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Russia: Experts Criticize Aggressive Foreign Policy

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia has adopted a more aggressive foreign-policy stance following Moscow's hostage crisis last month. The government is insisting that Denmark extradite Chechen separatist envoy Akhmed Zakaev and vows to pressure Qatar, Turkey, and Georgia to hand over other separatists. The Kremlin is calling the hostage crisis Russia's 11 September, with President Vladimir Putin saying Russia will fight terrorists wherever they may be. But critics say the Kremlin, venting its postcrisis rage, appears to be following Washington's lead: More and more often, it justifies its actions as part of the fight against terrorism.

Moscow, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- If Moscow had its way, the international community would list 23 October next to 11 September.

That was the day 50 heavily armed Chechen fighters took around 800 people hostage in a Moscow theater staging a popular musical. When the crisis ended three days later, at least 118 hostages were dead, all but two of them from the effects of a sedative gas pumped into the theater to knock out the hostage takers, many of whom held explosives detonators in their hands.

From the beginning of the crisis, President Vladimir Putin made clear Moscow would not negotiate with the hostage takers, as some had hoped. He also indicated the Kremlin would pursue its three-year-old military campaign in Chechnya with renewed vigor.

Speaking to his cabinet last week, Putin defended the Chechen campaign as an antiterrorist operation and said his country would work to fight terrorism wherever it is found. "Russia will respond with measures appropriate to the threats wherever there are terrorists, organizations of these criminals, or their ideological or financial sponsors," Putin said.

But critics of the war in Chechnya say the hostage crisis is a humiliating reminder of the government's inability to resolve the brutal conflict, despite the Kremlin's claims that the war had effectively ended more than a year ago.

Others call the crisis a blow to all humanity. The pro-Kremlin "Itogi" magazine said 11 September and 23 October would "set out the global vector of development for the entire international community."

It is clear that Russia plans to place itself firmly alongside the United States in the antiterrorism camp. Russia's justice minister told an EU delegation of judicial and law-enforcement officials in Moscow today that there should be no "double standards" on terrorism and that the war in Chechnya is a legitimate antiterrorist operation.

Such comments, as well as those of the Russian president a week earlier, reflect what is being called the "Putin doctrine," a new security concept now being drafted by Russian officials. It appears to be a page right out of U.S. President George W. Bush's book, taking the tone of his much-quoted post-11 September phrase, "You're either with us or against us."

It was in that spirit that Moscow vigorously protested the holding of a two-day World Chechen Congress in the Danish capital Copenhagen, threatening to boycott a European Union summit scheduled to be held there in November.

The Kremlin said the "terrorist rebel wing" of the Chechen separatists had planned to stage the hostage operation to coincide with the conference, which was attended by the "terrorist political wing."

Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov denied ordering the hostage operation and has condemned terrorism in general.

The European Union responded quickly to Moscow's threats, moving the upcoming meeting to Brussels. Denmark also accommodated Moscow by arresting Maskhadov envoy Akhmed Zakaev, who was in Copenhagen for the Chechen conference.

Police in Copenhagen said they would hold Zakaev for 13 days pending a decision to extradite him to Russia, which has sent over what it says are documents proving his terrorist activities during the last decade.

The Danish action did not stop the powerful pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party from declaring a boycott of Danish goods.

Moscow said it would also crank up the pressure on other countries. It has asked Qatar to extradite Chechen rebel leader and financier Zelimkhan Yanderbiev and said it would also request extraditions from Turkey and Georgia, which it has long accused of harboring rebels.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko chastised Tbilisi on 1 November. "The Georgian side was rather quick to extradite to the United States international terrorists connected with Al-Qaeda. This is exactly what should be done in these cases. The [Russian] Foreign Ministry firmly insists that Georgia must implement the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and Georgia and extradite terrorists who have committed crimes on Russian territory," Yakovenko said.

In Azerbaijan, Moscow has also applauded Baku for closing a Chechen separatist cultural mission that was home to a number of Chechen refugees. Azerbaijani authorities have also shut down Chechen-language schools.

But Yakov Ettinger, a member of Moscow's Bureau for Human Rights organization, said the many comparisons between "Chechen terrorism" and terrorism in other parts of the world such as the Middle East are inaccurate because violent acts by Chechens are a response to brutal Russian oppression. "We are witnesses of how that force, carried out against the Chechen population from the end of 1994, in its turn has given birth to the frightening force expressed in the tragic events [of the hostage crisis] that we all suffered through. So the evaluation of this terrorism needs a differentiated approach," Ettinger said.

Moscow launched its first campaign in Chechnya in 1994 after Chechen leader Djokhar Dudaev declared independence from Russia. Russian forces took the capital Grozny at great cost but were dislodged in 1996. Moscow agreed to a peace deal in 1997, after which the region enjoyed de facto independence.

Then-Prime Minister Putin launched a second offensive in 1999 after Chechen rebels staged incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Daghestan. A series of apartment-building bombings in Russia that killed around 300 people were also blamed on Chechens, despite the lack of convincing proof.

Putin promised a quick end to the war, but three years later, there appears to be no end in sight to the conflict.

Chechen rebels are fighting a guerrilla war from their hideouts in the Caucasus mountains. Undisciplined and poorly equipped Russian soldiers, meanwhile, have been accused of committing numerous rapes, murders, torture, and arbitrary arrests among the civilian population.

Ettinger said the authorities' inability or desire not to put an end to the conflict has led to the rise of an entire generation of Chechens knowing little but violence. Unlike their elders, Ettinger said, younger rebels have few ties to Russia and favor terrorist tactics.

Duma Deputy and veteran human rights defender Sergei Kovalev said Moscow's attempts to add fighting the war in Chechnya to its list of foreign-policy goals shows that the Kremlin is not really interested in fighting terrorism as much as winning political points at home. "If the Kremlin authorities were really aiming for a peaceful resolution of the [Chechen] conflict, would they come out with -- excuse my choice of words -- insulting demands to Denmark, Turkey, and so on? These are demands made on the government of a democratic country to ban a public event," Kovalev said.

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky writes in today's "The Moscow Times" that the Russian position "didn't change one iota" following the hostage crisis, which only laid bare the "terrible consistency" of the Kremlin's political philosophy.

Kagarlitsky adds that in hitching itself more closely to the rhetoric of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Moscow is not acting alone.

Washington is only too glad for the analogy to its own actions, because Moscow will be less able to criticize Washington's own objectives, chief of which is military intervention in Iraq.

Ettinger said the United States' unconditional support for Moscow during the hostage crisis -- as opposed to the response from more-reserved European countries -- was dictated by a desire to pin down Russian policy. In return for U.S. support, including an announcement by the U.S. State Department that it may list several organizations connected to Chechen separatists as terrorist groups, the White House hopes Russia will not vote against military action in Iraq in the United Nations Security Council.

Pro-Kremlin analysts, usually more critical of the United States and more open regarding Europe, have, meanwhile, changed tack, accusing European countries, generally opposed to both the war in Chechnya and an attack on Iraq, of being soft on terrorism.

"The United States," writes Politika Foundation President Vyacheslav Nikonov in the 2 November edition of "Trud," "displayed greater understanding and solidarity." That may reflect a "rapprochement," the analyst adds, while Russia's relations with EU countries "may face greater problems."

Such attitudes, writes Kagarlitsky, reflect the fact that "the 'war on terrorism' slogan has become an ideological skeleton key that can be used to justify any actions that might seem dubious from the perspective of international law and democratic norms."