The Invisible War

Suicide bombings are now threatening to become a fixture of Russia's war against the Chechens. Two weekends ago two suicide bombers killed 14 and wounded dozens of others at a Moscow rock concert. Then last week a member of the Moscow bomb squad died attempting to disarm an explosive device taken from the backpack of a young Chechen woman as she entered a restaurant in the city center.

Indeed, the war in the separatist republic is as brutal as ever--despite Moscow's proclamations to the contrary. Vladimir Putin's generals long ago declared the conflict over, yet every week about a dozen Russian soldiers die in Chechnya in ambushes or remote-controlled mine attacks. Moscow's security forces counter by detaining anyone suspected of cooperating with the guerillas--and the detainees often end up missing for good. According to the Russian human-rights organization Memorial, Russian troops removed four young men from the village of Chechen Aul last week; they haven't been heard from since. Indeed, the Russian prosecutor's office says there have been 1,896 abduction and kidnapping cases in Chechnya since 1999. But that's nothing compared to the total losses: since the conflict began in 1994 (broken by a brief peace from 1996 to 1999), some 25,000 Russian soldiers--and far more civilians--have lost their lives.

You'd never know it by listening to Putin's allies. Even those who have a bone to pick with Putin over Iraq--chiefly Tony Blair and George W. Bush--have bought into the Kremlin line that the Chechen war has simmered down to a minor police action and a smoothly unfolding "political process." When President Bush met with the Russian leader in St. Petersburg in May, he assured Putin that "the United States and Russia face a common threat from terrorism." And during Putin's state visit to Britain last month, Prime Minister Blair only had words of praise for Russia's efforts to find "a political solution"-- disregarding the fact that there are still some 80,000 Russian troops stationed in and around Chechnya.

So why the silence? For one thing, Putin's men have been highly successful at cracking down on unfavorable coverage from the war zone. Journalists who have attempted to report from there independently have been arrested by Russian security forces, denied Russian visas or hampered by extremely strict guidelines that virtually guarantee a pro-Moscow view of events. Dispatches from Russian journalists are routinely censored or softened by the authorities, in keeping with Putin's steady rollback of press freedoms in recent years.

But that's only part of the answer. A more fundamental reason is that Putin has done a masterful job of playing up Russia's post-9-11 role as a member of the "war against terrorism." Not only has Russia helped the United States with intelligence and political support in the war against the Taliban, but Putin has also been skillful at linking his war against the Chechen separatists to the larger struggle against terror. He has deliberately played up the Qaeda threat in Chechnya. When he met U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell after bombings in Chechnya and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Putin called them "links in the same chain of acts by international terrorists."

He has been just as savvy at deflecting criticism by pointing up Western Europe's own trouble spots--namely, Northern Ireland. A former Russian general recently answered the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's criticisms of the Kremlin's conduct by admonishing the British representative to "restore order in Northern Ireland" before making any comments on Chechnya. But Russia's war in Chechnya is barely comparable to the conflict in Northern Ireland. "People do not disappear in Northern Ireland as a result of nightly raids conducted by unidentified masked men arriving on military vehicles without number plates," says Moscow-based Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch.

The Chechen war now has a classic terrorist component, exacerbated by the Russians' continued use of indiscriminate force. There were no suicide bombers in the first Chechen War. Now the Chechen blood feud with Moscow shows every sign of deepening into an interminable Israeli-Palestinian-style ethnic vendetta--unless the Kremlin can think of a new approach. If Putin's Western allies were really his friends, that's what they would tell him.