The Rise of Putin, Part 2: The Role of Chechnya

Musa Sadulayev

The importance of Chechnya in Putin’s rise to power is important.  Chechnya represented an opportunity for the Russian military to rehabilitate its image after the debacle of Afghanistan in 1989 and the first Chechen War which ended in 1996 in stalemate.  Chechnya had become a lawless, hostage-taking and slave-making enclave that presented a security challenge to Russia.  It provided an opportunity for the military to show its might.  It was a signal to NATO and Russia’s neighbors that Russia would not shy away from lethal force.  It also was a signal that separatism in other ethnic enclaves in Russia would not be tolerated.  Putin hailed the hostilities as restoring Russian national pride and territorial unity.  Military leaders informed the conscripts to vote for Putin.  

As far as Russian voters were concerned, the heavy-handed use of the military was justified.  Despite the fact that Chechens are “Russian,” they were portrayed as “animals,” terrorists, and Russia-haters on television.  Images of Russian artillery firing on civilian targets, reports of rape at the hands of Russian soldiers, and documented evidence of Russian forces blocking medical evacuations were met with a shrug of the shoulders from the rest of Russia and government officials.  

A series of explosions in September 1999 in Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk which killed more than 300 people and injured another 800 provided the excuse for the Second Chechen War.  The bombings were immediately blamed by the FSB on Chechen separatist rebels and terrorists (to be examined in a future article).  Putin famously declared he would pursue them wherever they were.  This only enhanced his popularity within the Yeltsin government and also among Russians.  

The war in Chechnya also provided Acting President Putin a reason to clamp down on the media.  Putin authorized a greater role for the military in dealing with media coverage of the war.  A government program was developed called SORN to track the media’s emails and text messages and in February, 2000 the government admitted that SORN transmitted all communications to the FSB and the GRU, which was military intelligence.  One disturbing action was the capture of Vladimir Babitsky, a correspondent for Radio Liberty which is partially funded by Congress.  He was apprehended on January 15, 2000 in Chechnya and interrogated by civilian and military authorities.

The Babitsky episode sheds a light on how Putin works.  When journalists started to make noise about Babitsky’s disappearance, Putin personally intervened and said he was supervising the case.  Although never formally charged with any crime, he was never released either and was instead exchanged with the Chechens for four captured Russian soldiers.  Three weeks after his release, Babitsky resurfaced in Dagestan where he was rearrested for possession of a forged passport and being a spy for the Chechens.  He was released from custody on Putin’s orders, but only after pressure from governments in the West.  Being under criminal indictment, Babitsky was not permitted to leave Moscow.  

Putin’s legitimacy was forged in that war.  From January to election day, it was an endless barrage of propaganda: heroic sacrifices by valiant Russian soldiers, the suffering of ethnic Russians in war-torn areas, the inhumanity of the Chechen bandits, the relentless resolve of Putin, and the hypocrisy of the West condemning Russian military efforts while they indiscriminately waged a bombing war in Yugoslavia.  A typical broadcast in Russia contained 10-15 minutes of coverage of the war in Chechnya with Putin attending the funerals of returned dead Russian soldiers in a show of ritual patriotism to the Motherland.  There was no difference in coverage between Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV, Berezkovsky’s ORT or the state-owned RTR.  Only the independent NTV was somewhat critical, but even that changed after the Duma elections in December.  The goal was not for the electorate to decide the next president from a field of competing candidates; it was to legitimize Vladimir Putin.  

If the Clinton administration made one mistake in enabling the rise of Putin, it was their decision, along with NATO, to commence bombing in Yugoslavia.  This emboldened the Russians to increase their military efforts in Chechnya.  This NATO operation came without UN sanction or Russian approval and instilled the idea that “might makes right” among virtually all the power brokers in Russia at the time. 

The first Chechen war ended in 1996 with a standstill although the list of atrocities on both sides was staggering.  President Aslan Maskhadov in Chechnya brought the warlords under control, but Russia was unwilling to grant independence claiming that Islamic fundamentalism would destabilize the region.  The entire northern Caucasus region is considered a tinderbox of ethnic rivalries and long-simmering disputes over land and political control.  

 In 1994, one of the rationales for the Russian military action was the fate of 400,000 ethnic Russians living in Chechnya.  Many were driven out of Chechnya and the new war was seen as not one of protecting ethnic Russians, but of retaining the territorial integrity of Russia itself.  To Putin, if Russia lost Chechnya they risked losing 21 other ethnic republics and the entire northern Caucasus region.

Initially Putin believed that the military action would be inconsequential, but eventually saw it as an opportunity to restore some semblance of national pride which gained him the backing of some key Russian nationalists in his rise to power.  The actions in Chechnya proved to Putin that the national identity of Russia itself would be destroyed if Chechen rebels were to succeed.

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