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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Redefining The Chechen Challenge

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On the 57th anniversary of Stalin's mass deportation of the Chechen people in 1944, a Russian general has suggested that the current fighting in Chechnya more closely resembles the fighting that took place between Soviet forces and Baltic nationalists following Moscow's occupation of the Baltic states in 1945 than it does a guerilla war.

In an interview published in this week's "Obshchaya gazeta," Major General Vladimir Dudnik says that the ongoing conflict in Chechnya is not a guerilla war as most Moscow officials and commentators now suggest. Instead, he suggested, it is very much like the kind of conflict that took place between Baltic nationalists who retreated into the woods to resist Soviet occupation of their countries at the end of World War II.

That conflict, although little commented upon at the time, lasted more than a decade, Dudnik points out, and "the Baltic region was conquered only in 1956." But despite Soviet victories in that battle, Dudnik notes, Moscow ultimately lost that contest because Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian nationalists never gave up their desire for independence, and Moscow "let them go in 1991."

On the one hand, Dudnik's comments may appear to be little more than the complaint of an army officer who feels that his political masters have made a terrible mistake. After all, Dudnik spends much of his time complaining about President Vladimir Putin's decision to put the internal security forces rather than the army in charge of the campaign there. He suggests that the military "will never obey the Chekists."

But on the other hand, the general's remarks call attention to a broader effort among some Russian analysts to rethink the Chechen conflict both militarily and politically. In some ways, that discussion has been prompted by shifts in the way the fighting there has been discussed by Russian government officials.

At various times, Russian officials have described their efforts in Chechnya as combating a guerilla war, conducting a counterinsurgency operation, and fighting international terrorism on Russian soil. Each of these terms expresses how the Russian government views the situation, but the use of so many terms suggests that Moscow is able or willing to define the Chechen problem more precisely.

And that has provided an opening for the kind of analysis General Dudnik has made, an analysis that suggests that the roots of the Chechen challenge are inherently political and that Moscow will only be able to resolve that challenge through political rather than military means.

By drawing an analogy with the Baltic countries, Dudnik is implicitly warning Russian officials not to assume that victories on the battlefield or the arrest of Chechen leaders will end the Chechen yearning for freedom and independence. Such victories will only buy the Russian authorities a little time until the Chechens are able to resume their challenge to Moscow.

Chechen history would seem to provide ample support for Dudnik's analysis. In the 18th century, the Chechens resisted Russian encroachment under Mansur. In the 19th century, they supported Shamil in his fight against the Russian empire. In the early Soviet period, they resisted Soviet Russian reoccupation. And in 1933-34, they participated in a North Caucasus revolt against Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

When Stalin ordered their mass deportation to Central Asia on 23 February 1944, the Chechens fortunes appeared to be exhausted. Almost half of the Chechen men, women, and children sent in boxcars from their ancestral homeland died either on the way or upon arrival.

But after Stalin's death, the Chechens returned. And as the Soviet Union collapsed, they declared their independence from the USSR. In the decade since, Russian forces have twice tried to break the Chechens to their will. And most recently, Russian President Putin has been claiming a kind of victory there as part of an effort to build his own authority.

But on this anniversary, Dudnik's words serve as a reminder of how far from defeating the Chechens Moscow still is. As the general points out, Putin may "need this war, but Russia does not." The price of continuing to pursue a political conflict by military means, Dudnik suggests, is simply "too high."

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