Chechnya, Crimea, and Western Realpolitik

by Alex Doherty

Britain's reactions to the crimes of the Putin regime in Chechnya tell us much about the sincerity of western concerns regarding Ukrainian sovereignty.

First published: 10 April, 2014 | Category: Foreign policy

In a recent Guardian article Tariq Ali described the contrasting reaction of the West to the largely bloodless Russian takeover of the Crimea and Putin's brutal war in Chechnya in the early 2000s. Whilst the annexation of the Crimea has inspired stern condemnation from American and European leaders, Russia's war in Chechnya was instead treated with remarkable indulgence by the West. As Ali notes the explanation is not to be found in the West's dilatory embrace of the principle of the inviolability of state sovereignty, nor over concern regarding Russia's human rights records. Instead the explanation can be located in the end of Russian compliance with Western strategic aims in the mid- to late 2000s, as Putin sought to reassert traditional Russian geopolitical goals in the wake of perceived humiliation during the Yeltsin era. Whilst Putin proved a willing collaborator with the West in the early years of the War on Terror (which helped to legitimise Russia's own war against insurgent forces in the Caucasus) his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his blunt dismissal of the chosen pretext of the United States and her co-belligerents initiated the souring of relations which reached its nadir in recent weeks.

The contrast between western reactions to the Chechen war and the Crimean crisis is one of innumerable examples that illustrate the absence of any genuinely moral dimension to the decision making calculus of western policy makers. The western commentariat easily perceives this regarding official enemies (and recalcitrant former allies in the case of Putin) but finds itself unable to comprehend that the same absence of moral qualms also characterises the apparently benevolent West. As Ali accurately comments: “In the calculus of western interests there is no suffering, whatever its scale, which cannot be justified. Chechens, Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis are of little importance.”

In October 2004 I wrote an article on the British government's response to Russian atrocities in Chechnya, contrasting said response with western condemnation of the Beslan school massacre carried out by Chechen separatist terrorists in September of that year. It is perhaps instructive to revisit this period in some depth, for it allows us to compare the response of the British government and media to three different crimes – those that the Russian military carried out in Chechnya around the turn of the new millennium, when Putin was viewed as a valued friend of the West; those of the Chechen rebels in the same period and those of Russia in the Ukraine today, which are currently inspiring western politicians to make comparisons between Russian actions and those of the Third Reich in eastern Europe in the late 1930s. The following comments are an adapted and updated  version of that article.



October 14th 2004 marked the end of forty days of mourning in the town of Beslan for the more than 300 victims of the school siege carried out by Chechen separatist terrorists. In the UK the period of interest in the massacre was a good deal shorter – with the media moving on to the latest horror stories from Iraq. However at the time of the siege there was intense media attention with blanket television and newspaper coverage, both during the event itself and in the days afterwards. The day after the siege's bloody conclusion schoolchildren across the UK observed a minute’s silence as did spectators at the weekend's football matches. There was also vociferous condemnation of the hostage takers from British political leaders accompanied by declarations of sympathy for the Russian people. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his condolences: "We share Russia's grief in this dark hour for their country and particularly with the people of Beslan for the terrible atrocity they have suffered…We mourn with them and we express our total and complete solidarity."  Blair's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw commented that "This is almost beyond belief…There are some things which happen amongst human kind which are almost inexplicable according to any basic moral norms - Nazism was and this is."

In coverage typifying the media's approach to other terrorist atrocities of the period (the attacks of 9/11 most obviously) the Western media largely eschewed analysis of the context of the Beslan massacre. However, the major contributory factor was hardly difficult to identify - namely the extreme brutality of the war waged by the Russian federation against separatist Chechen rebels and the Chechen civilian population during the second Chechen war that began in August 1999.  This conflict left tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of Chechen dead and the capital city Grozny reduced to rubble. Russian forces deliberately targeted civilians and were responsible for numerous massacres of civilians as well as widespread looting and rape. Just a week before the first meeting between Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin in the year 2000 the Observer carried a story on the massacre of more than 300 people in the Chechen village of Katyr Yurt (a crime comparable to the Beslan disaster although not accompanied by solemn mourning and angry denunciations in the UK). The Observer described the aftermath of the Russian assault:

The Observer…went to Katyr Yurt and saw what was left: a landscape as if from the Somme, streets smashed to matchwood, trees shredded, blood-stained cellars, the survivors in a frenzy of fear. The village was littered with the remains of Russian 'vacuum' bombs - fuel-air explosives that can suck your lungs inside out, their use against civilians banned by the Geneva Convention. 

In contrast to the British political class's condemnation of Russian aggression against the Ukraine the British government remained highly supportive of the Putin government during the period of its worst crimes. Shortly after the Katyr Yurt massacre Tony Blair arrived in St. Petersburg for his meeting with the then acting Russian president. After talks the two men went on a sight- seeing tour of St. Petersburg followed by an evening at the opera. The visit was widely interpreted in Russia as a sign of Britain's approval for the soon to be elected Putin and an endorsement of his brutal policy in Chechnya. The apparent triviality of Russian atrocities was made clear by Tony Blair's official spokesman who informed the press that "Russia is too important a country to ignore or isolate over Chechnya".

Blair himself emphasized the insignificance of the war, explaining that it is "important to realise that Chechnya isn't Kosovo". Unwittingly Blair's comment was quite accurate: the numbers killed in Chechnya far exceeded those attributed to Slobadan Milosevic in Kosovo (though the appellation “genocidal” was never attached to Putin during this period as it was to the Serbian leader). Moreover whilst the Kosovan capital Pristina may not have been anyone's idea of a holiday destination in 1999, it had not been reduced to resembling Dresden circa 1945 – as was the case with Grozny. Two days before the first meeting between Blair and Putin a BBC reporter described the devastation in the Chechen capital as "breathtaking, with not a single building intact." Untroubled by such trifling matters, on his return flight to London Blair was full of praise for Mr Putin, declaring him to be "impressive" and "highly intelligent… with a focused view of what he wants to achieve in Russia." 

The following month Human Rights Watch wrote to Tony Blair informing him that:

Your meeting with President-elect Putin last month in St. Petersburg signalled that Britain was eager to play a leading role in developing a strong relationship with Russia in the post-Yeltsin era, but that it was unwilling to use this relationship as leverage to secure better human rights compliance by the Russian government.

The same month as Blair's visit to St. Petersburg the horror of the Russian campaign in Chechnya was becoming increasingly apparent. Although Russian atrocities were soft- peddled by the British media (if atrocities of any kind were now occurring in the Crimea they would of course be front page news) throughout March 2000 there were stories in the British press on the release of the Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky - arrested in Chechnya by Russian troops, tortured and held in one of the notorious Russian "filtration camps".

In an interview with the Sunday Times on March 5th he described the condition of his fellow inmates:

I was kept in a chamber 17 together with 13 young Chechens… They had all been severely beaten. One of them had only one tooth left. Another looked as if his entire body had been broken and would never function properly again….

In a news brief on the 30th of March the Times reported on the network of prison camps the Russians had established across Chechnya:

The "filtration" camp at Chernokozovo, north of Grozny… has become infamous. But, according to Amnesty, camps also exist in the town of Urus Martan and in the villages of Znamenskoye, Tolstoi Yurt and Goragorsk. Two more are located in the Leninsky district of Grozny… At Chernokozovo, Chechen civilians continue to suffer despite official claims to the contrary. Amnesty obtained evidence that a 14-year-old girl was taken off a bus at a Russian checkpoint. She was repeatedly raped and tortured by camp guards and died as a result… men, women and children have been raped, beaten with hammers and clubs, and tortured with electric shocks and tear gas. Some have teeth sawn off and are sometimes beaten around both ears to burst eardrums.

Following Putin's formal assumption of the Russian presidency Blair invited Putin to London, his first presidential visit to the West. Responding to the concerns of demonstrators who had arrived to protest the Russian president's presence in the British capital, Blair's official spokesman (now a regular fixture of light entertainment television) Alistair Campbell informed the media that Tony Blair was "not going to apologise for developing a good relationship with an important world leader." Talks with Blair were followed by tea with the Queen which elated the Russian media. According to Itar-Tass:

Putin's reception by the Queen is not only a sign of her special attention to Russia, but also a signal for the whole world that the Russian leader is one of the most influential and respected international politicians.

The now defunct Russian television channel TV6 explained that "London is being offered the exclusive role of the bridge between Moscow and the West, and it looks like the British don't object." 

In November 2000 the two leaders met for a third time, this time in Moscow. The British press was most excited by the apparent bonhomie between the two leaders:

President Putin, the iceman of Russian politics, turned positively skittish in the company of Tony Blair yesterday during a Moscow summit which was short on substance but long on mutual admiration. The two men exchanged fulsome compliments in public and avoided anything that put at risk their personal rapport. The Russian leader, not known as a raconteur, even cracked a rare joke in the Prime Minister's honour….

Whilst Blair and Putin were swapping jokes and compliments in the Kremlin Putin's army was busy in the Caucuses. Addressing the Council of Europe Oleg Orlov, representing the Russian Memorial human rights group, described one of the many exploits of Russian federal troops during the autumn of 2000:

On 24th November, on a road leading to the village of Davidenko, a military vehicle triggered a land-mine - one soldier was killed and two were wounded. Soon after this event, close to the scene of the explosion, an inhabitant of this village, Hussain Gasiyev stepped off a passenger bus. In the presence of the other passengers on the bus, soldiers arrested Gasiyev, placed a hood over his head, seated him in an armed military vehicle and transported him to an unknown location. On 24th November, the body of Hussain Gasiyev was discovered on the outskirts of the village of Davidenko. His nose had been cut off, his eyes had been poked-out and on his neck was evidence of a deep knife-wound, the upper part of his head was simply a mash of flesh and bones and his wrists and fingers had all been broken. 

In spite of such horrors in June of 2003 Britain honoured Putin with a full state visit, an honour not bestowed upon a Russian head of state since the visit of Tsar Nicholas I in 1844. At the time of the visit Human Rights Watch wrote to Tony Blair informing him that:

research and government statistics confirm that the human rights situation is worsening, not improving…at least two people "disappear" every day." Moreover "Not a single forced disappearance case has reached the courts. 

As part of the state occasion Mr Putin had the pleasure of a ceremonial open top carriage ride through the streets of London with the Queen who later informed Mr Putin that the partnership between Britain and Russia was of "profound importance".

In March 2003 Putin forced through a referendum changing the Chechen constitution. According to the new constitution the Chechens would give up their struggle for independence in return for very limited autonomy within the Russian federation. The referendum, carried out under martial law whilst disappearances and killings continued, was widely condemned, and considered so farcical that no election monitoring group agreed to send observers. The new constitution was passed in a vote with an 85% turnout –- though witnesses described empty polling stations and The Council of Europe's special representative on Chechnya resigned in protest. More than 80% of the Chechen population supposedly voted in favour of the new constitution – a significantly more implausible outcome than the results of the recent Moscow enforced referendum in the Crimea. Tony Blair however was full of praise for Putin's democratic initiative:

Russia is absolutely right in trying to solve [the problem] through political dialogue. The referendum is a good step forward. 

The human rights community was less impressed; Human Rights Watch again wrote to the British Prime Minister regarding his endorsement of the fraudulent vote:

your favourable comment on the March referendum, delivered amid a wave of unmerited praise by European and American officials, belied the atrocious circumstances in which the referendum was held and in which ordinary Chechens continue to live.

Whilst plainly illegitimate, the recent referendum in the Crimea was not at least carried out in the wake of mass slaughter. Yet it is the latter vote which inspires western obloquy whilst the former event garnered praise (some commentators have also noted that the first post invasion elections in Iraq, carried out under military occupation during a brutal counterinsurgency war, were not treated with anything like the scepticism greeted by the Crimean referendum).

It should be stressed that the British government did not merely confine itself to ignoring the Russian military's depredations in Chechnya. Tony Blair repeatedly went out of his way to legitimise and defend Putin's Chechnya policy. Following the attacks of 9/11 he was quick to equate the Chechen separatists with al-Qaeda, likening the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings to the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon: "People sometimes forget there were hundreds killed in Moscow before September 11". This apparently left Putin looking both "surprised and grateful". On another occasion Blair claimed that Chechen fighters had been operating in Iraq. Blair offered no evidence for this claim, and none has been forthcoming since, but it surely served to buttress Moscow's narrative of the Chechen insurgency as nothing but the product of Islamist radicalism.

Whilst human rights groups consistently reported either stasis or decline in the behaviour of Russian forces Blair did essentially nothing aside from occasionally "raising human rights concerns" (the standard boilerplate response to the human rights violations of important allies) with his Russian counterpart.

Whilst the British response helped to shield Russian atrocities in Chechnya from greater international scrutiny it was also of little service to the Russian civilian population for whom British leaders professed so much concern following the massacre at Beslan. Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denbar described the behaviour of Russian veterans who returned home with the skills they acquired in Chechnya.

Tens of thousands of police and security forces have done tours of duty in Chechnya, after which they return to their home regions, bringing with them learned patterns of brutality and impunity. Several Russian human rights groups have begun to note a "Chechen syndrome" among police who served in Chechnya - a particular pattern of physical abuse and other dehumanising treatment of people in custody. Russians already face serious risk of torture in police custody. The Chechnya experience is thus undermining efforts to promote the rule of law in Russia's criminal justice system. 

The Anglo-Russian love affair did of course eventually come to an end, but this had nothing to do with Russian crimes in Chechnya (indeed the decline in Russian-Western relations paralleled improvements in the human rights situation in Chechnya following Russia's defeat of the Chechen insurgency) nor the increasing domestic authoritarianism of the Putin regime. Instead it was Russia's reassertion of itself as, if not a world power, then a significant regional one with its own sphere of interest in the former Soviet states and parts of the Middle East that led to the souring of Russian-Western relations. It is neither violation of international law, nor human rights abuses that provokes the West's ire but rather Russia's refusal to continue to facilitate western hegemony in the Middle East and its opposition to the expansion of Nato to Russia's border states that explains the developing enmity. It remains an open question as to whether the astonishingly hypocritical comments of western politicians regarding the sanctity of Ukrainian sovereignty are the product of cynical chutzpah or of the immense ideological discipline that characterises the Western media and political class; according to which it is enemy states that deal in realpolitik whilst we are guided by more lofty ideals.

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a post-graduate student in the war studies department of King's College London. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7

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