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October 6, 2004

Experts draw parallels between wars in Chechnya, Iraq

By Lisa Trei

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used President George Bush’s portrayal of the war in Iraq as a struggle against global terrorism to legitimize the conflict in Chechnya, a panel of Russia watchers said last week.

“In many ways, President Bush’s behavior has become a model for Putin and it gives him a freedom to do certain things that would otherwise be difficult,” said Gail Lapidus, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies (SIIS). “Putin knows the U.S. can no longer criticize these actions.”

Lapidus was joined by John Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution; Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, a senior research scholar at SIIS; and Michael Urban, a professor of politics at the University of California-Santa Cruz, at a well-attended discussion Sept. 29 titled “Terror in Russia and Putin’s Response.”

Mary Dakin, associate director of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, moderated the panel, which was put together in response to last month’s deadly hostage incident in Beslan in southern Russia, where 342 people, including an estimated 172 children, died following a three-day school siege led by armed extremists.

The Beslan tragedy marks the latest incident in a growing list of terrorist attacks by separatists demanding an end to the bloody conflict in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya. The Putin leadership has tried to identify the hostage takers as Arabs, even though most were ethnic Ingushetians from a neighboring republic, Dunlop said. “Putin’s struggle against Chechens and militant Muslims in the northern Caucasus could [then] be depicted as a struggle against Al-Qaeda,” he said.

Although the conflicts in Iraq and Chechnya have enormous differences, clear parallels exist, Lapidus said: “Chechnya was a war of choice not of necessity. It was not forced on the Russian government, it was deliberately undertaken.” According to Lapidus, there are other similarities:

  • The Chechen conflict was based on erroneous assumptions with enormous and unintended consequences. Rather than supporting a “domino theory” whereby Chechen independence would threaten the disintegration of the entire Russian state, leaders should have recognized that Chechnya was the product of unique circumstances unlikely to be duplicated anywhere else.
  • Resorting to force rather than searching for a political solution has exacerbated regional instability in the Caucasus by feeding extremism and creating opportunities for more radical terrorist movements to attract recruits in a region where they previously did not operate.
  • The Russian government has refused to admit it made mistakes in Chechnya, instead stating that it had no alternatives. Furthermore, it has created a simplified image of the enemy as “international terrorists” in order to mobilize and unify the Russian population and suppress dissent.
  • Urban agreed but said Russia’s leaders have made calculated decisions -- not mistakes -- regarding the Chechen conflict. “The Russian state is best understood as one that’s trying to manage terrorism and make it its ally,” Urban said. “I think that Russia’s rulers do not act to stop the war, they act to manage it as an element in their overall political strategy.” The republic has been an economic “goldmine for black cash,” he said, referring to billions of dollars in Russian reconstruction funds for Chechnya that have disappeared. In a reference to Iraq, Urban noted that 75 percent of Iraqi reconstruction funds have gone to Halliburton, a U.S. company, and only 2 percent has been directed to Iraqi firms.

    Stoner-Weiss said Putin will use the siege in Beslan to weaken democracy in Russia by arguing that the nation will be in a better position to fight terrorism if more power is concentrated in Moscow. Just a few days after the siege ended, she said, Putin proposed eliminating popular elections for Russia’s 89 provincial governors and eliminating term limits on appointed leaders by 2009. “But it is too little democracy, not too much, that has weakened the Russian state,” Stoner-Weiss argued. “The recent rash of terrorist attacks indicates that Mr. Putin’s previous attempts to curtail Russian democracy have done little to increase the country’s safety and stability, and it is very unlikely that his most recent proposals will do any better.”

    Although the panelists painted a grim picture of the situation in Chechnya, they offered suggestions to end the conflict. Stoner-Weiss said it is difficult for Russia to decide with whom to negotiate because Chechens have not been well led throughout the conflict. She suggested involving the United Nations, although that is problematic because Russia insists the Chechen conflict is an internal affair. Lapidus said peace can only be realized if Chechens, not Russians, are permitted to choose their leaders. Furthermore, she said, international participation will be needed to help launch effective reconstruction. Dunlop said Putin must talk to Chechnya’s moderate leaders, including former President Aslan Maskhadov, even though the Russian government has placed a $10 million bounty on his head. “If it talks to puppets, it doesn’t get anything done,” he said.



    Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


    Mary Dakin, Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies:

    (650) 725-6852,


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