October 26, 2002
Russia and the terrorist attack in Moscow

67 dead. That's the sad toll of the terrorist attack on Moscow. It could have been much, much worse, and I was expecting much, much worse. The Russian authorities have handled this probably as well as they could have given the circumstances. With over 800 hostages in total, the total death toll could have been calamitous, in scale almost approaching the mass murder of September 11th. It did not come as a surprise to hear that the terrorists were yet again Islamofascists. It should begin to dawn on even the slower-witted that there is a pattern here.

The terrorists claimed to be acting on behalf of the Chechen government in exile which opposes Russian rule in the country. I don't think they have done themselves any favors. Their wider cause of Jihad against the infidels has also been damaged, for this will only push Russia and the US closer together in the war against the Islamofascists. After the attack on the French tanker in Yemen, the mass murder in Bali and now the attack in Moscow, all that remains for the terrorists is to attack German interests somewhere to complete their tour of major countries opposing America.

The sad thing is that the Chechens did not start off as Islamofascists. The breakup of the Soviet Union left Russia shell-shocked about its sudden loss of empire, first in central and eastern Europe, then closer to home. Even their Slavic brethren in Ukraine and Byelarus preferred to become independent. The shock of losing an empire can perturb the national psyche for a long time. The British only recently managed to find a more confident international identity after the wilderness years of the post-war era. And that was in large part due to the Thatcherite remaking of Britain and the economic dynamism she managed to bring back.

A few years after the liberation of the captive nations of the Soviet Union, other parts of the Russian empire were beginning to stir and assert themselves, including the Chechens. Moscow's response was brutal and disproportionate, sending in the troops to quash the Chechen's aspirations for independence. The Chechen won the first war, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Russian forces. And I definitely cheered for them. But the West's political leadership really dropped the ball here. In true Clintonesque rudderlessness, the West allowed the Russians do as they pleased. Somewhere in the State Department, buried deep in the bowels of the buildings, there is a room of worship where the Mandarins come to burn incense every day at the Altar of Stability. I suggest we rename the State Department to the Status Quo Department. Then the opinions of the Secretary of Status Quo would make much more sense. "Sure, terrorists are being trained in Remotistan, but taking action would endanger the stability of the region. We at Status Quo would have to redraw all our maps again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?"

We in the West definitely let the Chechens down shamefully in that conflict and in the second Chechen war, in which the Russians avenged their earlier defeat. Had we supported them, we might now have (after a period of instability) an independent Chechen republic along the lines of Tadjikistan or Azerbaijan. These certainly aren't shining examples of enlightened liberal thought or practice, but they are not overly infested by Islamofascism. And their governments tend to value good relations with the US.

But that's all water under the bridge. The reality now is that a new nest of Islamofascism is taking root in Chechenya. Not all independence seeking Chechens are part of this, but as we have seen in Moscow, there are plenty of them, and they seem to be allied to the Chechen government in exile. Given that they have chosen the side of the greatest threat to modern liberal society, I have absolutely no sympathy for them. Any vestigial sympathy I may have had has been washed away by the terror attack in Moscow. And we have to deal with the situation as it is now, not as it might have been. Eradicating the threat has to be priority number one, and that unfortunately means more military action in Chechenya, and even more unfortunately, it's going to be done in a very Russian way. We will get to observe the difference between American military action and Russian. Expect little regard for minimizing civilian casuaties. Expect maximum brutality. Also expect no European sophisticates to protest loudly. After all, it's not America they'd be protesting against.

There are two objectives: forcible elimination of the Islamofascists in Chechenya and trying to find some compromise with the other factions in the country. Given the way objective number one is going to be tackled, number two is going to be very hard, if not impossible to achieve. I hope Putin has enough tactical sense to see this, but I am not very hopeful.

The future of the relationship between Russia and the West is still up for grabs. Actually, the question is whether Russia is actually already part of Western Civilization., or has a sufficiently similar background to the West in order to become part of it. This was addressed recently at Regions of Mind. Russia has a lot in common with the civilization of Western Europe. The cultural links were very strong before the long night of communism. Russian works are a staple in Western music and literature. Politically, Czarist Russia was definitely backward compared to the more enlightened parts of the Western world like Britain and the United States. Then again, other great monarchies of Europe were backward too. But even communism was a western phenomenon, imported from the industrializing west and foisted upon the hapless Russian population. During the period of totalitarian tyrrany in Russia, the rulers did try to maintain an outward veneer of democratic (read Western) legitimacy. Fake elections, "People's Republics," the great proletariat. Sot the strains of Western culture have deep roots in Russia, but they have been so undernourished, so deeply buried that it is going to take considerable time to turn these roots into a solid tree.

It is our interest to coax Russia into the mainstream of Western civilization. The current war against the Islamofascists is a good starting point for this, but the danger is that Russia's authoritarian and imperialist tendencies will prove stronger than its will to reform. Simply put, I don't trust them one bit. It's going to be a long, tough process, but the price of failure will be high. The reward of success would be immense.

Posted by qsi at October 26, 2002 07:22 PM | TrackBack (0)
Read More on Russia

I don't really have anything else to add here beyond, excellent post. Agreed that payback on Chechnya will be brutal in the extreme.

I wonder how you think that will play out in regards to US relations. Just several hours after the end of this episode the Russians again announced that the US's latest proposed UN resolution was unacceptable.

I'd be very interested to know what the Russians think they can negotiate out of the US for their support. But more importantly, when will Russia stop playing realpolitik and start acting like there is a war on and they're part of it?

Posted by: Ron Campbell on October 27, 2002 07:40 AM

I think that behind the closed doors, Russia is wanting assurances of some kind that they get the money owed to them by Iraq, several billion dollars' worth. That could be a sticky issue; Russia needs the money, but an Iraq trying to rebuild could hardly afford to pay.

Posted by: FeloniousPunk on October 28, 2002 10:16 AM

I for one don't buy that the Chechens are Islamic fundamentalists. They might think that there is profit in sounding that way, and certainly our "leaders" like to put them in that category, but they love life too much to be al Qaeda operatives. They ARE some of the most aggressive fighters on the planet, but they fight to win, not to die, and, failing that, they have a penchant for escape and survival. And their goal is a free and independent Chechnya, not an Islamic paradise for Saudi towel heads.

Posted by: Michael Gersh on October 28, 2002 10:49 AM


Your view is refuted by the experience of the last several years. Chechens formed a significant fraction of the al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan who fought (and fight) against us. By some accounts, they made up the largest national contingent.

As far as loving life too much to be al Qaeda, that was not the impression I got from the hostage taking. Probably the explosives strapped to their bodies and the threats to blow themselves and everyone else up that make me skeptical of your statement. Oh yeah, "we did not come to Moscow to escape, but to die."

That their goal is a free and independent Chechnya only, is belied by what happened after the armistice of 1996. Chechen kidnapping, gangsterism and destabilization of neighboring provinces (i.e. Dagestan) quickly became an epidemic, and were the real reasons for the resumption of hostilities in 1999 (with the apartment block bombings serving as immediate pretext).

Chechnya is hardly the first national liberation movement to be hijacked and controlled by organizations/ powers with more ambitious agendas.

Your romanticization of the Chechen fighters recalls the way we in the US romanticized the muhajidin in Afghanistan during the Soviet war.

Posted by: FeloniousPunk on October 28, 2002 02:10 PM

The first I heard of the Chechens was from reading "MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lt. Belenk by John Barron. This is the story of Viktor Belenko, the MiG-29 pilot, who flew his plane to Japan back in the mid-70's.

Belenko described his experience as an Air Force cadet, who along with all his colleagues, were sent to Chechenya to fight the battle of the harvest. He said every Chechen male to be considered a man had to kill a Russian. This may be understandable, because Stalin had sent all Chechens to Siberia during WWII. They were allowed to return only years later.


Posted by: Jabba the Tutt on October 28, 2002 03:31 PM

impossible , no way chechen actions are dictated by al quaida propoganda , why would chechens wanting an independent chechnya join a holy war in which creating enemies with not only western europeans but the united states . chechens can hardly fight russia let alone a holy war completely elemenating every single one of them . they just chose the wrong time to pick their apples , now only time will tell how severely they get punished by the russian hand.

Posted by: armen on November 13, 2002 09:13 AM

Hello, 67 dead is not the sad toll of the "terrorist attack", it is the sad toll of a botched "Counter-terrorist operation"

Posted by: معاويه عسكري on October 15, 2003 08:54 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?