Every 19th-century imperialist knew that if he did not take land on his frontier someone else would, and thereby threaten his security. So it was natural for Imperial Russia to take the Caucasus before Britain or France did. The Chechens and a host of other north Caucasian tribes did not see it that way. They had resisted the Persian and Ottoman empires and looked forward to freedom and independence. Peter the Great got to northern Iran in the early 18th century but was then pushed back. The Chechens and others seized the advantage to push back the Russians during the Crimean War (1854-6) but once that was over the Russians came back with a vengeance. Russia's brilliant military engineers secured the region for Russian power and settlement. Cossacks were given the best land in the lowlands. Many of the native dispossessed were forced into the highlands, where they nursed a burning desire to be free and to reclaim their historic lands.
Lenin promised national self-determination but he forgot to mention that he determined who could leave the Soviet Union: no one. The Chechens and others again felt betrayed. If Lenin spoke with a forked tongue, Stalin devoured the locals. As a Georgian he had no time for these fractious mountain peoples, and determined to Russify and modernise them. He took it for granted that the chance of a modern education would seduce the local youth away from Islam. What he failed to predict was that most educated Chechens and Ingushi would owe their primary loyalty to their clan and not to Moscow.
Stalin never trusted the north Caucasians, and when the German occupiers were expelled in 1944, he grasped the opportunity to be rid of them. They were simply deported to Central Asia and Siberia. In February 1944 almost 480,000 Chechens and Ingushi were transported east. Khrushchev allowed them all to return in 1957 (except for the Crimean Tatars). However, the Russians were smart and did not give back all the lands they had previously held. This permitted Moscow to play divide et impera.
When Yeltsin appeared on the scene, the Chechens thought their moment of liberation had arrived. Again they were to be disappointed. The Chechens were the odd men out. Moscow tried to seduce them with material rewards, but Grozny always said no. The Chechens are second to none as businessmen, but they were willing to make sacrifices to be free. The wild Russian economy was their playground, and they took to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Moscow's patience gave out in December 1994, when it launched one of the most inept military campaigns of modern times. They managed to kill more than 80,000, mostly Russian civilians living in Chechnya, and withdrew in ignominy in 1996. The Russian bear had learnt nothing from its defeat in Afghanistan.
Chechnya was a disaster zone and remained a disaster zone. Institutions simply did not function there. Bright young men and a few women had previously headed for Moscow to get an education and a job. Now all this stopped - not only in Chechnya, but in the whole of the north Caucasus. The "blacks", as they are derisively known in Russia, were not wanted in Moscow. The only business left was crime. Kidnapping became a national pastime. Economic and social despair spawned another activity - joining a Muslim group that promised to liberate all Muslims from the Russian yoke. A jihad, a holy war, had a powerful emotional appeal. It provided focus, comradeship, a noble cause and the promise that those dying in the struggle would go to paradise. Now, the average Chechen is no fundamentalist, but he accepts Islam as a guide and an identity. It helps to set him apart from the Russians.
The situation in the other troublesome region, Dagestan, also favoured the promotion of crime as business but Dagestanis are not as dynamic, aggressive and fierce in their convictions as the Chechens. This has to do with the fact that there are 14 main nationalities in the republic, as well as many other smaller nations, and this has produced a society that is more willing to seek a compromise.
On 31 August the first Moscow bomb exploded in the Manege shopping mall in Moscow. Urban terrorism had arrived in Moscow for the first time. On 13 September another bomb in Moscow killed at least 118. Who is responsible for the Moscow bombings?
Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, saw a direct link between the militants and bombs and swore to follow then "even into the toilets" to destroy them. Then on 23 September Moscow began its aerial attacks on Grozny to crush the militants. But instead of bombing bases they destroyed a TV tower, telecommunications, the airport, oil installations and other arteries of the Chechen republic.
The head of the air force claimed that the bombing could continue for a month. The tactics are similar to those of Nato in Yugoslavia. Smart bombs are used to minimise civilian casualties. The Russians appear to be making the point that what Nato did in Yugoslavia, they can do in Chechnya. There is also the fact that the Russian military are in no state to launch a ground war in the Caucasus. General Igor Sergeev, Minister of Defence, has devoted probably half the military budget over the last three years to an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 6,000 miles. Little money has trickled down to the army.
What is Moscow's reasoning behind its show of military force in the Caucasus? It is to demonstrate to the rebels that they will not prise Dagestan or Chechnya away from the Russian Federation. It is also to boost Vladimir Putin's chances of becoming the next president. If he fails in the Caucasus, Yeltsin will throw him on to the political scrap heap. To the Russians, events in the north Caucasus are not fortuitous; they are part of a chain that stretches from Afghanistan to Kosovo, all masterminded by Osama bin Laden. To Moscow, Islam is on the march and it has to be stopped. The US and Britain will not intervene and prevent Moscow's power being asserted. China will support Russia, as it has its own Muslim troubles in Xinjiang. Iran says it "condemns terrorism in all its manifestations and supports measures taken by the Moscow government to normalise the situation in the north Caucasus".
Moscow now has carte blanche to visit war on the Chechens. President Maskhadov has called for a cessation of the bombings and peace discussions but his words go unheard. Can the Russians win in the north Caucasus? No, but they can destroy the infrastructure of the region and pave the way for Islamic groups to replace the present secular leaderships. Control of the skies gives Moscow easy victories today, but tomorrow it may reap the whirlwind.
The writer recently retired from the University of London, where he taught Russian politics for 30 yearsReuse content