How Putin defeated 'terrorism' in Chechnya
Monday, January 14, 2008 | 03:47 PM ET
If I learned anything during my time as CBC Radio's correspondent in Moscow, it was never to underestimate the depth of cynicism of the FSB.
The FSB is Russia's domestic intelligence agency — the successor to the infamous KGB. Former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin has been, of course, Russia's president for the past eight years.
Vladimir Putin. (Associated Press Files)
Other than George Bush, no modern leader's political career has been more entwined with "the war on terror" than that of Vladimir Putin.
At the time the exhausted Boris Yeltsin chose him to finish out his own final term as president, Putin was a political unknown. The next presidential election was less than a year away. Putin had to act quickly to impress the Russian public or risk becoming a footnote in history. His means to that end was Chechnya.
Putin's ideal foil
Most Russians despise Chechens and the feeling is mutual. The Chechens have waged a bloody on-and-off war of independence for 200 years. Russia has put down every rebellion with — in the words of its official military doctrine — "maximum force".
So Chechens were the ideal foil for Putin, and rebel leader Shamil Basayev gave him the opening he needed.
Basayev made the mistake of trying to spread the Chechen war to the neighbouring Russian province of Dagestan. Putin pounced.
He declared Basayev and the entire Chechen insurgency terrorists. The Russian military moved in with strength.
If the definition of terrorism is attempting to terrify an entire population by launching spectacular attacks on civilians, then Putin's claim was spurious. Chechen fighters had been killing a lot of Russian soldiers but they were not yet attacking Russian civilians, [with a few notable exceptions]. That would come later at Dubrovka theatre in Moscow and School Number One in Beslan.
The terrorist label Putin pinned on the Chechens went down well with the Russian public but not as easily in the West. In fact, the brutality Russian troops used against Chechen civilians prompted allegations from human rights advocates that Putin and the Russian military were the real terrorists.
Putin appeared impervious to the critique.
Rebranding the insurgency
He did however tweak his public relations message. He began to insist the Chechen independence movement had been hijacked by foreign Islamists. Although it was true that a small number of foreign jihadi fighters had come to Chechnya to fight there was no evidence they had taken control.
But by re-branding the insurgency as a new front line in the "war on terror", Putin was able to marginalize human rights critics and keep queasy European governments, such as France, at bay.
Problem was, journalists kept undermining his storyline.
Stories about Russian soldiers making Chechen husbands watch as they raped their wives kept appearing in the foreign media. So did stories about night visits by balaclava-wearing special forces troops dragging young Chechen men away from their families for no other reason than they were of fighting age.
Inevitably the young men were found dead by the side of the road the next morning or simply disappeared.
Putin's solution to the bad publicity was simple. He banned all but Kremlin-approved journalists from Chechnya.
At the same time he implemented his Chechenization strategy. He ceded control inside the borders of Chechnya to a single powerful Chechen clan — the Kadyrovs. The Kadyrovs had once fought against the Russians but now, with the spoils of war in their hands, they began fighting the rebels.
The strategy was cynical and effective. With the Chechens preoccupied with killing each other, the Russian casualties dropped drastically.
So I was surprised one day when I got a call from Gen. Ilya Shabalkin inviting CBC Television correspondent Nick Spicer and me to come down and pay him a visit at the military base in Grozny.
Shabalkin was the top FSB official in Chechnya. He had something he wanted to show us.
A seemingly remarkable coincidence
A few days earlier, the Russians had killed several rebels in a firefight. One of them was carrying a Canadian passport that identified him as 26-year-old Vancouver resident Rudwan Khalil Abubaker.
Shabalkin knew a propaganda opportunity when he saw it.
Rudwan Khalil Abubaker
When I arrived, he showed me not only the passport, but also Abubaker's B.C. driver's licence and pictures of a bloated corpse. He also gave me a copy of a one-way airline ticket with Abubaker's name on it from Dubai to Makhachkala, a city near the Chechen border. A second ticket indicated that another Vancouver resident, 22-year-old Kamal ElBahja had sat in the seat beside him.
Later that night, Shabalkin insisted we come to his room for a drink. Doing business in Russia invariably involves vodka and snacks and there were plenty of both. We went to bed late, but at 5 a.m. Shabalkin was already pounding on our door.
He said his men had just shot three Turkish terrorists in a wooded area on the outskirts of Grozny. He was taking us there in an hour.
It was a seemingly remarkable coincidence.
Foreign terrorists, just the kind the Putin was claiming had hijacked the rebellion, killed within five kilometres of the Grozny military base at the very time a foreign television crew that had been given permission to breach the ban on the media was there to take pictures.
No nice guys in Chechen war
When we arrived at the site it was all there just like General Shabalkin promised.
The bodies of three Turks lay crumpled on the ground. Discovering their exact identities wasn't a problem because, conveniently, they had Turkish passports on them. There was a map and visa stamps in the passports that indicated they had infiltrated Russia via the neighbouring country of Georgia. Their weapons were nearby. So was a small Lada car.
Shabalkin said the car had been packed with explosives and that the men were planning to set off a massive car bomb in Grozny. But he said army explosives experts had taken the bomb back to the base to study it.
The scene was so neatly packaged to support the Kremlin line it raised a couple of disturbing possibilities.
Had the bodies of these men been removed from the morgue and laid out here as a photo op for the CBC? There was an even more horrifying possibility. Had these men been taken from their cells and executed?
I have no answer. It troubles me to even think about it. What I do know, though, is that the depth of cynicism that permeates Russia's political elite makes it at least plausible.
There were no nice guys in the war in Chechnya. The rebels responded to what they saw as state terrorism with terrorism of their own aimed at Russian civilians. The Beslan hostage taking alone took 331 lives — more than half of them children.
A few courageous Russian journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya defied the ban and enraged both the rebels and the Kremlin by reporting the truth about both their human rights abuses.
She was assassinated by a gunman in the elevator of her apartment building. The police are still investigating. The suspects range from agents of Chechen president Ramzon Kadyrov to associates of the FSB.
A final footnote
For five years, the Kremlin has been declaring victory in its war with rebels in Chechnya. Now it appears they may be right. The rebels still make sporadic attacks on Russian convoys but the attacks have dwindled to one or two a week. Military experts who used to estimate the number of Chechen fighters in the thousands now put it at about 500.
This March, Putin will leave office with an 80 per cent approval rating with the Russian public. After the chaos of the Yeltsin years, he is credited with restoring economic and political stability to the country. In the eyes of a majority of Russians, his Chechen strategy worked.
I thought Chechnya and Afghanistan were tough neighbourhoods. They've got nothing on the blogosphere.
After reading some of the reaction below, I acknowledge a factual error in this column. Vincent Moss is right. Chechen fighters did stage attacks on Russian civilians before Putin arrived on the scene in 1999. Most notably, in 1995, Shamil Basayev (later the architect of the Beslan hostage taking) took 1,500 patients and hospital staff hostage at Budyonnovsk. One hundred and five civilians died.
At the time, though, Russian politicians and the media referred to the incident as a "crisis" rather than a terrorist attack. Shamil Basayev was usually referred to as a "separatist", not a terrorist. It was Putin who later began attaching the label "terrorism" to what until that time was usually referred to as an independence movement.
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About the Author
Bill Gillespie is CBC Radio’s security correspondent. An award-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent, he has travelled extensively in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and the Russian Caucusus. He witnessed the fall of the Taliban, the deadly siege of Beslan School Number One, and was in Baghdad’s central square the day Saddam’s statue came down.
Since his return to Canada in 2005, he has studied and reported on Canada’s intelligence agencies, the Air India Inquiry and accused Canadian terror suspect Omar Khadr.
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