Russia's continued bombing campaign against Chechnya raises fears of a repeat of the 1994-1996 Chechen war for independence that left 80,000 dead and ruined Chechnya's infrastructure and economy. While Russia claims the latest bombing raids are only aimed at rooting out rebels hiding in Chechnya, the attacks are far-reaching and bode ill for future relations between Russia and Chechnya.
The air strikes come in the wake of an incursion of Chechen rebels into neighboring Dagestan. Mujahideen fighters left over from the Chechen war for independence, along with a few foreign volunteers, captured several villages in Dagestan in August and declared an independent Islamic state. The rebels were forced to retreat back into Chechnya by a Russian offensive, but Russian authorities were reportedly fearful of another incursion, as the rebel leader, Shamil Bassayev, was not captured.
The current bombardment of Chechnya, the most serious attack on Chechnya since the war ended in 1996, follows a devastating terrorist bombing in Moscow earlier in September that killed 300 people. Although both the Chechen authorities and the Chechen rebels denied any involvement in the bombing, Russia nonetheless accuses the rebels of the attack despite an acknowledged lack of evidence. According to BBC regional analyst Tom de Waal, writing on September 27, popular opinion in Russia supports the allegations against the Chechen rebels, an opinion that has been a significant factor in the broad support for the bombing of Chechnya.
But the Moscow bombing could as easily have been the work of the Russian Mafia or, as the rebels themselves allege the Russian secret service itself. In a statement carried by the Kavkaz-Tsentr News Agency and translated by the BBC on September 17, Magomed Tageyev, the rebel information minister, said the attacks were designed to create a climate of fear in which President Yeltsin could retain power. "This could be either a state of emergency or a military state," Tageyev said.
It is evident from the speeches of top-ranking Russian officials that the attacks on Chechnya are more than isolated attempts to root out the rebels. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on public TV that, "We shall hunt the terrorists down wherever they are and wherever we catch them - be it at the airport or in the lavatory," as quoted by the BBC on September 24.
Russian interior minister Vladimir Rushaylo further clarified the stakes in the assault on Chechnya when he said on Russian TV that the rebel "aim is to tear a region of utmost geo-strategic importance away from the country and to establish there some kind of criminal enclave to train international terrorists and to draw up plans for their operations all over the world unimpeded," as quoted by the BBC.
With 30,000 Russian troops massed at the Chechen border, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has admitted that plans have been drawn up for a possible invasion of Chechnya with the aim of eliminating the militants and their bases and creating a deep safety zone in the breakaway republic, according to the Associated Press on September 26.
Such a far-reaching campaign comes dangerously close to the events that led up to the earlier Chechen war. Already, the Russians have bombed civilian targets such as oil refineries, airports and even Grozny, the capital. Russia's Interfax News Agency quotes one Chechen official as saying that Chechnya's entire annual budget would not be enough to repair the damage incurred over the weekend to Grozny's main oil refinery. The attacks so far have killed some 400 Chechen civilians, according to local officials talking to the BBC, and as many as 52,000 refugees are in the process of fleeing Chechnya into Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Dagestan. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, following Russian refusals for an emergency summit meeting in order to avert another war, has reportedly given orders to prepare for a Russian invasion.
Russia's recent air strikes on Chechnya are no less than an act of war. Whether Russia considers all Chechens to be militants or so-called "bandits" or whether Russia is willing to risk war with an entire people in order to root out the few hundred militants, it is clear Russia has no intention of respecting Chechen lives, property or the limited sovereignty agreed to following the previous war. The same Russian propaganda that charged Chechen rebels with the Moscow bombings and which recently alleged that the rebels are funded by Osama bin Laden, despite a lack of evidence in either case, can be expected to play into the hands of the Russian war machine in an ever increasing cycle of antagonism and hysteria. At this point, it would be surprising to see anything less than a renewed all-out war against Chechnya.
But despite increasing Russian hysteria against Chechnya, a new war can be expected to have the same outcome as the last. Although Chechen society is more divided than five years ago, with tension evident between President Maskhadov and Bassayev's militants, the BBC's Tom de Waal writes that, "the Russian threat is a powerful unifying factor." And even if Chechnya has been devastated by the last war, it does have two dangerous ingredients in abundance, according to De Waal: "guns and young men prepared to use them."
An article in the Los Angeles Times on September 27 summarizes a report by Heyman of Jane's World Armies in saying: "Russia's air raids won't destroy the guerrillas, just wreck villages, kill civilians and harden resolve on the other side. It's the same army, fighting the same people, using largely the same methods." Whether the Russians are aware of it or not, Russia's current campaign and the anticipated ground invasion of Chechnya will most negatively impact ordinary Chechen civilians and not the elusive militants.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com