At the height of America's agony over Vietnam, Senator George Aiken of Vermont suggested that the Johnson administration should declare victory and just leave. Whether or not that was feasible then, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently intends to pretend to do the same.
In the campaign for an "election" of a president for Chechnya in October, he has personally stage-managed the polls so that only one candidate is left. The other candidates have either been bought off with the promise of a job in Moscow, or frightened off. Putin's candidate, Akhmed Kadyrov, will supposedly preside over a Chechnya that is gradually being reintegrated into Russia's administrative and political structure. However, in fact Kadyrov's election will merely perpetuate the nightmarish rule that has characterized Chechnya for over a decade.
Kadyrov controls his own private army and vodka distribution to the Russian army. His minions strike fear into the hearts of the Chechens, as do the Russian army and the other gangs of marauders disguised either as liberators or as the Russian army.
Meanwhile, the Russian army loses 12 soldiers a week, yet proclaims victory even as its policy follows Tacitus' observation about the Romans in Germany, that wherever they made a desert they called it peace. Thus, whatever Putin may proclaim in the wake of Kadyrov's "victory", in fact nothing will change, and the election will represent just another charade, one of many that have come to characterize both Russian politics and Chechnya.
This phoney aspect of Russia's "war on terrorism" in Chechnya aptly characterizes its policies towards the broader terror war in Central Asia. Under cover of rhetoric about organizing for the common defense, it still seeks to compete with America for hegemony in Central Asia and is organizing all kinds of military organizations to subordinate those states into an alliance that it will lead against terrorism. In fact, those organizations are more likely platforms for continuing Russian domination of the area, nothing more.
Certainly, Russia is hardly in a position to offer much palpable aid to those states, given its own lamentable military situation. In fact, Russia repeatedly proves that it cannot begin to offer the tangible assistance required to improve security conditions in the region. Thus, on October 16, it was revealed that most of the narcotics coming from Afghanistan go through areas of Tajikistan patrolled by Russian soldiers. We already know from previous reports that they and their superiors have long since been corrupted by this trade, to the extent that pilots of Russian military transport were bringing narcotics to Moscow from Tajikistan.
Similarly, it is clear to most observers that the Russian army in general, and especially in Chechnya, is in danger of degenerating into an armed rabble. The record of atrocities committed by the various members of Russia's multiple armed forces there is well documented. One general even publicly admitted that his troops were nothing better than a drunken mob. Many of these faults are traceable to the abiding failure to launch military reform, leaving the armed forces as the most unreformed sector of Russian society.
But the result of this malign neglect is an army that cannot adequately defend Russia, fight terrorism anywhere, and which in fact remains a far greater threat to the security of Russia than does anyone else. Worse yet, this situation will continue as, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, there will be no reform to create a professional army any time soon. In other words, the military and government have blocked the only kind of reform that might create an army that could effectively fight a war on terrorism or use modern technology.
The upshot is that while there is plenty of talk, there is very little that Russia can effectively do with its own resources to go after terrorism, allegedly its main threat. Yet Putin's adroit diplomacy and stonewalling have blocked any hope of a political solution in Chechnya or the effective deployment of outside pressure on Moscow to resolve the situation there peacefully.
Admittedly, to search for such a solution would be extremely difficult after all the bloodshed. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that the Chechens have certainly been penetrated by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda, this was a war of choice for Russia, undertaken to ensure Putin's ascension and then his election.
Having banked on a speedy victory, they have now miscalculated and, in truly Russian fashion, seek to hide the reality from everyone by proclaiming victory, as Aiken suggested in Vietnam. But the war will go on, and as Georgia and episodes of terrorism inside Russia already show, the longer it goes on the more likely is its diffusion into neighboring and even distant areas of Russia and the Caucasus.
Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.