Sunday, April 09, 2006

What to do about Chechnya?

The Chechen Conflict offers a glimpse on a small scale, what the Global War on Terror is likely to resemble in a few years time, if the US insists on countering its terrorism problem as Russia has. Russia has adopted a no-negotiation policy with regards to the Chechen separatists. Russia regards the Chechens they are fighting as terrorist who need to be eradicated. However, Russia’s policy has been largely unsuccessful, even given that the Russian army has killed virtually all the indigenous Chechen leaders identified at the start of the conflict. More leaders have sprung up, and foreign Islamists have thrown in with the local Chechen resistance. The Russians have not shown the ability to destroy the Chechen forces, and the Chechens have shown no ability to do anything but strike back with terrorism against civilians, and small scale harassment attacks against the Russian forces on the ground. There is no sense of impending resolution on the battlefield, or any where else in this conflict.

The Mediator in the Chechen simulation succinctly distilled the conflict down to its essence; 1) the Russians have a veto in the UN, which forestalls that organization from serving as mediator. 2) The Russians and the Chechen cannot agree even on the type of conflict they are having, with the Russians seeing the war as a battle to prevent secession, and the Chechens fighting to prevent genocide. 3) Neither side can muster the power to defeat the other. And finally 4) neither side has a reason to end the conflict. The Mediator suggests that all this perhaps adds up to an impasse that the sides must address.

The Chechen conflict certainly looks like an impasse. Since 1994 Russia has attempted to quell the uprising in Chechnya but the justification for that action has changed. “If Yeltsin's war was purportedly about preserving the union, Putin's has now become about defending it -- against bandits, terrorists, and radical Islam.” (King) The conflict has mutated over the years but neither side has been able to establish control. The status quo is one of kidnappings on both sides, press censorship and reprisal killings. The conflict is now between a pro-Russia ruling clique against an Islamist resistance made up mostly of foreign fighters. After consulting the most recent stories about Chechnya of the pro-Russian and the pro Chechen, there are stories of military victories by their respective sides, but very little about gaining control. The Mediator’s assessment that Chechnya is at impasse seems prescient.

Mayer has a benign view of impasses, arguing that there are often good reasons for the parties to be in impasse, often because an impasse can serve the objective of one or both parties. Mayer calls these impasses which serve the needs of one or the other in a conflict “tactical impasses” and characterizes them in this way: “when disputants refuse to proceed with a resolution effort in an attempt to increase their negotiating power, to put pressure on others to make concessions, or to enhance their negotiating position in some way.” Mayer goes on to note that “tactical impasses usually result from a short-term calculation of costs and benefits and usually do not last very long.” (Mayer, pg 169) Given that the Chechen conflict is entering its 12th year, this impasse seems to have moved past the tactical into what Mayer calls the “genuine.”

“Genuine impasse occurs when people feel unable to move forward with a resolution process without sacrificing something important to them…Usually, disputants experience this kind of impasse as beyond their control, and feel they have no acceptable choice but to try to remain there.” (Mayer, pg 171) This quotation accurately describes what is happening in Chechnya. Charles King, in the September 24, 2004 issue of calls the conflict “Russia's unwinnable war against Chechen secessionism.” The war may well be unwinnable, but it is also one that the Russian government, for reasons related to the oil trade, but largely for psychological reasons, cannot avoid. Boris Yeltsin, on a fishing trip to Norway, gave some insight into the Russian point of view: “Russia must not allow Chechnya to break away, nor can Russian authorities ‘negotiate with bandits.’” (Washington Times) Yeltsin asserts that Russia cannot allow secession of Chechnya, as if that is a self-evident proposition. Now, after 12 years of fighting, and a quarter of the Chechen population dead or having fled, Russia has too much invested, in terms of lives lost, and the Chechens have perpetrated too many atrocities to allow any negotiations, much less concessions. But on a deeper level than this strictly pragmatic consideration, Russian people are predisposed to resist the breakup or loss of any part of their territory they consider as part of Mother Russia. Chechnya is such a part. The Russian government cannot relinquish their hold on Chechnya.

The situation in Chechnya is a genuine impasse, and not a benign one. Sensing the intractability of this conflict, the participants in the recent simulation offered various means of breaking the stalemate, the majority of which revolved around calling in some external international body to mediate, intercede, or create some kind of buffer between the forces which would allow a cooling off period. After some time had passed, most participants advocated convening some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow the airing of grievances with the hope that exposing the truth about atrocities on both sides would prevent reprisal violence.

This recommendation of truce, followed by peacekeeping, mediation and a TRC is much more likely to be successful in an environment without an active low intensity conflict (like South Africa) or where the dominant power in the conflict is willing to acquiesce to the process (like East Timor). Russia has shown zero willingness to “negotiate with bandits” as Yeltsin put it, or open the conflict to international news media, much less mediation groups. Further, Russia has the diplomatic power to prevent any international organization from imposing a settle, and Russia has the military means to resist any power from crossing its borders to force a truce.

The other disputant, Chechnya, has been infiltrated and radicalized by the presence of Islamic fundamentalists who are ideologically motivated to fight. These fundamentalists see the battle in Chechnya as one to defend their faith. They have no desire to negotiate because there is nothing that Russia can offer them that tops the heavenly rewards their faith offers them should they die in the battle. So, one disputant cannot concede land because to do so is a psychological impossibility while the other cannot concede because to do so would be a blasphemy.
One additional solution not mentioned in the simulation but suggested by the intractability on both sides is that one side or the other will give up through exhaustion. Both sides are apparently trying this solution. The Chechens have brought the war into Russian urban centers in the hope that the population of Russia will tire of the losses and demand Russian forces withdrawal from Chechnya. Russia has apparently embarked on a “scorched earth” policy of their own in Chechnya, outside the watch of the media. These tactics worked in the US Civil War and World War II, the theory goes, they may work in Chechnya. However, this hope for victory though exhaustion is illusory. The Chechens have access to unlimited capital through petrodollars controlled by sympathetic Islamic regimes, and virtually unlimited fanatical recruits who will flock to their banner. Russia has massive material advantage, and enough authoritarianism extant in their government to ignore popular discontent over the pursuit of the war. Exhaustion no longer has a place. “Wars are limited with exacting refinement to achieve very specific political objectives. In such a world, the strategy of exhaustion—a strategy that helped bring decisive victory in some of the most horrific conflicts mankind has ever seen—no longer has a place. Its provocative nature, the greater perceived benefits of peace, and the scaled-down nature of modern conflicts have all combined to bring about its obsolescence.” (Smith)

The critical factors in this conflict are the attitudes of those in the conflict. Negotiation, military defeat, and attrition are not effective weapons against ideologies. The only effective weapon against intractable ideologies is utter, unconditional surrender like in the US Civil War and World War II, or by having the more irrational elements of the ideology collapse in the face of moral suasion over time as happened to the anarchists at the turn of the century. As Smith pointed out, the era where one combatant can force an opponent into unconditional surrender has probably past. So, we are left with the idea that one or the other side in the Chechen conflict will experience an evolution in their ideology so that they are less confrontational, and more willing to reach past the impasse to craft a solution. Unfortunately, as the Islamists move toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons, combined with their enthusiasm for suicide missions, time is not something in abundance. The world may be compelled by necessity to return to a concept though to be passé: forcing surrender conditions onto an abjectly defeated enemy.
Sources cited

King, Charles. “Crisis in the Caucasus: A New Look at Russia's
Chechen Impasse.” Foreign Affairs Magazine; March/April 2003.

Mayer, Bernard. Dynamics of Conflict Resolution. Jossey Bass
(San Francisco); 2000.

Smith, Lawrence M. “Rise and Fall of the Strategy of
Exhaustion”. Army Logistician Magazine; November/December

Washington Times. “UPI Hears…” 19 August 2004.