Doing Well out of War

Jonathan Steele reflects on the stand-off between Russia and Chechnya

The Beslan school siege would seem to have closed the door on a political resolution of the war in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin was still palpitating with anger three days after the dénouement when he met a group of Western academics and journalists who had been invited before the siege on an expenses-paid trip to meet him. ‘Why should we talk to child-killers?’ Putin asked me. The question is one that goes down well with most Russians: it was repeated in essence several times in the conversation as well as in the televised broadcast in which the Russian president called for the ‘mobilisation’ of the nation against the enemy.

Putin’s willingness to talk to foreigners for three and a half hours – the meeting didn’t end until after midnight – was a message in itself. He wanted the world to understand that he had not merely refused to negotiate with the hostage-takers during the siege but that talks with the Chechen insurgents’ leadership were also taboo. He dismissed Aslan Maskhadov, the last freely elected Chechen president, as a man ‘who does not control the territory’. The next day the Kremlin announced a $10 million bounty for Maskhadov’s arrest or death, claiming he had masterminded the Beslan attack.

Yet, for all the president’s public toughness, the possibility of talks cannot be excluded. Disputes over territory between local people and outside rulers may be contained by war; they cannot be solved. Putin recognised this when he authorised one of his top generals to meet Maskhadov’s envoy three years ago. Although that encounter got nowhere, it established that negotiations are not unthinkable. Perhaps the Kremlin knows that ultimately it may need Maskhadov, however much it suits Putin to demonise him now. That, at any rate, would explain the strange fact that Maskhadov has never been captured by Russian forces, even though he is believed never to leave a small, non-mountainous area of Chechnya.

So the real questions for Chechnya are: how could talks start; who could convene them; who would attend; what would a peace deal include; and how could it be made to stick, given the collapse of the region’s economy, the huge war-driven brain-drain, and the militarisation of a generation which has never finished school and knows almost nothing but war. That said, the Kremlin still believes the benefits of continuing the war outweigh the costs. Putin, after all, inherited the Russian presidency in 2000 on the back of the war. Yeltsin made him prime minister the day after a group of Chechen insurgents, led by Shamil Basaev (who claimed responsibility for what happened at Beslan), seized two villages in neighbouring Dagestan. In response, Putin ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya, from which they had withdrawn in 1997.

Suspicions have swirled round Basaev’s 1999 offensive. Did the Russians have advance warning? Did they even encourage it? Boris Berezovsky, who was deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council under Yeltsin at the end of the first Chechen war, and helped to negotiate the 1997 deal with Maskhadov, believes they did. ‘There were people inside the FSB and the army who never accepted that peace. They continued to press Russia to take revenge,’ he said in a recent interview.

In the summer of 1999, Berezovsky, by then no longer a member of the government, says he was visited by a Chechen ally of Basaev, who asked him how Russia would react to a Chechen incursion into Dagestan. Berezovsky says he told his visitor it would be a crazy thing to do and would lose Chechens their international support. But when Berezovsky contacted Sergei Stepashin, Putin’s predecessor as prime minister, Stepashin is supposed to have told him to keep quiet because everything was under control. Berezovsky may be biased, but after he lost his job Stepashin himself told a Russian newspaper that the Kremlin had started planning a second invasion of Chechnya in March 1999, long before the Basaev offensive in Dagestan.

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