“What, one might think, do the irrational acts of two young American citizens of Chechen origin have in common with the Syria war,” asked the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta in an editorial last week.
To most in Washington, the quick and easy answer to this bizarre question is: nothing. But for Vladimir Putin and much of the Moscow elite, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are indistinguishable from the rebels who are trying to bring down the blood-drenched regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It’s worth exploring this twisted logic. It explains why Russia continues to support and supply Assad even as he systematically uses artillery, Scud missiles and, most likely, deadly sarin gas against his own people, but it also shows why Russia and the United States should never become full partners in counterterrorism, as Putin proposed last week.
Let’s look first at the wars in Syria and Chechnya — which, in fact, have quite a lot in common. In both countries, decades of repression prompted a popular rebellion with democratic goals. In both, the old regime refused to accept a new order. Instead, the predominantly secular independence movement of Chechnya, like the predominantly secular democracy movement of Syria, was subject to a massive military onslaught that made no distinctions among peaceful protesters, militants and innocent bystanders.
Putin oversaw the second Russian invasion of Chechyna in 1999, after the failure of an earlier campaign. The Chechen capital of Grozny, like the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo, was targeted indiscriminately by tanks and artillery and reduced to rubble. Thousands of suspected Chechen militants were abducted, tortured and killed. Villages where rebels were suspected to be operating were sealed off and subjected to sweeps in which all men and many boys were taken away. Though an accurate death toll has never been established, tens of thousands were killed.
The first leader of independent Chechnya, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was so secularized that, according to the Economist magazine, he was not sure how many times a day Muslims pray. Another, Aslan Maskhadov, won a democratic election in 1997 with 59 percent of the vote, compared with 23 percent for an Islamist opponent. Both were assassinated by Russia. As the relentless offensive continued, the Chechen resistance, like that of Syria, radicalized. Islamic extremists filtered into the country from elsewhere and began building their own organizations.
Like Assad, Putin from the beginning of the war had claimed that the only resistance was terrorist. His brutality eventually made his propaganda mostly true; since 2002, attacks by extremist Chechens have haunted the North Caucasus as well as Moscow. Putin has responded to those with an equally heavy hand. When Chechens seized a Moscow theater in 2002, security forces killed 130 hostages by flooding the facility with gas. When a middle school in Beslan, North Ossetia, was taken over by another terrorist cell in 2004, security forces stormed it with heavy weapons; more than 330 hostages died, most of them children.
Chechnya today is under the thumb of Ramzan Kadyrov, a murderous former militia leader and close associate of Putin who has targeted not only Chechen rebels but also independent journalists and human rights activists who report on his repression. According to the State Department, he “has been implicated personally” in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s most renowned journalists, who was gunned down in Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006 — Putin’s birthday.
From Putin’s point of view, Assad is simply and appropriately following the Chechnya playbook. All opposition is deemed terrorist; overwhelming force is the sole response, without regard for civilian casualties. What enrages the Kremlin is its perception that the West draws distinctions among the rebels of Syria — or Chechnya. “I was always appalled when our Western partners and the Western media called the terrorist, who did bloody crimes in our country, ‘insurgents’ and almost never terrorists,” Putin said last week.
As Putin sees it, the United States is “dividing terrorists and extremists into friends and foes,” as Nezavisimaya Gazeta put it, using drones to kill some in al-Qaida, backing others in Syria and granting asylum to Chechens like the Tsarnaev family. The right response to the Boston bombing, he suggested, is to cease making such distinctions: “If we truly join our efforts, we will not allow these strikes and suffer such losses.”
Here’s another way of looking at it: It was Putin’s own refusal to distinguish legitimate Chechen demands for independence from terrorism that created the jihadist movement in the North Caucasus, which in turn helped to radicalize the Tsarnaevs. By refusing to support secular demands for democratic change in Syria, Putin is now helping to produce a new generation of extremists. Far from being a partner in counterterrorism, Vladimir Putin is one of the larger sources of the problem.