TOPICS > World

The Chechen Conflict

November 18, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: For two and a half months now, Russian aircraft and artillery have battered the breakaway Republic of Chechnya. The Russians say they’re firing specifically at Islamic militants in Chechnya, whom they blame for four deadly terrorist apartment blasts in Russia this September, and for military incursions into the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan. The Chechen government, however, says the assaults have been indiscriminate, killing 4,000 civilians, and injuring many more. In the last few weeks, Russian forces have moved in from the East, North, and West, closing in on the capital of Grozny. For Grozny residents who are still there, food is scarce, and emergency functions have long since shut down.

WOMAN: (speaking through interpreter) A lot of people ran away to the villages, but my husband and I are stuck here, under the bullets day and night.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, some 200,000 refugees have fled to the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where the population has swelled 50 percent, A smaller number of Chechens has gone south into the independent nation of Georgia. At times, Russian soldiers have shut down the Ingushetia border, and even shot at the fleeing refugees. After bribing the border guards, this family says it crossed into safety, fleeing Russian troops. WOMAN: (speaking through interpreter) Mostly they kill women and children, old men. Then they bomb hospitals, markets, the places where people gather. When the refugees are fleeing, they bomb them and they kill them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Russia has come under heavy criticism from abroad for its Chechnya policy. In Istanbul, Turkey today, 54 world leaders gathered for a summit meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.

GERHARD SCHROEDER, Chancellor, Germany: (speaking through interpreter) My government condemns terrorism, but massive use of force that mainly hurts civilians must end. I urge Russia to solve this conflict by political means.

SPENCER MICHELS: Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired back. He says the Chechnya invasion is meant to bring regional stability, and tackle what he called “the cancer of terrorism.”

PRESIDENT BORIS YELTSIN, Russia: (speaking through interpreter) Security in Europe is impossible to achieve without Russia, and you have no right to criticize Russia over Chechnya. Let nobody be fooled, there will be no talks with bandits and terrorists. We want to bring peace and a political solution to Chechnya, and to achieve that, we have to wipe out the bandit factions, wiping out the terrorists or bringing them to trial.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mr. Yeltsin also decried what he called “humanitarian interference” in Russia’s internal business. In response, President Clinton cited critics who fear Russia’s strategy will backfire, energizing the Islamic rebels and alienating Chechen civilians. He also recalled an incident in 1991, when Yeltsin turned back a coup attempt by hard-line Soviets.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: President Yeltsin, one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, was when you stood up on the tank in Moscow when they tried to take the freedom of the Russian people away. And your standing there on that tank said to those people “You can do this, but you’ll have to kill me first.” If they had put you in jail instead of electing you president, I would hope that every leader of every country around this table would have stood up for you and for freedom in Russia, and would not said, “well, that is an internal Russian affair that we cannot be a part of.”

SPENCER MICHELS: Later, Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton met privately for 45 minutes, discussing Chechnya, among other issues. The Russian president walked out of the summit earlier than he had planned. But two hours later, his foreign minister said Moscow agreed to a European review of the situation by inviting the chairman of the OSCE to visit Chechnya.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Chechnya conflict, and the split it’s creating between Russia and the West, we turn to Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Institute at Johns Hopkins University; Martha Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Dimitri Simes, President of the Nixon Center. Welcome, all of you. Clearly, President Yeltsin did not appreciate being admonished by the West today over Chechnya. Is that the prevalent attitude within the Russian leadership right now that, it’s none of the West’s business?

DIMITRI SIMES, Nixon Center: 67 percent, according to the recent public opinion poll, 67 percent of all Russians support Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya. It is a popular war. It’s very different from 1994, ’96, the first Russian invasion of Chechnya, which was not supported by the Russian people. But Chechnya was terrible, so lawless, so much terrorism, hijacking, things which are on the record, that I think the Russian public opinion went overwhelmingly against the Chechens.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that in terms of why the Russian leadership really isn’t interested in what the West is thinking right now?

FREDERICK STARR, Central Asia/Caucasus Institute: This is vengeance. This is not entirely a rational campaign. They are settling a score, going all the way back to Afghanistan, to the first Chechen war. They’re very angry. And therefore, simply to dress them down, even though it’s warranted, isn’t probably going to advance the cause at all. It’s going to stiffen their back. So the question is, is there anything beyond dressing them down in public that will bring any results? I think there are things that could be done.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, let me ask you, Martha Olcott, do you think then the President shouldn’t have said anything?

MARTHA OLCOTT, Carnegie Endowment: I think that Clinton’s statement was a very useful one. I think it set some real limits and parameters for the Russians. It defined what the West saw as unacceptable. It stated that there were things you couldn’t do to your own population, no matter what they did to the government or… how they imperiled the security of the rest of the state. I think it was really important that he stressed that terror doesn’t excuse lawlessness or doesn’t excuse rampant attacks on a civilian population.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think this kind of criticism and treaties… I mean, arguments — the different western leaders tried all different kinds of arguments with President Yeltsin. Do you think they will have any impact in Moscow in terms of how this war is being prosecuted?

DIMITRI SIMES: Mr. Clinton should get an award for hypocrisy. In 1994/96, he talked about Russian “civil war” and he compared Yeltsin to Lincoln. It was ridiculous and preposterous. Now he is talking about the Russian war in Chechnya after the Russians were attacked by the Chechens and he tells them how they should not kill innocent civilians.

Do we remember Kosovo? Do we remember Branch Davidians? Can you imagine a major nation which would allow a territory with fifty or sixty thousand people, unarmed, no control, no central government, we’re not talking about central government in Moscow, no central government in Grozny controlling – you know very well why we know so little about the situation in Chechnya — all foreign journalists had to run away because they were subjected to kidnappings and terrorism.

And the truth is that the Russians are learning from what the United States and NATO have done in Kosovo, but they do not have precision-guided munitions. They don’t have the same kind of electronic surveillance. They are doing what they know how to do. They try to protect the soldiers who have taken over the territory. It is tragic. It is barbarian. But Mr. Clinton’s moralizing will find very few followers in Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that?

FREDERICK STARR: Well, I do agree, but I think you’ve got to go a step further. Is there anything you can do? The point Dimitri made about information is crucial. Why shouldn’t we ask, propose, demand that they double the number of journalists covering this? This is a kind of non-event.

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. But the point was most western journalists were pulled out of there because most journalists got kidnapped.

FREDERICK STARR: Several did, of course. But this is to ask the Russian government to give them normal protection. Beyond that, why not…

DIMITRI SIMES: They were kidnapped by the Chechens, not by the Russians.

FREDERICK STARR: Why not, in addition to that, the kind of massive relief effort that was brought to bear in Kosovo, if we’re so concerned on humanitarian issues, of problems of refugees, as was clearly the case, we’ve indicated, in Kosovo, then why not do the same here? It would establish the point that we’re trying to make, but in a practical way…namely, that this is really…violates OSCE rules that Russia itself signed.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re trying to get in here.

MARTHA OLCOTT: I think it was really critical to open the door for a role for Europe. And I think that’s what President Clinton’s statement helped do, whether he was hypocritical or not. The Chechen dispute really at this point begs for ways in which the outside world can involve itself and find ways to pressure Russia to a negotiation table. It may not work, but this at least creates that is possibility of dialogue.


MARTHA OLCOTT: With the Russians. I mean, pushing the Russians…

FREDERICK STARR: Whom do they have?

MARTHA OLCOTT: That’s where I think the OSCE can play a really critical role because if Russia is left to its own devices, then it will define which of the political interlocutors who can come to the table, and it’s the Europeans, I think, as well as the leaders in the region, who have some chance of pressuring at least behind the scenes, the Russians to allow all the political factions or most of the political factions of Chechnya to be a part of this discussion.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see any evidence… Yeltsin did agree to let some observers in…but that the Russians — the Russian leadership is looking for any negotiated political solution out of this right now brokered by outsiders?

FREDERICK STARR: Well, there’s — the point about the two-thirds majority support for this, that’s absolutely true. And it’s passionate. On the other hand, you have Mr. Primakov yesterday saying, “look, you’ve got to negotiate.” You cannot solve this militarily – and presidential candidate – you cannot solve this militarily. Now, that’s an interesting question. But then whom do you negotiate with — because you’ve de-legitimized all the possible factions on the other side and to get them to work together as is an impossibility, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Are the political and military leaders in Moscow totally in sync on this? There were a lot of earlier news accounts that suggested that the military had really taken its bit in its teeth on this and was driving this.

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, there was a very interesting communication in Moscow about three weeks ago with a senior Russian general who was very hard-lined. He was talking how the United States should not express any criticism. But then, of course, he said, you have to realize, we don’t want to go all the way to Chechen mountains. We do not know -

MARGARET WARNER: In the southern part.

DIMITRI SIMES: We do not know how to finish this war. And what works in our favor, the Russians do not have a formula for military victory and that then they may actually ask for some kind of western involvement as an alibi for their own inability to succeed militarily.

MARTHA OLCOTT: I think that’s a really important point. I think that so much of what’s going on in Chechnya was designed to disrupt the status quo that existed since 1996 but there is no endgame that’s really within the reach of the Russian military or the Russian political elite.

FREDERICK STARR: But there’s not an endgame that’s in reach of western experts and advisors either. That’s the further complication.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the Russian leadership, as Dimitri Simes thinks, is already aware of this?

MARTHA OLCOTT: I think that the political elite is aware of this. But because the war is so popular, it would be very, very hard to publicly say that we’ll accept anything other than victory. So much of the blustering is for domestic consumption because this war is serving very positive goals for the Russian people. It’s allowing them to feel whole in a way they really haven’t felt whole in a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Just explain that a little more. You were just there.

MARTHA OLCOTT: I was there about three weeks ago as well. And this war is really, I think, part of an important process of national reconciliation and national consolidation — reconciliation among ethnic Russians where the population is really gaining some confidence in their ability to move forward in the future. And in that sense, I agree with everybody, that this past war, the first war was a terrible black mark. The economic crisis was a terrible black mark. And now, as they pull out from these crises and they move towards the transition away from Yeltsin, they want to do some things that seem positive, making a statement that Russians can stand up with pride and be Russians again. And if the West is critical, the West critical. But we’re Russians.

FREDERICK STARR: You could say the same thing about Germany reoccupying the Rhineland. This is a nasty war. And the problem is, it’s creating a whole series of secondary and tertiary problems for Russia and not to mention for the West down the road, and especially in the South…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because of the refugee crisis, the pressure that’s putting…

FREDERICK STARR: Huge crisis. By the way, all the fighters, whether it’s a victory or defeat, all the fighters who aren’t party to it, will just head to the hills, which are real mountain, just a few miles south of Grozny. And there you can go on, you know, there are valleys that no one will find you in for years.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, right now, I mean, the first part, in the North, it’s quite flat and the Russian tanks could just move right over.

FREDERICK STARR: Down to the river.

MARGARET WARNER: And then they came to these cities which they are bombarding and encircling – but you’re saying…

FREDERICK STARR: They are not cities in a normal sense. Grozny is like Los Angeles. It’s very spread out. So, how do you actually occupy it? A terrible problem.

DIMITRI SIMES: This is a good point. It is a popular war in Russia; it is a nasty war. But it is popular among ordinary Russians as long as they can do it on the cheap. They will not be able to do it on the cheap endlessly if the objective is military victory.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though, for now, they’ve met almost no resistance.

FREDERICK STARR: Of course. Because it’s that kind of war. It’s a guerrilla war. You withdraw. It’s in terms of Moscow – let Napoleon come and then we’ll get them on the way out.

MARTHA OLCOTT: But the next stage can’t be the same as this one. They can’t have an easy military victory. They must deal with the entrenched resistance at some point. And that’s going to change public opinion. So what they need is help or a solution to get from here to an exit strategy. And that’s one where we just don’t get much discussion. We’re starting to get some in Moscow about the possible exit strategies. But no one has a formula for taking…

DIMITRI SIMES: They need help.

FREDERICK STARR: Solution rather than lectures. That is what they need.

DIMITRI SIMES: We have to come with a proposal. We have to prepare to mediate. Our moralizing is counterproductive.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying the U.S. and the West should stay very involved, even though Russia seems to be rejecting it right.

FREDERICK STARR: We don’t have an exit strategy. If there is a Russian victory, that creates a… or something called a victory, that really creates a mess of one variety. If it’s something called a Russian defeat, it’s equally complicated.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Thank you all three, very much.