Chechnya, the decision to welcome an American camera is part of a new diplomatic offensive by the Kremlin aimed at persuading the world that Chechnya is a haven for terrorists, a key battleground in the global war on terror. With 75,000 troops under his command, Lt. Gen. Valery Baranov oversees daily military operations in Chechnya.

LT. GEN. VALERY BARANOV (Translated): We should not be mistaken about international terrorism, that it’s only directed towards the United States. The first steps were made here, on the territory of the Chechen republic. Therefore, we should avoid thinking that international terrorism is only aimed against the United States, and that it is not aimed against the Russian federation in Chechnya.

SIMON MARKS: Claiming that Russia today is fighting a terrorist threat linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, President Vladimir Putin has maintained a massive Russian army presence in Chechnya. Military helicopters fly low over Chechnya and regularly fire off flares in a bid to avoid attack by heat-seeking missiles, weaponry the Russians insist is bought and paid for by al-Qaida’s regional proxies. The Chechen terrain is littered with the detritus of war. The airport in the capital Grozny is closed, its runways strewn with destroyed planes that at some point in the last ten years got caught in the crossfire. At dawn, troops with the Russian interior ministry are briefed about a dangerous mission that lies ahead. The roads in Chechnya are often lined with landmines and other improvised explosive devices. So like U.S. forces in Iraq, the Russian army here fights a daily battle to clear the streets and keep its own troops safe. Leading his men out on the de-mining mission, Lt. Col. Alexei Vasilyev, who says young Chechens are paid by terrorist organizations to plant explosives all over the territory.

LT. COL. ALEXEI VASILYEV (Translated): Mostly young people set up these bombs. They’re attracted by money. Some of them are not even qualified for this work. We’ve had occasions when people who set up the explosives get blown up themselves. They’re recruited from the local population.

SIMON MARKS: That local people could be susceptible to financial inducements from Arab terror groups is not in doubt. Human rights groups estimate that half a million people have fled Chechnya since the violence began and there are few job opportunities for those who have remained or those like shoemaker Bakhhauddin Kudusov who have returned.

BAKHHAUDDIN KUDUSOV (Translated ): It’s difficult to make this factory work, because all the experienced workers have left. The biggest problem now is that we don’t have qualified employees, specialists. Everyone is trying to find a job because there isn’t much work around. There are no jobs here, only in the police force. We work all day long here, and don’t even make $50 a month.

SIMON MARKS: In a bid to provide for themselves, many of Chechnya’s residents have turned to black-market sales of some of the black gold that lies beneath the region’s soil. There’s a booming market for pirated gasoline, a market that some critics of the war claim is controlled in part by the Russian army. Perhaps mindful of that, troops took our photographer on a raid targeting an illegal refinery. (Explosion) Crude underground storage tanks were blown up — the Russians told us that the proceeds from the illegal oil sales were being used to fund acts of terror — stopping the flow of funds and support to terrorist organizations is, say Chechnya’s rulers, a top priority. Akhmad Kadirov is the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya. He won office last October in a vote the Bush administration said fell short of being free and fair.

AKHMAD KADIROV ( Translated ): Security is the most important issue. If the republic is secure, then investors can come here. If the situation here is normal, then people will come back. That’s why the main task today is to provide security.

SIMON MARKS: And President Kadirov, a former rebel leader who switched sides in order to work with the Russians, says he has a plan for restoring security to Chechnya, a plan that is being enacted by his own son, Ramzan Kadirov. The Kadirov family personally controls a private security force that is working closely with the Russians and one day last month unearthed a large cache of buried weapons after a captured rebel reportedly chose to cooperate with the authorities following an interrogation. The haul included satellite phones, plastic explosives, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades. The Kadirovs say before long that their security teams will be ready to take full responsibility for policing Chechnya away from their Russian sponsors.

RAMZAN KADIROV ( Translated ): It’s no secret there are Turks and Arabs and people from a whole bunch of other nations making their nest here and making Chechnya their base. That’s why it’s so difficult for us to get rid of them. They are professionals. We have to end the killings and put them all in prison.

SIMON MARKS: But that leaves some outside observers fearful for Chechnya’s future. They argue that the concept of essentially private militiamen seizing suspects and interrogating them without any oversight is a recipe for disaster, especially in a region where the Russian army is accused by human rights organizations of gross violations following the discovery of mass graves and the disappearance of dozens of Chechen men. Sergei Kovalyov once served as Boris Yeltsin’s human rights adviser, a post he quit in protest over Russian policy in Chechnya. He says plans to hand power over to local militias will only compound the enormous human rights abuses already committed there.

SERGEI KOVALYOV ( Translated ): If you look at the so-called security forces of Kadirov, these are the worst bandits. They’re far worse than the federal forces. These people, armed from head to toe, know no borders. They’re the boss in Chechnya. They can beat, kill, kidnap anyone, whether it’s a bureaucrat they don’t like or a policeman or a civilian.

SIMON MARKS: But Sergei Kovalyov and other long-time observers of Chechnya believe that all that behavior is being justified by the Russians as part of the war on terror. The precise role al-Qaida’s followers are playing in Chechnya is a matter of conjecture and controversy. The Russians and their governing partners in the region insist that al-Qaida is effectively running the Chechen resistance and certainly some Arab fighters have claimed to be playing a lead role there. There has been a string of terrorist attacks in Moscow allegedly inspired by al-Qaida, including the siege of a Moscow theater and the recent suicide bombing of a hotel opposite the Kremlin. But some analysts of Chechnya believe that Moscow is deliberately exaggerating the role Islamic fundamentalists are playing in the quest for Chechen independence. Masha Lipman is one of the Russian government’s most prominent critics.

MASHA LIPMAN: President Putin’s reaction to the recent terrorist attacks lately has been, “See, international terrorism is very powerful; international terrorism is acting everywhere in the world, and it’s merciless, and it calls for more cooperation and for merciless extermination of terrorism.” It is clear, however, that international terrorism has a very weak bearing on what goes on in Chechnya. And Putin would rather talk about international terrorism because this detracts the responsibility off himself.

SIMON MARKS: It also detracts attention from Chechnya. News coverage from the region is carefully controlled by the Russians. Good news stories like the reopening of a railway bridge are enthusiastically reported by Russian television networks which are all now loyal to the Kremlin. The rest of the Chechnya story never makes it to air. Valentina Melnikova advises the mothers of many young Russian soldiers who suddenly find themselves sent to Chechnya.

VALENTINA MELNIKOVA (Translated ): We have parents who send their kids to the army year after year and they are absolutely sure that they will never be sent to participate in military actions. They think there’s no war, because the president said we won it.

SIMON MARKS: Galina Petrova traveled to Moscow from Ufa in central Russia, seeking help after her 19-year-old son was sent to Chechnya in early December.

GALINA PETROVA ( Translated ): He wrote me a letter telling me that he’s going to Chechnya. As soon as I received it, I immediately bought train tickets and came here. I don’t think they’re telling us the truth. The coffins keep coming. One guy from a nearby town died. He was a border guard and was shot. He was supposed to come home this spring. When I received the letter from my son, it made me go crazy.

SIMON MARKS: But while Chechnya troubles those it directly effects, it is not a national political issue in Russia. The war played no role at all in last month’s parliamentary election campaign and shows no sign of being an issue in Vladimir Putin’s reelection battle this coming March. Instead, the territory seems set to remain the focus of a standoff between those who argue that Russia is continuing to commit age-old crimes in Chechnya.

SERGEI OVALYOV ( Translated ): Russia has no moral right to continue playing a major role in Chechnya. The Chechens remember history perfectly well. They remember the wars of the last two centuries. They remember being deported by Stalin in the 1920s. Now, they remember these two latest wars. How is the Russian federation planning to teach the Chechens law and order? It’s absurd.

SIMON MARKS: And those who say that Chechnya is part of Russia to stay.

LT. GEN. VALERY BARANOV ( Translated ): Everything Chechen is ours. It’s Russian. It all belongs to the Russian state. And working here every day, we understand better than anyone else how difficult war can be. But we came here to bring order.

SIMON MARKS: It’s a standoff that ten years on leaves the region no closer to achieving peace and security. The Russian military mission, once greeted with universal international condemnation, today attracts more muted criticism as the Russians link it to the war on terror.