30 March 2010
Moscow: No Common Threat
By Gwynne Dyer
“Whether you are in a Moscow subway or a London subway or a train in Madrid or an office building in New York, we face the same enemy,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, responding to the twin suicide bombings on the Moscow metro system that killed 39 commuters on Monday. And it’s true: the Chechens, the enemies of all mankind, are everywhere these days.
No? That’s not what she meant? Oh, she really meant that MUSLIMS are the common enemy, whether they are Chechen Muslims in Moscow or British Muslims of Pakistani descent in London or Moroccan Muslims in Madrid. That’s a relief. Then all we have to do to be safe is get rid of all the Muslims.
Hang on a minute! This just in! What she really, REALLY meant was that we all face the same enemy, a shadowy network of Islamist extremists who plot terrorist attacks against innocent people, mostly Christians, all around the world. But they aren’t true Muslims, or they wouldn’t do such terrible things. (Neither would true Christians, or true Jews, or true Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs, which is why the world is so peaceful and so just.)
Okay, I’ll stop now, but do you see why it makes me so cross? A terrible event happens somewhere, and then we have to listen to politicians talk pompous nonsense about it. Terrorism cannot be our common enemy, because it is only a technique. Enemies have to be people – and the people who use terrorist techniques, though some of them may be our enemies, have little in common from one place to another.
The Chechens, who are strongly suspected of being behind the Moscow bombs, are waging a quite traditional colonial struggle for independence. As they are Muslims, they have increasingly adopted the Islamist ideology that is now fashionable in Muslim revolutionary circles: these days they even talk of a “North Caucasian Emirate.” But in practice their sole target remains Russia, the imperial power that oppresses them.
There have never been any Chechen bombs on the London underground, or on the commuter rail network in Madrid, or in office buildings in New York, nor will there ever be. Russia, like Israel, has been remarkably successful over the years in selling other countries on the notion that they must maintain a joint front against “terrorism,” but the fact is that the only terrorist threat either government faces is from its own subject peoples.
Israel obviously has a lot at stake in its quarrel with the Palestinians, since both peoples claim the same land and there isn’t much of it. Russia has land to spare for every imaginable purpose, and there has never been much settlement by ethnic Russians in Chechnya and the other small Muslim republics of the northern Caucasus. They don’t have much economic value, either, so why not just let them go?
The answer you always hear is that it would start the unravelling of the Russian Federation itself. Letting the so-called “Union Republics” (Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, etc.) go when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 was inevitable, for they already possessed the legal status of independent countries in a voluntary association, and besides they were too big to stop. But the “republics” within Russia itself were a different matter.
Chechnya, which was conquered by Russia in the mid-19th century but rebelled every time the Russian government was weak or distracted, declared its independence in 1991. Moscow rejected the declaration on the grounds that it did not have the right to secede under the old Soviet constitution, and that letting it go would create a precedent for some of the other twenty ethnic republics within the Russian federation to leave as well.
Moscow tried to reconquer Chechnya in 1994-96 in a war that left Grozny, the capital, in ruins, and about 35,000 Chechen civilians dead. The Chechens actually defeated the Russian army, and a ceasefire in 1996 was followed by Russian recognition of Chechen independence in 1997. However, Vladimir Putin reopened the war in 1999, and Chechnya has been back under the Russian heel for the past ten years.
None of this has the slightest relevance to people outside Russia, nor does the anti-Russian terrorist campaign that was the inevitable aftermath of the Chechen defeat. It is as localised as the Basque terrorism that afflicts Spain or the occasional terrorist killings carried out by breakaway, diehard Republican groups in Northern Ireland. And as pointless, for the Chechens, too, have decisively and permanently lost.
All terrorist attacks on civilians are wicked, because they transgress one of the few boundaries that we have managed to place on war. (In fact, all attacks on civilians are wicked, including nuclear war, aerial bombing, and the “collateral damage” that occurs during conventional military operations, but never mind that.) Most wicked of all are attacks that are mere vengeance, after all hope of victory is gone.
That is what the Moscow metro bombings are, and therefore they are doubly to be condemned. But they should not be confused with some vast global terrorist conspiracy, although the Russian government naturally pushes that line. Let us hope that Hillary Clinton was just being polite to her Russian colleague when she took the same line. It would be very bad if she actually believed it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Israel…matter”)