Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Putin Doctrine

With the death of Slobodan Milosevic, announced today in The Hague, Vladimir Putin may be wondering, just a little, what the future holds in store for him. Jeremy Putley has just sent me the text of a review he has written of a book of essays on an important, but often overlooked aspect of the Chechen conflict -- the attempt by state authorities to cover their responsibility for genocide and atrocity under the cloak of "normalization".

The Imposition of a Fake Political Settlement in the Northern Caucasus: The 2003 Chechen Presidential Election.

Edited by Tanya Lokshina in collaboration with Ray Thomas and Mary Mayer
Published by IBIDEM, Euros29.90, available from

Tanya Lokshina and her fellow-authors have collaborated in writing a book that covers one brief episode in Chechnya’s sad history of warfare and inhumanity since Russia launched its first war on Chechnya in December 1994. The 2003 presidential election, as this book testifies, was a propaganda lie, a travesty, a fake from start to finish. But the strategy of stage-managing parliamentary elections in a climate of all-pervading fear is an aspect of the dishonesty that exists at the core of the Putin strategy for Chechnya. In this respect as in others, the era of Putinism is the inheritor of the traditions of Russian leaders since the time of Joseph Stalin.

Putin’s Chechnya strategy can best be understood by reference to his doctrinal territorial imperative, which bears similarities to the Brezhnev doctrine of the nineteen-sixties. The latter doctrine was that any threat to socialism in one country affected all the states of the Soviet block, which would not stand by, but would instead intervene militarily; this doctrine led to the infamous Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1968. The Putin doctrine is in the same tradition, in which the ends justify the means – any means at all, including all-out war such as was launched in Chechnya by Vladimir Putin in 1999 as prime minister and then carried on by him as president. The faking of elections is a trivial crime by comparison with what preceded them, but they are in an unwavering continuum. There is nothing enigmatic or hard to understand about Putinism.

Faked elections have been central to Vladimir Putin’s long-term Chechnya strategy. In March 2003 Russia imposed a managed constitutional referendum, with results that were transparently unbelievable, in order to make an ostensibly legitimate foundation for the election that took place in October 2003 when the Russian-sponsored candidate, Akhmat Kadyrov, was proclaimed as the victor. This pretence of democracy was followed by the assassination, carried out by persons unknown, of the pretended victor in May 2004. To replace him, a further election took place at which Alu Alkhanov was declared to have been elected president of Chechnya. Subsequently, in November 2005, parliamentary elections in Chechnya were stage-managed by the Kremlin, and the United Russia party is now in a ruling majority in Chechnya’s parliament. That parliament nominated Ramzan Kadyrov, the 29-year-old son of the assassinated Akhmat Kadyrov, to be the prime minister, and the appointment was ratified by Alu Alkhanov in March 2006.

All that has happened is in a sequence which may be summarised as, first, bomb the state capital, Grozny, into a state of total ruin; second, rule Chechnya with a military iron fist, in an era justly described as state terrorism (1), of which aspects are continuing under the regime of Ramzan Kadyrov, and wage a war against the secessionists in which anything goes, including targeted kidnapping, murder, torture, extortion and savagery of a kind not seen in Europe since the Nazi era; third, introduce “Chechenisation” of the conflict, whereby some Chechens are legitimised as a pro-Russian militia, to fight the anti-Russian militants; fourth, make declarations of “normalisation” and claims of an end to the fighting; and as the concluding stage, fake elections. Throughout, the judicial system has been effectively in abeyance, so that crimes were, and remain, unpunished in a climate of savagery and fear.

The strategy, unimaginative and cruel in its conceptualisation as in its carrying out, has been held to rigorously and with a firmness of purpose that has not been affected by world opinion. Neither has the wave of terrorist events that resulted from the implementation of Putin’s strategy – and especially from the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian military – affected the Russian president’s determination to stay the course. In particular it is to be noted that the response to terrorism, under Putin, is to react to hostage-taking decisively by killing all the hostage-takers even if a large number of the hostages are killed or injured as a result, as happened both at the Beslan School No. 1 in 2004 and at the “Nord-Ost” Dubrovka theatre siege in 2002. (The Duma in March 2006 passed an anti-terrorism law to make it lawful to shoot down any plane that has been taken over by terrorists. Anyone thinking of boarding a plane in Russia should be in no doubts as to this being ruthlessly carried out.) Thus the threat of more terrorism would not be likely to cause president Putin to deflect his course. He has always believed that - in his own words - his “historical mission” is to keep Russia whole, and that there are no means that could not be justified to achieve that objective. Putin believes history will judge him favourably.

The Putin doctrine

Vladimir Putin is not the heir to a political tradition. The era in which he grew up and came to pre-eminence was not characterised by either an understanding of legality or adherence to recognised legal norms. Whether or not Putin had some formal education in the law, it was not sufficient to prevent him from ignoring a legal fact of over-riding importance. That fact, which represents the essential bone of contention in the Chechnya conflict, is the status of Chechnya as a separate country, a status that was established on 27 November 1990 when the Supreme Soviet of the Chechen-Ingush Republic adopted a Declaration on State Sovereignty, and lawfully seceded from the USSR. Akhmed Zakayev, the well-known exiled Chechen representative, explained very clearly, at a London conference on 25 November 2005, the implication of this Declaration: “So, by the time the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, the Chechen Republic had existed for more than a year as a sovereign state, recognised in the legal system of the USSR, equal to all the ‘Union Republics’ (Russia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Baltic states and others).”

The war launched by Russia in 1994 against the sovereign state of Chechnya was a war of aggression at the end of which, in 1996, the aggressor acknowledged in effect that it was defeated. Zakayev again: “In January 1997, with the active methodological and logistical support of the OSCE and in accordance with the Chechen Constitution of 1992, Chechnya held presidential and parliamentary elections, officially recognised by the Council of Europe which sent a large number of observers, and the Russian Federation. On 12th May 1997 the most important document in the whole history of relations between Russia and Chechnya was signed. The Peace Treaty laid down the basic principles for relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Independent experts consider it both in form and in content to be a treaty between equal entities, and to be clearly international in character. A state does not sign a treaty with its subject.” The election of May 1997 was the last time an election was held in Chechnya that was not an intrinsic part of the imposition of a fake political settlement.

The Chechnya strategy that has been carried out with such determination evolved as a means to ensure that the perceived “territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation was not impaired, and did not recognise that, de facto and de jure, Chechnya was already not a part of the Russian Federation at the time when the latter came into existence. The Putin doctrine of territorial integrity, as far as Chechnya is concerned, was flawed from its conception, in depending on an unwarranted and unlawful breach of a legal status quo ante. In this fact is the basis for denying the validity of, first, the Putin doctrine insofar as Chechnya is concerned, then the legality of the military interventions by Russia in Chechnya since 1994, and now the imposition of a pseudo-political settlement in the country.

Commentators are in general agreement that when President Putin assumed office the tasks he set himself included, as a priority, the return of order to his country, and that there was a challenge to the achievement of this objective in the disorder that was prevalent both within Chechnya and, particularly, as represented by the 1999 invasion of neighbouring Dagestan. “I was convinced that if we didn’t stop the extremists right away, we’d be facing a second Yugoslavia on the entire territory of the Russian Federation – the Yugoslavisation of Russia.” Putin’s nightmare scenario was, then(2), that his presidency would see the break-up of the Russian Federation. This was the background against which the Putin doctrine was formulated. The collapse of the USSR had been a catastrophe; only one thing could be worse, and that was a similar dismemberment of the Russian Federation, with constituent states seceding one after another. Putin and his advisers concluded that regardless of any other consideration the risk of such a break-up justified extreme measures to prevent it.(3)

The measures that have been taken by the Russian authorities – a term which of course includes President Putin as a principal actor and motivator, but which encompasses others in government and in the military – have amounted collectively to a crime of major proportions with many component parts. Putin’s war has aroused worldwide indignation, disgust and outrage. The initial phase involved blanket and non-selective bombing and shelling of towns and villages where peaceful civilians resided – including ethnic Russians – many of whom were killed, while more fled. Lokshina’s book contains an authoritative chapter written by Alexander Cherkasov, of the human rights group Memorial, with the best estimates I have seen of the statistical aspects of the second Chechnya war. “During the first months,” he writes, “up to 350,000 of the approximately 800,000 residents of the Chechen Republic fled its administrative borders.” In the capital, Grozny, in January 2000 after it had been stormed by the federal forces fewer than 40,000 residents remained.

Cherkasov points out that the Russian government did not make any attempt to count civilian casualties in the war of 1994-96, nor after 1999. Many figures have been quoted, some greatly exaggerated; a figure of 250,000 dead in the two wars is sometimes repeated, but without there being adequate substantiation of such a number. Cherkasov’s conclusion is rationally arrived at: “the total number of peaceful residents of the Chechen Republic who perished during the two wars may have reached 70,000.” He admits that the accuracy of these estimates is not high. With reference to the second war, he concludes: “The total number of civilians killed, including those who disappeared, adds up to between 14.8 to 24.1 thousand.”

Of course there is much more to be said about events in Chechnya than the simple statistics of the dead civilians. Their deaths amounted to mass murder - on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War - in relation to which the French newspaper Le Monde observed: “If Saddam Hussein is guilty of crimes against humanity for his treatment of the Kurds, so is Vladimir Putin for his treatment of Chechnya.” This much is clear.

Putin’s war and all of its consequences could have been avoided. The war came about because of a dreadful political inadequacy – political inexperience, a preference for autocratic means, a lack of imagination – in Russia’s leadership. The former British foreign minister, Lord Judd, who has observed events in Chechnya at close quarters, has commented: “A peace process in Northern Ireland became possible only when British governments were prepared to talk to the political representatives of the IRA on condition that, for their part, they were prepared to demonstrate their commitment to finding a political solution.” That this came about showed a will and a commitment on both sides to politics as a means of conciliating different interests. In Chechnya, there was no such will on the Russian side, which long beforehand had decided to adopt a hard-line, totalitarian approach to resolving matters. Tragically, real opportunities were missed of involving the moderate Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, in a political solution. Instead he was branded an “international terrorist” and after years of protracted fighting he was killed in March 2005.

The verdict of history on Putin’s presidency will, I trust, take into account the real nature of his intervention in Chechnya, which – as he himself occasionally seems uneasily aware – may come to be seen eventually in its true character. Much has been done to keep things hidden, and much use has been made of deceptive terminology. The second war which continues sporadically to this day has always been called an “anti-terrorist operation” by President Putin and his ministers, but this is not what it is. The truth of the matter, now and as it has always been, is that it is a war of secession. The protagonists are, on the Chechen side, secessionist fighters whose armed struggle for independence was carried on under the legitimate leadership of President Aslan Maskhadov until his death in March 2005 at the hands of the Russian federal forces, and is now carried on under the leadership of his successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. After his death President Maskhadov was described on Russian national television by the head of the Russian FSB as an “international terrorist”. He was nothing of the kind. He was a properly elected leader engaged in an entirely legitimate struggle for the independence of his country, and his opposition to the use of terrorism was a matter of public record.

The secessionist Chechen fighters are invariably described by the Russian government as terrorists or bandits. Now there have been terrorist atrocities that occurred both before the second Chechnya war and during it, and these have been attributed to, or more often claimed by, Shamil Basayev, whose status as a terrorist is beyond question. There can be no defence for the terrorist attacks that have been carried out against Russian civilian targets, and they are rightly condemned as morally indefensible. They were so condemned by the late Aslan Maskhadov and by what remained of his government. But to state the truth clearly: the emergence of terrorism as a monstrous offshoot of an unequal war of secession was a predictable response to the use of state terror by the government of the Russian Federation, which has thereby itself become the originator of terrorism. It has been a case of terror begetting terror. The terrorist methods of a Shamil Basayev are utterly indefensible; not less so are those of the Putin government.

When a government engages in wholesale kidnap and extortion, torture and murder, the employment of death squads, the burial of victims in mass graves – as deliberately chosen methods of suppressing dissent and creating fear in the population – it does so nominally as the agent of an entire people, who are thereby involved, vicariously, and represented by the actions of the leaders they have elected. That such methods constitute an abuse of authority goes without saying.

To some degree the Russian people have been kept unaware, by deliberate government policy, of the real nature what has been done in their name in Chechnya. Like the rest of us, they have been on the receiving end of propaganda including the misleading characterisation of the war as involving “international terrorism”, a mendacious expression used by Putin repeatedly to disguise the true character of the secessionist struggle of the Chechen people in which fighters are described as “mercenaries” or “bandits”. There have been foreign sympathisers from among the Chechen diaspora in countries such as Turkey and Jordan, who have gone voluntarily to help the Chechens in their unequal fight. Describing them as mercenaries is a typical slur. When one considers the conduct of the war, in particular the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian side, the parallel that comes to mind is the example of the international volunteers who went to fight the Fascists in Spain in the 1930s.

The popularity of Putin among Russians remains astonishingly high. But Stalin too was a popular president until after his death. And just as Stalin had his apologists in the west, so Putin now has the support of writers and politicians who are too willing to forgive crimes that no one has the right to forgive. The conduct of a war against a defenceless, unarmed civilian population, resulting in massive loss of life; the numberless rapes, murders, tortures and ‘disappearances’ perpetrated by the federal forces sent by Putin’s defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, to Chechnya; the similar crimes of the FSB ‘security’ forces sent there by the responsible minister, Nikolai Patrushev; by the policy of ‘Chechenisation’, the creation of a civil war between opposing sides; the abuse of power involved in the imposition of a fake political settlement; the use of force where dialogue was required; the criminalisation of the armed forces; the poisoning of the population and the environment; the destruction of a civilisation – these, and more, are Putin’s crimes in Chechnya. Add to this tally the deaths of Russian soldiers in Chechnya, which now outnumber the dead of the Soviet Union’s war of conquest in Afghanistan. This fact is suppressed by the authorities, for whom the truth is something to be kept from the Russian people. The true figure, for both Chechnya wars, is in the region of 10,000 dead Russian soldiers.

The war for secession has been lost. The silent majority of the remaining Chechens want peace and stability, and they are entitled to it. Putin’s cruel strategy has won its victory, at a terrible cost. Chechnya remains part of the Russian Federation, subject to the joint, uneasy rule of the Russian army of occupation and that of prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who, like the war criminal Vladimir Shamanov, has received from the Russian president the Hero of Russia medal. Ramzan the torturer, Ramzan the kidnapper, Ramzan the murderer – Ramzan, Hero of Russia.

When the leaders of the Group of Eight meet President Putin in July; when the leaders of the Council of Europe recognise Russia’s accession to the Presidency, in May; when writers and commentators discuss Russia and Russian affairs; when politicians and heads of state welcome the Russian leaders to their countries and their councils – what Russia has done in Chechnya to defile our new century should be remembered.


(1) On state terrorism, AndrĂ© Glucksmann, the French philosopher, was reported as having said the following, at a Berlin meeting in November 2005: “The problem is that if there is a predetermined seizure of hostages, torture and murder of the civilian population, carried out by the army, this army is a terrorist organisation. Such are the day-to-day activities of the Russian army in Chechnya and this is a well-known fact. The essence of their activities does not change because these criminals are wearing military uniform. They are deliberately carrying out terror, using weapons against women, children or unarmed adults…. They may perpetrate acts of terrorism in the name of nationalism, patriotism, racism or on orders of their government, but this changes nothing. The armed violence against unarmed people, which is being committed by the Russian army in Chechnya, comes under the true definition of terrorism.” (BBC Worldwide from the Chechenpress website)

(2) In an interview Putin gave to the Dutch media on 31 October 2005 he was asked: “Do you often wake at night with the thought that Russia could disintegrate?” to which he replied: “I never wake with such a thought. I do not even consider the possibility.” The thought no longer occurs to him as a possibility because the Putin doctrine, now fully internalised, implies that he would take all measures to prevent it, just as he unlawfully intervened in Chechnya to reverse its secession.

(3) In an interview in early 2000, Putin asked: “What’s the situation in the North Caucasus and in Chechnya today? It’s a continuation of the collapse of the USSR” He continued: “This is what I thought of the situation in August [1999], when the bandits attacked Dagestan: If we don’t put an immediate end to this, Russia will cease to exist. It was a question of preventing the collapse of the country.” These quotations are from First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (New York: Public Affairs, 2000) quoted in Matthew Evangelista’s The Chechen Wars: Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? (Brookings Institution, 2002).
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