the russians still have not learned their lession from their afghanistan war or the american 9/11 mess.

Conflict in Chechnya wearing on Russians

David E. Hoffman
Washington Post
Sept. 2, 2004 12:00 AM

MOSCOW - On the eve of a decision to put down a separatist rebellion in the southern province of Chechnya 10 years ago, Oleg Lobov, one of President Boris Yeltsin's advisers, said that what Yeltsin needed for political purposes was "a small victorious war."

Today, that conflict rages beyond the borders of Chechnya, neither small nor victorious for Russia or the rebels. Wednesday's raid on a school in neighboring North Ossetia, in which fighters took hundreds of hostages on the first day of classes to demand the release of Chechen prisoners, underscored yet again the heavy toll this war has taken on Russians and Chechens alike.

Thrust to the Russian presidency in 1999 on a wave of popular support for stronger military action, Vladimir Putin dispatched tens of thousands of troops to Chechnya. With the Russian public furious over apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities that the Kremlin blamed on Chechens, he promised to be tougher than Yeltsin.

He vowed in earthy slang to wipe out the separatists, but Russia has been seized this week and last with painful reminders that he has not: two airlines apparently blown up in midflight, a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station, schoolchildren taken as hostages.

"The military policy that the Russian Federation is so stubbornly pursuing in Chechnya is not just a dead-end policy, but a policy that merely aggravates the Caucasus crisis," Tatyana Lokshina, program director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, told reporters.

Gennady Gudkov, a former senior officer in the KGB and now a member of the lower house of parliament, the state Duma, said, "This will go on until we ourselves learn how to prevent terrorist acts, until we learn how to carry out effective operations to destroy terrorists."

At the core of the long conflict has been resistance by Chechens, who are largely Muslim, to rule by Russia, which has refused to grant the region statehood. Some Russians expressed concern after the collapse of the Soviet Union that should Chechnya become independent, other regions would also seek to secede. Moscow made deals with regions such as Tatarstan for greatly expanded autonomy, but went to war with the Chechens.

Today a sense of fatigue and deadlock hangs over the conflict. In a decade of fighting, tens of thousands of people have died, a large share of them civilians. The Russians have used harsh occupation tactics, destroying villages and rounding up prisoners, according to human rights groups and witnesses, while the Chechens have turned, with increasing frequency, to suicide attacks on Russian civilian targets.

War and upheaval have marked Chechnya for decades. Early in the 19th century, the Russian Gen. Alexei Yermolov set about conquering Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, leveling Chechen villages and building lines of fortresses through the region.

But the Chechens fought back and were led by a legendary mountain fighter, Imam Shamil, for a quarter-century. Authors Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal observed in their 1998 book, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus, that "In fighting the Caucasian wars, the Russians committed many of the mistakes which have characterized them in the region before and since. ... Above all there was a constant underestimation of the people they were fighting against."

Their lands later incorporated into the Soviet Union, half a million Chechens and Ingush were suddenly deported by the dictator Josef Stalin to Kazakhstan during World War II, apparently out of fear that some would help the Nazis. They were free to return only after Stalin's death in 1953.

The latest conflict has its origins in the final years of the Soviet Union. The weakening of central authority gave rise to demands for autonomy in many regions. A former Soviet air force commander, Dzhokar Dudayev, took control in Chechnya and launched a separatist movement in 1991.

When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of that year, little attention was paid to events in Chechnya; Yeltsin was preoccupied in Moscow with the economic upheaval and a battle with parliament. Chechnya became a notorious zone for smuggling.

By 1994, faced with growing chaos, Yeltsin, surrounded by a small group of hard-liners, decided to act. On Nov. 26, the Russians sent tank columns to the Chechen capital, Grozny, in a bid to support opposition to Dudayev. The attack was a fiasco; Dudayev's fighters killed many soldiers and captured nearly two dozen.

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