2014 is an important anniversary of the beginning of several notable wars. If we only cast a glance over the past century we can see a multitude of events to be remembered and commemorated. World War I began 100 years ago; World War II, 75; the second phase of the Vietnam War (with the participation of the U.S.)—50; war in Afghanistan—35; First Chechen War—20; and the Second Chechen War—15. And now, this year, the war in Ukraine. Moreover, 35 years have passed since the Islamic Revolution in Iran, an important milestone in the radicalisation of Islam.
Actually, these anniversaries have only symbolic significance. Anniversaries may be misleading at times, since they can overshadow other, no less important, events. Anniversary years simply enable a specific event to be discussed to a greater extent than it would otherwise be. People have certainly wondered why some years abound with great and significant events, while others do not. Is there some kind of pattern?
We will not try to search for a pattern, nor will we attribute excessive significance to the anniversary years. However, we will explore the changes that these remarkable events with violent origins have brought about in the world—and may bring in the future.
Although with further hindsight World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War shook the world to its core and changed it in an unexpected direction when compared to earlier understandings, they are so distant from the present as to be considered history rather than politics. The remarkable events that happened more recently, on the other hand, have a direct influence on current and future developments, which is why it would be useful to discuss them briefly.
Thirty five years ago, in late 1979, the then leadership of the Soviet Union decided to intervene militarily in events in Afghanistan, and restore “stability” there. As in many previous (and later) times, it was believed that the intervention would be brief and swift, and demand few material resources and human lives, but would allow effective control to be gained over the situation. As in most cases, that belief turned out to be erroneous. A long-term conflict with many casualties that consumed a huge amount of resources, as well as striking painful and bleeding wounds in human relations and the community of nations, fell into their lap.
Afghanistan had been in Russia’s sphere of interest from the late 19th century, when most of central Asia had already been conquered, while the British had control of India. Afghanistan, a feudal confederation of tribes that had remained free of colonial ties despite appearing weak and fragmented, caught the attention of both states. Even so, Afghanistan became a tragic experience. The “Switzerland” of central Asia could not be conquered and the intruders got their fingers badly burnt. Afghanistan seemed weak, first and foremost, because even the local elite could not establish an effective central power there. Alas, that “weakness” turned out to be a strength in fighting invaders. The British gave up on conquering Afghanistan, but the Russians did not.
After World War II, Afghanistan developed to be a crossroads of contrasts, where customs could flourish side by side—customs from the Middle Ages and kichlak-villages practising Sharia, grounded in strong tribal connections and extensive self-governance; a deeply religious majority, and modern cities, where one could encounter girls in European-style dress, and schools where, among other things, secular, even atheist thought was gaining ground. No one was disturbing anyone, and a level of tolerance quite uncommon in central Asia was based on this.
However, no society is free of power struggles, and Afghanistan was no exception. While the king was satisfied with a situation in which he did not have complete power in the state, government officials were not. Mohammad Daoud, a former prime minister and a close relative of the king, organised a coup d’état in 1973, forced the king to resign and established a dictatorial republic. As a sign of gratitude for its support, he initiated close cooperation with the Soviet Union, a clear sign of the giant state’s continuing interest in bringing Afghanistan under its control.
Daoud, nevertheless, did not become Moscow’s puppet. Moscow dreamt of more. Daoud was assassinated in 1979 and power went to Nur Muhammad Taraki, who was closer to Moscow, publicly advocated communism, and started “socialist” reorganisation such as redistributing land, weakening the position of Islam, atheist upbringing and education, and slandering and demolishing the traditional community. Taraki went further in his radicalism than Moscow had initially wished, but there was no better option at that time.
Only a few months later, Taraki was also overthrown and executed. He was replaced by the next communist dictator—Hafizullah Amin. Unlike Taraki, Amin refused Soviet “assistance”, which was a red flag for Moscow, where paranoid suspicions emerged that Amin was a U.S. agent. Moscow decided to replace Amin with a more obedient regent. The Soviet military intervention was launched. Amin and his entourage were killed. Babrak Karmal was helped to power. But the campaign did not turn out to be a small “excursion” to the neighbouring country. A visceral fight began against Soviet occupation, lasting ten years, and ended only when the Soviet troops were forced to leave.
However, Afghanistan had turned into a quite different country in the meantime. The tolerance had disappeared. The leftists had completely lost their reputation due to their cooperation with the Soviet occupiers. Secularity was presented as being synonymous with the destructive influence of the West. Women were forced to wear black robes and stay at home. Islam, which had brought people together to fight for freedom and against the occupiers, became radical. The Taliban’s time had come. Problems emerged which led to the war in Afghanistan that lasts until today (and in which, it must be said, Russia has played only a modest role).
Chechnya and the Karaganov Doctrine
In late August 1991, the Baltic States restored their independence. The leaders of Russia, the Ukraine and Belorussia started to look for opportunities to dissolve the Soviet Union painlessly. This aim was, naturally, not derived from a suddenly awakened sense of justice, desiring to give freedom to the nations that had languished in Soviet slavery. Rather, the leaders saw that there was no power to keep the Soviet Union together, and a large-scale civil war was to be avoided at any cost. Dismantling the Soviet Union allowed several problems to be resolved: it freed Moscow of the responsibility of maintaining the poorest republics in the USSR; it enabled the army to be reorganised so that Muslims were no longer a majority within it; and it set limits on the fast-increasing migration of Muslims to Russia. In other words, it enabled the removal of Central Asia, which had become a burden to the USSR in several ways. At the same time, Moscow did not want to give up control of the territory of the USSR. The way in which Moscow intended to exercise control after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was stated quite explicitly in 1992 in the Karaganov Doctrine.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union entailed the following changes:
– Twelve new, nominally independent countries were created in place of the Soviet Union (irrespective of whether or not they wanted to become independent).
– The boundaries between former Union republics were unchanged and became new state boundaries. This was interpreted so that the validity of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act was not in question.
– The Russian Federation was the legal successor of the Soviet Union in international relations. Thus, Russia became a permanent member of the UN Security Council in place of the Soviet Union.
The other units of the USSR besides the Union republics were not, however, meant to gain independence during the dismantling of the Soviet Union. But the desire to gain independence could not be suppressed completely. This concerned several autonomous units such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the spontaneously formed Transnistria, Gagauzia, Crimea, etc. All the aforementioned units were outside the borders of the Russian Federation, which is why the Russian authorities did not worry themselves with the emergence of these state formations. Rather the opposite. Moscow tended to support the creation of such quasi-states, seeing them as an opportunity to force their politics on the Union republics and keep them in their clutches through frozen conflicts. What did not fit Moscow’s purposes was the emergence of these small states on the territory of the Russian Federation.
The independence movement in Chechnya was the most advanced and, unexpectedly, two former Soviet military officers—Major-General Dzhokhar Dudaev and Polkovnik Aslan Maskhadov—became the leaders of the process. Both men had served in the Baltic States for a long time—Dudaev in Estonia (Tartu), Maskhadov in Lithuania. It is possible that they caught the independence bug from the desire for freedom in the Baltic nations.
Inspired by the Congress of Estonia, Dudaev established the Congress of the Chechen People. On 6 September 1991 (the date the Soviet Union acknowledged Estonian independence), Dudaev occupied the Supreme Council of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. During this action, the leader of the local communist party, Vitali Kutsenko, was killed. In October, Dudaev declared Chechnya independent and was elected president of the new state. In 1992 the former autonomous republic was divided into two as Chechnya and Ingushetia, the latter remaining a part of Russia.
The fact that Chechnya broke away from Russia was, of course, completely unacceptable to Moscow. While Russia considered it unthinkable that one of its territories might secede, the state also feared a chain reaction—the Chechen example might be followed by other minority nations in Russia. This kind of separatism occurred in several places, such as the North Caucasus, Tatarstan and Tuva. In addition, several krais and oblasts with a primarily Russian population had slipped away from the control of the central power. The potential disintegration of the Russian Federation was staring Moscow in the face.
The Russian and Ukrainian population began to leave Chechnya en masse. The exodus of specialists and a blockade created internal tensions in the young state and economic life virtually came to a halt. An opposition to Dudaev’s rule emerged, which he solved by dissolving parliament and establishing a dictatorship. This did not end the dissatisfaction with the situation.
At first, Moscow did not have the strength to subdue Chechnya by force. This is why Russia tried to place its support with Dudaev’s opposition and played on the tensions between the clans, hoping thereby to depose Dudaev and lead Chechnya back into Russia’s arms. Unfortunately, Russia could not weaken Dudaev’s position by indirect methods.
On 1 December 1994, Russian forces bombed Grozny. Despite the fact that Dudaev and Grachev, the Russian Minister of Defence, had agreed to avoid using force after this incident, Russia had made its choice. On 11 December, the Russian regular army entered Chechnya to restore constitutional order and maintain the territorial integrity of Russia. Grachev promised that the attack would be a bloodless blitzkrieg and the “normal situation” would be swiftly restored. But things went as these things always go. The war turned into a long, smouldering conflict with many casualties. Up to 100,000 civilians and approximately 2,000 Russian soldiers perished. On 21 April 1996, President Dudaev was killed in a rocket attack carried out by Russian military intelligence. As a protest against sending the army “against their own people” in a criminal manner, several high-ranking Russian servicemen resigned. The leaders of Western countries called the war Russia had initiated madness.
Despite destroying Grozny and murdering the president, Russia in fact lost the war; if not, it would not have sought an agreement with Chechnya to end it. Lieutenant General Aleksandr Lebed and Dudaev’s successor, Aslan Maskhadov, concluded a peace accord in Khasavyurt (Dagestan) on 22 August 1996, which President Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed in the Kremlin on 12 March 1997. On the basis of the agreement, Russian forces were withdrawn from Chechnya and a period of transition was declared to determine the status of Chechnya as well as to mend relations with Russia. Russia did not acknowledge Chechen independence de jure by the accord, but did so de facto.
Naturally, it was clear that the peace accord was only meant to provide a breather, sorely needed by both Russia and Chechnya. Russia had no intention of coming to terms with Chechnya separating, and Maskhadov knew this. The internal situation in Chechnya was exacerbated by economic issues and by clan leaders grappling for power. Not everyone was happy with independence. Many Chechens thought that life could go back to normal only if the state were part of Russia. Russia was preparing for a new invasion of Chechnya.
Vladimir Putin, who had become prime minister in 1999, took the reins. To create an excuse for starting the war, it is likely that the FSB itself organised explosions in residential buildings in Moscow, Volgograd and Buinaksk, killing hundreds of native civilians. The Chechens were accused of terrorism and Russia started the Second Chechen War, during which the state was liquidated. President Aslan Maskhdov was murdered by Russian Special Forces on 8 March 2005. Lieutenant General Lebed, who had strongly contributed to making peace in Chechnya, also perished, in a helicopter accident in confusing circumstances on 28 April 2002.
Russian propaganda has tried to present the Chechen War as an internal conflict within Russia. Notwithstanding this, it was an external conflict, a war with another state. Although Chechnya never gained international recognition for its independence, it was a de facto independent state that Russia did not control between 1991 and 2000.
While the Karaganov Doctrine prescribed the intervention of Russian “peacekeepers” in the “near abroad” in situations where Moscow considered it necessary, the policy was publicly put to use only in Transnistria. This situation changed with the aggression against Georgia in 2008.
Russia’s “near abroad”
This year’s aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea has shaped a completely new security situation not only in Russia’s “near abroad” but in Europe as a whole. Today, we can clearly say that the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 is no longer valid. The era of altering state borders by violence is back.
Firstly, Russia has shown that it is prepared to use force as a normal means for achieving its aims. The Karaganov Doctrine prescribed this only in extraordinary circumstances. Secondly, it seems that Russia will not be satisfied with only the territory of the former Soviet Union but dreams of a far wider sphere of influence. In this context, Russian activity in Central Europe, Finland and the coastal waters of Sweden, the constant breaching of air borders by fighters further and further away from Russia and the state’s forceful demands in the Arctic seem to indicate global ambitions. The rapid modernisation of the armed forces and constant exercises indicate that Russia is seriously considering the possibility of a major war against NATO.
In a common-sense view, one could say that Russia is acting suicidally. It cannot win a major war. It is relatively weaker than the Soviet Union, which did not consider a major war during the Cold War. It has no allies, unlike Nazi Germany, which was bound to lose World War II nonetheless. However, Hitler proved that one cannot apply common sense when a dictatorship is concerned. Putin has brought Russia to a dead end, with no dignified ways back available. It cannot retreat from eastern Ukraine and Crimea without acknowledging defeat and error, which the war-frenzied public would not forgive. An attack on Ukraine would quickly ruin Russia. A frozen conflict would ruin the state somewhat more slowly, but equally unavoidably.
A war, on the other hand, allows the use of resources that cannot be sold abroad for the purposes of waging war. War creates jobs in the arms industry. War allows extraordinary measures within the state—restriction of people’s rights and a fall in the standard of living— to be justified by the need to “protect” the fatherland. The threat of a large-scale war has not been so great since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
People in Russia stubbornly refuse to believe that the real threat emanates not from the west but from the south. (And, in a few years, also from the east.) At least, they are not showing their fear. While the USSR saw an opportunity to increase its sphere of influence in the Middle East and Central Asia 35 years ago, radical Islam is swiftly approaching Russia’s borders, and crossing them. The Islamic State has already threatened Russia with war. If Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Taliban, there will be a second centre for radical Islam near Russia’s southern border, and the radicalism may well spread from there to the other states of Central Asia and the Muslim regions of Russia—among which is, in fact, Moscow itself. It would be in Russia’s security interests to cooperate closely with NATO and Western countries. But unfortunately, there are no signs that Russia is reviewing its choices. On the contrary, relations with the West are growing more tense and the southern dimension receives no attention. In addition, Russia is growing ever more dependent on China.
Authoritarian states easily become the slaves of their myths. One cannot give up the myths, as they justify the regime. When an authoritarian state has supressed the internal enemy, it needs an external one, so as to keep society in its iron clutches. That external enemy must be harmless, in order to avoid the risk of too serious a conflict. Georgia and Ukraine seemed suitable and harmless external enemies. Moscow probably did not expect the Western countries’ reaction, which was not particularly strong. However, NATO is also a convenient external enemy, since it will never attack Russia unless the latter attacks a member of the Alliance first. Russia’s southern and eastern neighbours are not convenient external enemies—meddling with them would bring an immediate counteraction. That is why it is useful to stay quiet about the problems in those directions.
However, miscalculations are often unexpectedly accompanied by great wars. Before World War I, the Axis powers presumed that the UK would not join the war. But it did. Before World War II, Hitler presumed that Britain and France would not step up to defend Poland. But they did. Putin presumed that NATO would not intervene in a war because Russia attacked Ukraine. And he was right. What does Putin presume would be the response if Russia were to attack a NATO member state? And what might happen then?
The behavioural logic of an authoritarian state is that it will not stop until it is stopped—in other words, until it destroys itself. So it would be reasonable to stop Russia before it destroys itself, and avoid the fate of Nazi Germany—indeed that of the whole of Europe brought about by World War II.