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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A 'Democratic' War?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 28 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Commentators in both Russia and the West are now arguing that Moscow's recent actions in Chechnya, however appalling they may be, reflect the specific features of a war when the government conducting it feels it must respond to public opinion.

Drawing parallels with NATO's campaign in Kosovo last year, these analysts suggest that when democratic governments wage wars, they tend simultaneously to demonize the opposition in order to justify their actions and limit the number of casualties suffered by their own forces in order to avoid losing popular support.

Some making this argument are clearly trying to limit criticism of Russian behavior. Others appear to be trying to make a more general point. But together, these arguments call into question three of the most widely-held views on the nature of the relationship between democracy and military conflict.

First, these arguments undercut the widespread assumption that democracies won't go to war unless they are attacked, will try to minimize casualties on all sides, and will seek to make peace as quickly as possible.

Many Russians felt they were provoked by the Chechens, but no one can seriously argue that the Chechens "attacked" Russia. Moscow's efforts to portray the Chechens as the aggressors have played well in both Russia and the West. But the Russian authorities have not provided any evidence for these assertions.

The Russian government has sought to minimize casualties on the Russian side, but it has done so by employing methods that guarantee that the number of casualties on the Chechen side is vastly higher.

And the Russian government, portraying itself as the executor of the popular will, has fanned anti-Chechen attitudes and said it will continue to fight until it has "exterminated" those it calls "criminals" and "bandits."

Other governments, democratic or with pretensions to being so, appear likely to adopt a similar approach, choosing their battles for political effect, limiting their own casualties no matter how many are inflicted on the others, and going back to the older principle of unconditional surrender as the only possible outcome of any conflict they take part in.

Second, these arguments cast doubt on the assumption that popular attitudes will always act as a constraint on governments thinking about going to war.

Polling data suggest that Moscow's policies in Chechnya remain broadly popular among Russians, a situation that reflects both the continuing deference of the population to a government in time of war as well as widespread Russian antipathy to people from the Caucasus.

To the extent that governments simply reflect such popular moods and attitudes, they may be driven to aggression -- unless they actively seek to curb rather than exploit such feelings. In an age when leaders are often driven more by polling data than by reflection, the likelihood that many leaders will play to the crowd in this way is likely to increase.

And third, these arguments about Russian behavior in Chechnya undermine the self-confident assumption many around the world have had that the spread of democracy will result in a new period of general peace.

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has exploited the war in Chechnya to build his popularity and to deflect popular concerns about other issues. If they remain successful and can continue to justify their behavior as democratic, they and other leaders may come to view military conflict as a useful domestic political tool. -- Indeed, there is some indication that Moscow's approach to Chechnya is already having that effect, just as Russian leaders claim that NATO's campaign in Kosovo provided them with a model.

In recent months, the Indian and Pakistani governments, both nominally democratic, have used the threat of military conflict in Kashmir to generate support at home. And last week, Beijing threatened to use military force against Taiwan unless the latter agrees to talks on unification with the mainland, at least in part with the hope to gain domestic support.

Clearly, the sense governments now have that they must have some popular backing in military conflicts and that they must ensure that domestic casualties are minimal represents a kind of progress.

But as the Russian campaign in Chechnya clearly indicated, this check may not lead either to a more peaceful world or to military campaigns conducted with minimal losses on both sides. Achieving those goals require something more than counting on democratic procedures and the attitudes of citizens who may be anything but peaceful.
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