THE TRAGIC END TO THE SCHOOL HOSTAGE CRISIS in Beslan, a village in the North Ossetia region of Russia, was 9/11 in slow motion for many Russians.
Chechen terrorists were allegedly aided by Uzkeks and Arabs in this assault — and now many Russians are asking whether the costs of keeping Chechnya within Russia are worth it. Russian President Vladimir Putin is lashing out furiously at what he sees as Western sympathizers with the Chechen cause, and seems to be entrenching himself and planning a more resolved assault on Chechen insurgents.
Chechnya is one of those festering problems that people sort of hear about from time to time but really know very little about, unless one is a scholar on the region. Dimitri Simes, President of the Nixon Center, offered a very nice summation of Russia’s Chechnya problem in a Lehrer News Hour interview five years ago. Simes supported Russian efforts to eliminate the Chechen leadership, whom he described even than as bandits, kidnappers, and terrorists. At the same time, Simes argued that Russia seemed not to have the stomach, will, and resources to really end the insurgency in Chechnya.
A few months after I saw this Lehrer News Hour show on Chechnya, I was invited by Moises Naim, Editor of Foreign Policy, to small breakfast with Strobe Talbott, one of our nation’s leading Russia experts who is now President of Brookings and then Deputy Secretary of State. Talbott was then preparing an article for the Spring 2000 FP titled “Self Determination in an Interdependent World.”
Talbott’s article starts with the word Chechnya, and it is worth taking a look at how American officialdom then perceived the trend of self-determination insurgencies around the world. Talbott was both fascinated and deeply concerned about the explosion of culture and identities in the former Soviet Union.
Talbott was right that the world was involved in a sometimes convulsive and violent process of redrawing lines and boundaries and that the U.S. did not have a set of policy guidelines that helped it to deal with these sub-state and non-state efforts to secede from other states.
Writing in 1999/2000, Talbott offers:
U.S. policy on the status of Chechnya has been consistent. The United States supports the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and does not question the right of the federation to combat terrorism and armed insurgencies on its own soil. But as President Clinton stressed at the Istanbul OSCE Summit, the United States believes that “the means Russia has chosen will undermine its ends.”
Russia’s military policy in the northern Caucasus may be confronting the people — particularly the youth — of Chechnya with an ugly choice: Either take up arms against the Russians or be interred by them. Neither option serves Moscow’s stated long-term goal of a stable, prosperous northern Caucasus region as part of the Russian Federation.
Talbott’s recommendations for U.S. foreign policy faced with such rampant self determination movements are wanting; mainly recommending that America remind warring parties of the trends toward regional integration and globalization in many parts of the world, which Talbott believed could help ameliorate some of the tensions.
I posed a question to Talbott whether he or the folks at State Department Policy Planning had thought much about tensions within the boundaries of American empire, since he had commented on the tensions unleashed after the fall of the Soviet system.
He seemed astonished by my question. I clarified that if one looked at places like East Asia that had been by a financial tsunami in the 1997-98 East Asia economic shocks, or looked at Okinawa which was culturally, linguistically, and historically distinct from Japan but which carried the heaviest burden for hosting U.S. troops while ranking the poorest of Japan’s prefectures; or looked at the building tensions in Qatar, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia where U.S. bases are fervently despised by local populations — that one could easily see that the cost/benefit assessment of other nations’ willingness to serve as subordinates of American interests was fluid and eroded over time.
Talbott’s response was conventional and genuine, shared by most national security interested Democrats and Republicans, that he saw “U.S. bases as anchors of stability in unstable regions.” As I have posted earlier, America has little sense that base arrangements that might make sense for both U.S. and local host nation interests at one point time may not be rational over long stretches of time.
While Iraq does not lie within U.S. borders and allegedly had its sovereignty restored, the major difference between America’s Iraq problem and Russia’s Chechnya problem is that America went out in search of this “monster,” as John Quincy Adams would have said.
Chechnya and the Chechen insurgency are a festering wounds of the old Soviet order that strays from being considered a freedom-fighting movement to being perceived as a rogue region run by criminals and organized crime that will extort ransom from a world that it threatens with violence and terrorism.
What does America do about Chechnya other than what we have been officially doing, which is let the Chechens and Russians fight it out?
Some Americans want greater U.S. activism in the issue — and serve as members of a somewhat influential American Committee for Peace in Chechnya.
It’s an odd bedfellows alliance — essentially lined up to advocate for Chechen interests. It may be this line-up of Americans that Vladimir Putin is spitting at.
Check out the list yourself — but the neocon members include Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Richard Allen, Eliot Cohen, Midge Decter, Frank Gaffney, Robert Kagan, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, Richard Pipes, Norman Podhoretz, Gary Schmitt, and the ever-present James Woolsey.
Some other surprising names on the list are movie star Richard Gere, former National Security czar Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Dem VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and former Congressman Stephen Solarz.
— Steve Clemons