The Interpreter can be a very good resource for reading up on Russia’s ties to the European far-right as well as Ukraine’s less influential but no less persistent far right, updates on the situation in Ukraine, and debunking certain propaganda claims coming from the Russian media. That site has produced a fair number of rather eyebrow-raising, “Wait…What?” moments though. It seems to me most of the problematic material is connected with the writer Paul Goble. As chance would have it, I got a reminder about that today when I ran across an article of his called “Is Putin About To Begin a Third Chechen War To Escape Ukrainian Impasse?” Let me help you out with a short answer, Paul. No, no he is not. Hell no.
Goble is clearly reacting to the recent scandal where Ramzan Kadyrov gave a speech in which he ordered his own Interior Ministry troops to “shoot to kill” in the event that federal authorities attempt to carry out any operations on Chechen territory without his permission. This harsh warning was in response to a recent raid in Grozny executed by law enforcement officials operating out of Stavropol, during which the suspect was fatally shot. In short, this latest outburst comes at a time when the question of just how much power Kadyrov wields is a major topic in Russia and Russia-watching circles.
Clearly in the minds of some, Kadyrov has thrown the gauntlet down at Moscow’s feet, and thus there is reason to expect some kind of backlash. But even if we don’t dispute this opinion, is there any reason to believe that backlash would be a third Chechen war? It seems anyone with even an elementary knowledge of the Chechen wars and Putin’s rise to power should consider this possibility to be ridiculously beyond the pale. But just for the sake of…entertainment…I guess, let us review Goble’s main arguments in favor of this possibility. He proposes that such a war would bring Putin three advantages.
1. Distract the West from his conflict in Ukraine, and portray Russia as a strong all in the fight against Islamic extremism.
2. Help secure Putin’s “patriotic” credentials and thus protect his popularity.
3. Win him support in the Russian security agencies, which definitely have a beef with Kadyrov and the Chechens.
Now before we debunk these three points, we actually have to start with the headline, which refers to Putin using a war in Chechnya to distract from his “Ukrainian impasse.” The problem is that so far, there’s not much of an impasse for Putin in Ukraine. Yes, the sanctions are hurting, yes the economy is reeling and expected to get worse even by members of Russia’s government, and yes, Russia is assuming all the costs of maintaining the separatist territories, but political and psychologically, at least for the time being, this looks like a Russian victory. Minsk II was followed by the crushing of a Ukrainian salient in Debaltseve; the Ukrainian army managed to avoid a catastrophe only by beating a rapid, massive retreat. For the time being, Putin has his frozen conflict and the West has shown very little interest in truly helping the people it cheered on for rising up against Yanukovych. At the very least in the eyes of Putin’s supporters, he’s attained a decisive victory both in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The impasse is not readily apparent and thus there’s little need to start a real, hot war in order to distract people.
Now we move to the first point. Would Putin wage a third Chechen war to distract the West from Ukraine, and to try to portray himself as a fighter against the threat of radical Islam? Putin may be out of touch with reality, but he’s not stupid. For one thing, Western leaders are well aware that Ramzan Kadyrov is no friend to Islamic terrorists. Even if he wanted to go over to their side, they’d probably take his head off at the first available opportunity. Putin suddenly claiming that Kadyrov has become an Islamic fundamentalist, specifically one who might ally with Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, would be met with nothing other than a collective Huh?!
On the second point, Putin’s attempt to use such a war to bolster his patriot credentials is just as ridiculous as the first point. On that point Goble invokes the recent use of the term “Russian World.” The only problem is that Chechnya is not seen as part of that world. There are many Russians who would support wars of conquest against the Baltic countries, Belarus, Ukraine, or Kazakhstan for the sake of “protecting” Russian minorities in those countries, but those same Russians won’t be too thrilled about fighting a war to protect Chechens from other, “terrorist” Chechens. Russian nationalists tend to divide into those who wish to see Chechnya discarded entirely, and those who revile Chechnya and the Caucasus but support Russian control in the region if only because they fear that Washington will move in to fill any vacuum left by Moscow.
What is more, Russians are well aware of the role Chechens and other Caucasian groups play in their army. Chechens in particular have played a major role in the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. In fact, recently a Chechen Spetsnaz team won an international special forces competition held in Jordan. Considering the damage Chechen fighters did to the Russian army based on some experience in the Soviet army, Kadyrov’s better-equipped, better-trained men will give any Russian troops a hot reception in Grozny, and plenty of Russian “patriots” know this. Lastly on this point, one would have to be naive indeed to think that Kadyrov and his own forces have no contingency plan which provides for a defense of his capital and surrounding territory in the event of a punitive campaign from Moscow.
Even when you ignore all the secrecy surrounding the campaign in Ukraine, the truth is that not many Russian soldiers have been killed there. Even if the number became widely known, it doesn’t have the same resonance that the Chechen Wars have with many Russians. Georgians and Ukrainians tried to take Russia in a stand-up fight, in which they were doomed from the start. What is more, no captured Russian soldiers have been beheaded by Ukrainians. The save-the-last-bullet-for-yourself factor is another reason why Russia’s “patriots”, many of whom avoided or will avoid military service, aren’t going to be praising Putin for starting another war in Chechnya.
There are also some other political contradictions which might prove too difficult to smooth over. The Kremlin has had enough trouble getting patriotic Russians to defer to a former Chechen rebel who once allegedly boasted about killing his first Russian at the age of 16. Russians have seen rivers of state money flow into Grozny, turning its center into something that puts many Russian towns and cities to shame. All the while, Kadyrov collects state awards like they were Hummel figurines. As long as Chechnya is peaceful and Kadyrov continues to allow his men to fight “NATO’s legions” in Ukraine, the “patriots” should be able to suppress their rage. If Putin suddenly declares Kadyrov a terrorist, he’s essentially admitting that he was duped out of countless rubles for over 15 years. Not likely.
Strike three for Goble is the idea that Putin would start such a war so as to please people in his inner circle who are part of the all-important state security agencies. Assuming you believe the rumors about the heads of such agencies allegedly lobbying Putin to move against Kadyrov, recent events seem to point to Putin siding with Kadyrov in that conflict. Besides, who’s suggesting that the solution those security heads supposedly want involves arresting or killing Kadyrov, let alone starting a war? Perhaps they’d start by asking him to pressure Kadyrov into giving into their demands. Also, these security heads cannot be ignorant of the role Chechens are playing in the Ukrainian war. Turning against Chechnya would seriously undermine Russian efforts in Ukraine.
When all is said and done, Goble really makes you wonder about these Russia analysts, specifically how much effort they actually put into determining what is really happening in Russia as opposed to skimming the latest news and then churning out Tom Clancy-style theories. I mean that anyone who knows Putin’s Russia knows how far Putin has bent over backwards for 15 years just to keep Chechnya in line. Chechnya was presented as one of his crowning achievements. Now we’re supposed to believe that he’d deliberately screw all that up just because he’s at a dead end in Ukraine? If he were going to gamble on anything it would be another offensive in that country. At least there he’d score some military victories for the cameras before the rest of the world drops the hammer on Russia’s economy and snaps him back to reality.
Then again, my limited experience with Goble tells me that he’s not particularly critical of his sources, so long as they say things that fit his narrative and contradict that of Moscow, or that which he perceives to be from Moscow. If Western leaders are serious about countering Russia’s information war, they had better start by not relying on old guard Russia analysts who are sloppy with the facts and too liberal with their speculation.