If there was any doubt that the forces of terror remain wholly indiscriminate in their campaign of mass murder, they ended Sept. 3, 2004. Coming almost three years to the day after the attacks on the United States, the slaughter of schoolchildren in Russia truly crossed every line of sanity. Like the Madrid train bombings, they showed that Europe is not immune to the terrorist menace. And perhaps most importantly, they shattered any illusions that Russia is a bystander in the U.S.-led war on international terrorism.
Many of America’s traditional allies have waged, and in some cases continue to wage, struggles against local terror groups: Britain vs. the IRA’s splinter factions, Spain vs. ETA and France vs. Corsican separatists, just to name a few. The key difference between these struggles and that which has become painfully clear in the city of Beslan is that the Russian people face an enemy with a truly global reach. This enemy has every intention of making Russia a major front in its renewed global offensive.
The war in Chechnya may have started in 1991 as a justifiable dispute over self-determination, but it has since morphed into something entirely different. Over the past decade, the conflict spread to much of the northern Caucasus, adopted tactics that violate the most basic laws of war and drew in elements of the al Qaeda network. If only for that last reason, it has to be viewed as part and parcel of the war on terror.
For al Qaeda, Chechnya today holds much the same appeal as Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s. In a lawless state with a barely functioning government, the opportunity to recruit militants and set up operations is logistically effortless.
In addition, al Qaeda is exploiting the Chechens’ legitimate grievances against heavy-handed Russian tactics in the same way that it jumped on the bandwagon of Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation. Osama bin Laden’s terror masters are taking full advantage of the situation for their own diabolical aims, which have nothing to do with Chechen independence.
The broader Chechen conflict will have to be eventually resolved by political means; that is not in dispute. In the meantime, however, there is no alternative to tough military measures to root out those who put suicide bombers on civilian airliners, blew up a subway station and seized over a thousand hostages—all in the course of ten days. Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that negotiation with terrorists always proves counter-productive in the final analysis. Unfortunately, the use of force is sometimes the only viable option, as it seems to be after the events of Sept. 3.
Obviously, the rejection of negotiation does not mean that talks should not be attempted to defuse a situation where innocents are caught in the middle. During the Moscow theater standoff in 2002 as well as the school siege in Breslan, the Putin administration—to its credit—tried to bring about a peaceful resolution. That both situations ended in bloody shootouts may be partly attributable to the itchy trigger fingers of poorly trained Russian troops, but the real blame still lies with the terrorists—not the Kremlin.
Putin’s resolute stance on Chechnya is certainly not perfect. Both under his administration and that of Boris Yeltsin, Russia missed many opportunities to engage the moderate elements in the breakaway province and restart a political process. Furthermore, the human rights abuses committed by the Russian army are well-documented; these have no excuse whatsoever. But criticism of Russia’s handling of this war—including disapproval continually expressed by the U.S. State Department and the European Union—does not imply that the war is unnecessary.
In part because both their countries have suffered enormously from terrorism, President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart have enjoyed close, cooperative ties, not to mention a very personal friendship. The latest outrages in Russia can only strengthen the bilateral relationship—still the world’s most vital—between the two superpowers. The commitment Bush and Putin share to tackling terrorism is real and genuine.
Because of Putin’s vocal opposition to the war on Iraq, not to mention the legacy of the Cold War, Russia does not exactly have the best reputation today among Americans. The substantive merits of its position on Iraq may certainly be debated, but it was not an unprincipled or dishonorable stance to take. Most importantly, this disagreement must not be allowed to overshadow Moscow’s strong support for the war on terror—a war, after all, that Russia is fighting on its soil.
Pavel Molchanov, Trinity ’03, is a former Chronicle columnist
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.