Feb 16, 2007

Book Review: Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power

Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power, by Anatol Lieven Lieven, Anatol

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, 436 pages

Lieven is a British author, journalist, and policy analyst who is presently a senior researcher at the New America Foundation, and he is a former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a journalist Lieven covered Central Europe for The Financial Times, and Pakistan, Afghanistan, the former Soviet Union, and Russia for The London Times. Chechnya - Tombstone of Russian Power reflects the time that Lieven spent in Russia, the Baltics, Transnistria, and Chechnya during the First Chechen War in 1994-96, as well as during the decades he lived and worked in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The book contains much more than a summary of the history of the First Chechen War, as Lieven uses the conflict as a backdrop for his analysis of post-Soviet Russia. The first section, titled “The War,” examines the buildup and actual conflict, while the following chapters – grouped together under the heading “The Russian Defeat”- examine why the vaunted Russian army could not succeed in defeating a vastly outnumbered Chechen resistance. Similarly, the final section, which is appropriately named “The Chechen Victory,” discuss the underlying reasons for the ability of the Chechens to achieve success against a military force with numerical and technological superiority.

Former Chechen Dzhokhar DudayevFormer Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev

While the military successes of the Chechen resistance cannot be discounted as a primary reason for the defeat of the Russians, Lieven discussed additional reasons for the Chechen victory and fairly rapid capitulation of the Russians in the First Chechen War. The 1996 assassination of ultra-nationalist Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev, argued Lieven, removed from the negotiating table a man whose fiery rhetoric hampered peace discussions. Lieven also maintained that the Chechen resistance failed to cause similar rebellions among Russia’s numerous ethnic minorities, a long-held fear of Russian leaders. The new government of Aslan Maskhadov, argued Lieven, was more “rational” than that of Dudayev, meaning that Russian leaders were less worried about the future of transCaucasian gas and oil pipelines. Finally, the decision to shelve the actual question of true Chechen independence until 2001 – agreed to by representatives from both sides – allowed both sides to save face without actually addressing the issue of Chechen sovereignty.

Lieven argued that outcome of the war can also be seen as much as an indictment of the failures of the Russian military as much it was a Chechen victory, and the Chechens were not able to duplicate their military successes in the resumption of hostilities in 1999. The author noted that the Russian forces suffered from poor training and a shortage of equipment, and the military received only small fractions of the amount of replacement parts and equipment it needed to maintain its effective strength levels. In addition, the low military pay and an administrative inability to monitor conscription efforts meant that the Russian armed forces fielded combat-ready troops far below the 1.7 million listed on paper; Lieven argued that the effective manpower levels probably dipped below 1.2 million soldiers by 1996.

Many of the Russian military weaknesses can be traced to financial roots, and Lieven provided documentation for the precipitous decline of defense expenditures by the Yeltsin government. 1997 military spending was budgeted at $18.5 billion, but the 1996-97 fianncial crisis resulted in actual otlays of only $15.3 billion. In the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and 1996, spending on weapons procurement fell to a mere one-fiftteenth of levels in 1991. By July 1997 the military has only received one-fourth of its projected budget, resulting in delays of wages to troops and an inability of the military to pay basic costs such as electricity, water, and gas.

Lieven noted that there are also a number of systemic problems in the Russian armed forces that contributed to their poor showing in the First Chechen War. Chief among these problems was the lack of an effective non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, which Lieven traced back to the First World War. This essential hierarchical component in Western armies – so sorely lacking in both the Soviet and Russian armies – leads to a lack of combat unity, troop discipline, and ultimately unit-level morale. Moreover, argued Lieven, the lack of an NCO class leads to deplorable practices such as dedovshchina, the ritualized abuse of new soldiers by older troops. New rrivals – especially, but not exclusively, soldiers from ethnic minorities – are often subject to beatings, theft, and even sexual humiliation by “grandads,” fellow soldiers with longer tenure in the armed forces.

Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994

The financial weakness of the Russian government, however, is only partly responsible for the decline in the amount of money available for use by the Russian military. Lieven argued that corruption in both the state and defense bureaucracies further reduced the already low funding levels of the Russian military. The author noted examples of administrators diverting huge sums of money - earmarked for the pay of soldiers – into investment deals and other illegal ventures. Furthermore, officers and soldiers whose pay was in arrears often decided to sell whatever materials they could: arms, amunition, vehicles, spare parts, food, and even medicine.

Ultimately, though, Lieven believes that the strength of Chechen society created a generation of resistance fighters whose will to defeat those seen as invaders – in this case, Russian troops – meant that the half-hearted Russian military actions in Chechnya were in danger of failure from the very beginning of the war. The author, placing the First Chechen War in a historical context, also noted that the Chechens and Russians have a lengthy record of conflict in the Caucasus. Chief among the historical antecedents was the decision by Stalin in 1944 to deport the entire Chechen people, exiling them to the Kazakh steppes. Although Khrushchev lifted the ban in 1956, Lieven argued that the memory of the forced migration and deaths of tens of thousands of Chechens during transport and the acclimation period serves as a rallying factor for the modern Chechen resistance.

The text is footnoted throughout, and Lieven blended a wide variety of primary and secondary sources in his narrative. A working journalist, the author used his interviews with government officials, military operatives, resistance fighters, and ordinary citizens throughout the text. Yet Lieven – who obtained an undergraduate degree in history and a doctorate in political science – brings to the reader a unique blend of journalistic on-the-ground analysis and a detached academic perspective rarely seen in the same text. The result is a work that can be used by scholars and specialists, while still remaining accessible to the learned general public. Lieven’s text is an insightful contribution to the historigraphical literature of post-Soviet Russia, and is must reading for those interested in understanding the Russian attempts to transition to a Western-style democratic capitalism.


Dariush said...

(I'm going to address the Chechen conflict itself, rather than Lieven's book, which, as I told you before, I have yet to read.)

As a lifelong Russophile, a Muslim, an admirer of Putin, and an admirer of the Chechen people I've found myself deeply torn over this issue for a long time now.

The war, or rather wars, have been waged in a manner so brutal and inhuman as to make Iraq, Afghanistan and all other recent wars and occupations, save for Congo and Rwanda/Burundi, seem like a walk in the park.

Nevertheless, the Putin and the Russians have very legitimate concerns and fears.

For one, there is no denying that all throughout the Russian Federation the Chechen Mafia is right on par with the "Russian" Mafia when it comes to organized crime.

And then, there are the even larger geopolitical concerns that Russia must deal with.

And then there's the list of highly selective and self-serving "humanitarians" who have become "friends" of the Chechen cause on the world stage.

Two predictions, which might at first some seem contradictory.

First, sooner rather than later, we will see a resurgent Russia taking its rightful place on the world stage.

Second, as John Dolan wrote in his review of Anatol Lieven's book: "He likes the Chechen for the very thorny arrogance which makes them so hated (and so feared) throughout the Caucasus. As Lieven describes them, the Chechen begin to come alive, strutting about the pages of his book like fighting dogs, saved from absurdity only by their absolute willingness to die for their clan and their honor. He describes them with such enthusiasm that it's difficult not lo like them along with him. He never quite says that he took their side in the war, and he certainly doesn't describe them as sweet or tender beings. They simply come to represent for him a pattern of honor not found in more modern societies, which is admirable in itself, outside morality: 'Since December 1994, I have come to look on the Chechen people almost as on the face of Courage herself -- with no necessary relation to justice or morality, but beautiful to see.' As Lieven implies more than once, all of us who live under Voltaire's shadow have a secret longing for something which will overcome the Golden Rule, and give us something warmer. The Chechen, he says, have found it. Lieven's admiration for the Chechen is unstained by the usual endangered-species pathos found in such descriptions. Instead of sighing that these marvelous anachronisms, the Chechen, will soon be ground under the tank-treads of modernity, he suggests that their resistance to Modernism may make them uniquely successful in a post-modern world, while modernity burns like a Russian APC in the streets of Grozny."

Dariush said...

"...the Putin..."

Serves me right for not doing "the Proofread."

historymike said...

There are a couple of occasions where Lieven's rhetoric has some Romantic overtones toward the Chechens, Dariush, but on the whole he is pretty balanced.

He notes the rise of Chechen gangsters, and describes their disproportionate presence in organized crime in post-Soviet Russia.

As far as a return of Russia to a position of prominence, this will hinge on the ability of Russian leaders to reform the military. Much of the violence and looting perpetuated by Russian troops stems from their lack of discipline and their extremely low pay.

That, and continuing to reel in the oligarchs, who have profited mightily since the post-Soviet fire sale of state industries.

Dariush said...

"There are a couple of occasions where Lieven's rhetoric has some Romantic overtones toward the Chechens, Dariush, but on the whole he is pretty balanced."

Well, just for the record, I don't hold the Romanticism against him. In fact, I share those sentiments.

Also I posted that excerpt from Dolan's review of Lieven's book, not because I thought it was damning, but largely accurate and inspiring.