Comment: It is hypocrisy to condemn Russia over Chechnya

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The Independent Culture
AT THE European Union's Helsinki Summit, Russia was condemned and penalised for its military campaign in Chechnya, and Turkey was added to the list of countries with which the EU will negotiate accession. When you think about this contrast for a while, it becomes clear that international morality and Western righteousness are not quite as clear-cut as some pompous politicians, glib editorialists and shrieking Russophobes would have us believe.

For aspects of Russian strategy are certainly reprehensible, and past actions by the Yeltsin regime - notably the war of 1994-96 - do bear a great share of the blame for the later disasters in Chechnya. On the other hand, Moscow has always offered Chechnya the fullest possible autonomy within the Russian Federation. Such autonomy is enjoyed by the larger ethnic minorities all over Russia. In their own areas they are free to develop their cultures, economies and political systems as they wish. This is especially true of the largest, Tatarstan, where the Tatars have been able to establish a very real measure of statehood. Chechnya has been offered a status of "Tatarstan plus".

Turkey, by contrast, continues to deny its Kurds not merely any political autonomy but even basic cultural freedoms. Kurdish is banned in schools and severely restricted in the media. Until a few years ago, the very existence of Kurds in Turkey was officially denied by Turkey. Kurdish political parties are relentlessly harassed. The war with the PKK has cost some 35,000 lives and, in the course of it, the Turkish security services have deliberately destroyed some 2,000 villages and moved their populations hundreds of miles away, so as to deprive the guerrillas of a base and to create "free fire zones".

None the less, I do not condemn the EU decision to begin negotiations with Turkey. It is a perfectly respectable act of enlightened self-interest. The self-interest lies in the fact that Turkey is a vital Western ally in the Middle East, that we need Turkey to pursue a restrained policy in the Balkans and vis-a-vis Greece, and that we fear the spread of Islamic radicalism. The enlightenment lies in the fact that we think we stand a better chance of improving its behaviour through negotiation than by rejection.

Such pragmatic leniency towards our sinful allies is therefore perfectly honourable. It comes to seem grotesque only when it is set against the hysterically moralising tone with which too many of us in the West approach the lesser sins of non-allies.

In the case of Chechnya, this approach has been fuelled by some truly shoddy and ignorant reporting. The destruction and civilian deaths have been described as if they were the goal of the campaign, rather than "collateral damage" as a consequence of the military operation. Thus, in the context of the history of warfare, last week's warning to the remaining civilian population of Grozny to leave the city via safe corridors before the Russian assault began should be seen as a humane act - though the original deadline was far too short and lacked anything like sufficient guarantees of safe passage.

Let's be clear; some aspects of the Russian offensive have indeed been "disproportionate" and unjustifiably brutal. This applies especially to the bombardment of civilian targets far from the front line. But let us also be clear about two things. First, that the shambles into which Chechnya had fallen by this summer could not have been allowed to continue indefinitely. Several of the demands made by the Putin government in its negotiations with President Aslan Maskhadov - for release of hostages, surrender or expulsion of leading warlords, Islamic revolutionaries and criminals - are basically correct and can be supported by the West.

It is obviously a terrible pity that, before launching this offensive, the Russian government did not try harder, for a few months at least, to support Maskhadov in his efforts to create order. None the less, given the weakness of Maskhadov's position, and the presence at the top of his administration of defenders of the kidnapping gangs, there is no guarantee that this would have worked. If it hadn't, then sooner or later Russia would have been forced to intervene militarily, and so would any modern Western state under those circumstances. Secondly, given the nature of the Chechen resistance any such intervention, by any country, would have been bound to bring with it heavy civilian casualties.

Since the Russian offensive began, a good deal of Western commentary has been devoted to casting doubt on whether Chechens were responsible for the terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere, which caused more than 300 deaths. It's true that responsibility is unproven, and I myself don't believe that Chechens themselves did it. What is entirely credible is that it was the work of the Arab-led international Muslim revolutionaries who have based themselves in Chechnya and helped conduct the attempted invasion of Daghestan in August.

But, much more importantly, the Moscow bombings came after a long series of bombings, raids and ambushes in the north Caucasus by the Islamists and their Chechen allies, which by August had claimed hundreds of Russian civilian, military and police victims. Last year the Islamists, together with leading Chechen commanders, formed a Congress with the explicit aim of driving Russia from the northern Caucasus and uniting Chechnya and Daghestan in one Islamic state (a plan utterly rejected by the great majority of Daghestanis).

On top of this was the explosion of banditry and especially kidnapping, based in Chechnya but carried out across the whole region. Western attention has been focused on the Western victims of this; but during the same period more than 1,300 Russian citizens were kidnapped, including children and even old women, Now, of course, this pathological behaviour owed a great deal to the destruction and brutalisation caused by Russian forces in the war of 1994-96. None the less, how long would the US have tolerated the existence of such a region on its borders? And in the face of such attacks, would the response of the American public have been restrained, moderate, or "proportionate"?

This also applies to the nature of the fighting in Chechnya. From the tone of Western statements, you'd have thought that the Russians were trying to round up a few dozen terrorists, like the IRA or ETA. In fact, the various Chechen groups have thousands of men under arms. Just to drive the Chechens and islamists from Daghestan in August and September cost the Russians 290 dead - more than Britain lost in the Falklands. As of last week, they had lost 459 in Chechnya.

Put together, that makes for about five times as many dead as the US lost in the Gulf war - and these are official figures. The real ones are probably much higher, especially given that Chechen commanders have spoken openly of cutting the throats of Russian prisoners. In the face of such casualties and such an enemy, how much "proportion" would be left in the approach of any Western public?

It is worth remembering in this context that when the US Rangers found themselves fighting for their lives in Mogadishu, US firepower killed between 500 and 1,000 Somalis, most of them local civilians. In circumstances such as Chechnya, Western armed forces would justifiably use bombardment to minimise their own casualties. We should be more accurate and less callous than the Russians - but, as Kosovo showed, many civilians would still die as a result. So don't let's just demand "proportion" from the Russians; let's also try to observe some ourselves, in our commentaries.

The author is an expert on the Caucasus with the Royal Institute for Strategic Studies