The May 9 assassination of Moscow's puppet leader of Chechnya, Ahmed Kadyrov, underscores that Russia is today no closer to bringing stability to Chechnya than it was when the Russian military launched its first invasion of the territory in 1994. Indeed, a vicious cycle of savagery has taken hold in Chechnya that makes stability seem like a distant dream. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Russia's Restless Frontier, by three scholars affiliated the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explains how Chechnya came to be the absolute mess that it is, and goes on to explore the potential ramifications for Russia's dealings with its southern neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The book looks at Chechnya's experience from both the Chechen and Russian perspectives. From Joseph Stalin's deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan during World War II, up to the events preceding Kadyrov's death, it shows how Chechens failed to build a cohesive political voice creating the conditions that enabled separatists to take control of the region's political agenda in the aftermath of the 1991 Soviet collapse. The book also shows how President Vladimir Putin used Chechnya to establish his own political bona fides. His actions arguably were the single biggest factor in transforming Chechnya from a separatist struggle into a radical Islamic insurgency. Putin's second war succeeded in restoring Russia's control of the territory's capital Grozny, but it has failed miserably in its reconstruction phase.
The authors see Putin's actions toward Chechnya as a repudiation of a federalist concept for Russia. The authors' unfussy prose grounds this subtle contention. They describe Russia's Chechnya policy as "traditional" in its emphasis of territorial claims over political arrangements. It then discerns how this policy's tsarist and Soviet overtones can provoke intolerance among Russians, especially in light of the country's economic anxiety. The book also explains how Russian behavior encourages Islamic radicalism not only in Chechnya, but in other former Soviet republics. Trenin's history with the Russian army and Malashenko's thorough knowledge of Islam enable them to present a lucid history linking decades of culture and politics to a series of recent decisions.
For example, an early chapter skillfully boils down decades of Chechen history, clearly documenting Chechnya's tradition of egalitarianism. It also provide a clear picture of the events and motivations of Chechen interaction with the invading German army during World War II the pivotal moment in Chechnya's Soviet experience, given that it contributed to Stalin's decision to deport them en masse. The deportations broke the traditional ties that kept Chechen society together, something that helped Chechnya go careening off the tracks after Communism collapsed. The autonomous region's first self-styled president, Gen. Johar Dudayev, evinced an "authoritarian, if not dictatorial, style" that the authors called "particularly at odds with this [egalitarian] tradition of Chechen society." This sort of crisp writing summarizes the last decade. The book examines how Islamic radicalism and terrorism entered the Chechnya equation, and highlights Moscow's unblinking support for Kadyrov's puppet government. [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The authors show how Chechnya's vicious cycle started spinning: Russia's brutal behavior in its prosecution of the both wars helped radicalize Chechens. Russian commanders then began invoking the threat of Islamic radicalism to mask their own blunders and justify the continuing use of arbitrary force. At the same time, Chechnya tapped into an intolerant vein in the general Russian population, so that Putin now has little trouble in using the Chechen experience as a license to act with impunity toward anything designated, rightfully or not, as a potential source of terrorism. Meanwhile, the indifference of Russians to Chechnya's suffering has pushed an increasing number of Chechens into the embrace of radical Islam.
One of the authors, Dmitri Trenin, a former colonel, presents Russia as clinging to an Eurasianist national idea, in which Moscow strives to bridge Europe and Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Here, he and Aleksei Malashenko show how the Chechnya story forces Russia to pose either as defender of its borders, or look like an aggressor to adjacent populations.
A long chapter on how the Chechen conflict suggests that Putin, while stopping short of expansionism, considers a good offense as Russia's best defense when it comes to protecting Russia's interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. This Kremlin philosophy has been especially evident in Russia's dealings with Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Though the authors advise Russia to "nudge Central Asian autocrats to broaden their base" via expanded democracy, they know this is not in Putin's playbook.
After Kadyrov's murder, Trenin told a Washington, DC radio host that Putin's Chechnya policy is now at a dead end. Putin had put all his hopes in Kadyrov, and in the wake of the Chechen president's assassination, there does not appear to be a back-up plan in place. "The conflict in Chechnya will drag on," Trenin told WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi on May 10. "Reliance on one man was [not]