What Do You Do When It’s Too Late to Do the Right Thing?

The Russian government almost certainly should have granted independence to Chechnya the first time around. Innocent Russians are now paying the price for that failure. But is there now anything that the Russian government could do that would placate the child-killers who struck in Beslan? It now seems clear that their goal was to ignite a Caucausus-wide war, pitting Ossetians against Ingushetians and Chechens. It also seems clear that they would not settle for independence for a peaceful Chechnya; they seek to kill and destroy for the sake of killing and destroying. Would an independent Chechnya merely offer them a base from which to carry out their plans?

Despite obvious differences (contiguous borders, history of imperial occupation and Russification, etc.) Russia’s situation resembles that of the U.S. in its war against al Qaeda. What concessions (including withdrawal from Iraq and abandonment of Israel) would placate Osama bin Laden and his troops? Such moves may or may not be desirable for other reasons, but it doesn’t seem likely that the radical Islamists who have launched attacks (outside of Iraq, at least) would be moved by them to do anything other than redouble their efforts against the U.S. and the west generally.

I’m rather at a loss to know what to do in such a situation.

9 Responses to “What Do You Do When It’s Too Late to Do the Right Thing?”

  1. To quote a hackneyed phrase, somebody has to stand up and end “the vicious cycle.” Reacting to the current mess in Iraq and Chechnya by redoubling the present failed policies (e.g. closing ranks with dictators like Putin, “getting tough and ignorinh all grey areas, turning a blind eye to the legitimate grievances of an occupied people) is akin to passing laws against hoarders to deal with shortages created by price controls. It is a non solution that refues to deal directly with the problem.

    The “we’re stuck so let’s get tough” approach in Iraq and Chechnya reminds me of the argument made by people in 1965 who conceded that the Vietnam War was a mistake but then turned right around and said “there is no turning back.”

  2. You may be right, David, and that’s certainly the first direction I’d turn. But I also see a difference between the Russian situation regarding Chechnya in 2004 and the American situation regarding Vietnam in 1965, viz., that the Vietnamese communists had not attacked our homeland and massacred children, airplane passengers, and so on. I don’t favor closing ranks with Putin (which was nowhere implied by my posing the question I posted); I was wondering what Putin or others in Russia could now do to solve the problem that they face. Even if they were to withdraw from Chechnya, would the people who took school children hostages in North Ossetia, blew up two airliners, took hostages in Moscow, and have blown up subway stations be likely to call it quits and go home to live in peace? Or would a fully independent Chechnya become a staging ground for further raids into Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and throughout the Russian federation? It’s just not obvious to me what the best policy for the Russian government is now. Surely they should rein in the army there, which has committed terrible atrocities against civilians, but can they afford to withdraw entirely? There are, at the very least, great risks to any policy they might pursue.

  3. Chris Farley

    I don’t think that these people are on a political mission. They are on a religious mission. Yes, they have political aims, grievances and a list of goals. But, when all is said and done, they are still just after the great satan. I think Putin is right. Hit them, hit them hard. It is akin to reasoning with an angry gorilla.

  4. I don’t quite follow the logic here. Let’s posit that the groups who carried out the attacks have to be wiped out. But does that mean that no political concessions should be made to more moderate Chechen separatists? In recent years the Russian government has hit Chechnya very hard, indeed, and has left Grozny a mere pile of rubble. The death toll in a rather small country has been staggering. I fear that a “hit ‘them’ hard” strategy will mean merely more killing of innocents, more kidnappings by Russian soldiers, and so on, without much harm to the people who actually ordered or took part in the killings in Beslan. Further, if the Russian government were to grant independence to Chechnya, would it merely mean that the most radical killers would emerge on top and would seek to ignite the entire region in ethnic and religious war? I fear that it would. I see no obvious best solution.

  5. I think I agree with the thrust of the orginial post – my solution such as it is, is to take the least worst action, which might still be unpalatable.

    In my opinion, Putin has more to lose from not conceding something to the terrorists and/or independence movement (however they are defined/disentangled). Crudely speaking, if he gives them what they want, two things can happen. They accept and violence ends or they do not accept and violence continues. If the latter, Putin is legitimised in cracking down on them (which is what he is trying to do now anyway). If they accept but continue their violence, Putin is legitimised in holding them to the terms of their agreement.
    I recognise this theory has plenty of leaks, but given that Putin’s current approach is yielding only terror, he stands to lose the least by trying something softer.

  6. Tom G. Palmer

    Peter may be right, but the strategy he sets forth would be a gamble. First, Putin has made it clear that he’s not willing to start the unraveling of the Russian Federation, which is regrettable, but unlikely to change. (Note that a number of different republics within the Federation have different relations with the Federation; it’s a remarkably complex arrangement. So why not offer the Chechen separatists something like what Tatarstan or the Kalmyk Republic has?) Second, if Chechnya were to become completely independent, with no Russian security forces within it, there is a substantial risk that it would become a more dangerous source of terrorist raids and attacks on nearby Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, etc., not to mention within the Russian heartland, as witness the two destroyed passenger airplanes. At that point, it might become more difficult, rather than less, to root out the terrorists. I like Peter’s suggestion, but I also think that the Russian leadership is both unlikely to find full independence (as opposed to nominal membership in the Russian Federation) acceptable and that they are unlikely to find the risk acceptable. Yet, it’s a matter of weighing risks, and independence may offer — on balance — fewer risks than continuing or escalating the present war.

  7. Chris Farley

    I’m not going to disagree with the ideas, just one of the underlying assumptions. All of these “plans” are based on the fact that there will be logical, well-thought-out, rational reactions on the part of the terrorists to any actions that Putin takes. I just don’t see these people acting rationally. Submission of any sort will bring about more violence. Current news articles (meaning after the original post) are clear that the current wave of terrorism in Russia is being perpetrated by many nationalities, not just Chechens. I think that would further limit Putins options. To my knowledge, there has been absolutely no indication from any terrorist group, anywhere in the world, that any compromise will stop the attacks. That’s not a very good track record and doesn’t bode well for negotiations of any type.

  8. I agree with Chris up to a point, but the terrorists (or whatever you want to call them) in N Ireland and Sri Lanka have been pacified to some extent (intermittently) in recent years, so there is some hope. I do agree that they probably aren’t rational and aren’t therefore going to adopt a game theoretic outlook. But the bombers in Madrid did adopt this outlook, viz the elections, so there may be hope here as well.

    I agree with Tom’s response – unfortunately, there may be no correct answer. There is no a priori reason why a geo-political conflict can be solved to the satisfaction of even a sizeable number of people. Hopefully it will, but I think the more religion becomes a factor, the less likelihood there is of a decent solution.

  9. True, there is no perfect answer. I think you agree that we have to take a longterm perspective. If we just focus the post 1999 period react a knee jerk matter to recent incidents, for example, we will never get anywhere.

    In 1999, Chechnya did indeed become a staging ground for terrorism but only after years of bloodshed and bitterness, which was capped off with Yeltin’s blundering attempt to prevent peaceful secession and failure to cut the Gordian know by not granting de jure independnence.

    Would Chechnya become a staging ground for terrorists if the Russians withdrew again? Possibly, but it is still the best hope, given the alternatives.

    Why can’t Putin embrace the model already provided by the other South Asian former USSR states, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc? They have full legal independence but Russia can always send in troops if terrorists attack the homeland. Why does he insist and quashing the quite natural and logical hope of Chechyans to govern themselves? By refusing to budge on indepedence, however, Putin only *guarantees* that Chechnya will, in fact, be a staging ground for attacks…..as it is certainly now!

    BTW, I did not mean to imply that you support a U.S. alliance with Putin but, unfortunately, that is the likely outcome if others do not take condemn up to Putin’s policies in Chechnya. Dubya is desperate for allies (Kerry probably too). Given their stands on Iraq and other issues, giving Putin a free pass in Chechnya will be the first step toward such an alliance