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Reflections

Apr 17, 2009 | 00:09 GMT

Geopolitical Diary: Russia Announces Mission Complete

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee announced on Thursday that it has "canceled the decree imposing an anti-terror operation on the territory of Chechnya." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov responded to the announcement, pronouncing April 16 a national holiday, saying that Chechnya "is a peaceful, developing territory, and canceling the counterterrorism operation will only promote economic growth in the republic." The announcement from the Kremlin makes official what has been the reality on the ground for effectively the last three years. Moscow has in fact been referring to the war in Chechnya in the past tense since 2007, and there was a significant drop-off in Russian security force operations in 2008. Chechnya is ruled by Kadyrov's pro-Kremlin security force of 40,000 strong. And the traditional seasonal uptick in violence that arrives with every snowmelt in the mountains in the spring has not been seen as a threat, with only occasional violence being seen. However, by officially announcing its "mission accomplished" in Chechnya, the Kremlin sends a message to the rest of the world that it is in firm control of its territory, that it knows how to fight radical Islamist insurgencies and that it knows when a mission is indeed accomplished. That Russia can confidently argue it has a grasp of any of the three variables is a considerable improvement over the perception both the Russians and the world had of Moscow's ability to rule its vast territory in the 1990s. The confidence level in Russia during the 1990s and Russia in 2009 are incomparable (although many of the structural problems of the 1990s essentially remain unfixed today). In the 1990s, Russian confidence hit rock bottom from the shock of the economic collapse, reduction of its military to scavenging its own weapons for survival and the descent of its cities into poverty, crime and drug abuse. Above all events that characterized the mood in Russia, the loss at the hands of Chechen militants in the First Chechen War (1994-1996) was one of the most damaging. What Russians learned from their embarrassing losses in the First Chechen War is that so much of the power in the international realm comes down to perception in the end. Military might is, of course, crucial, but despite the Kremlin's vast array of nuclear weapons and armored tank divisions left over from the Cold War, it was perceived as the 21st century version of the "Sick Man of Europe" — a tired and crumbling empire surrounded by vultures already fighting amongst each other for the juiciest pieces (Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic states and Ukraine). Russia saw real consequences of this when it stood by impotently while the West pulverized its one real ally in Europe with NATO's air war against Serbia. Meanwhile, pieces of its former Soviet realm — including Estonia, a stone's throw away from its second largest metropolitan center (St. Petersburg) — joined NATO. Of course, Russia's impotence was also grounded in reality. Various factions and oligarchs had ravaged the centralized government in Moscow from within, and the economic crisis in 1998 sapped what little energy it had left in the 1990s. But just as the First Chechen War signaled one of the ultimate humblings of Russia, so the Second Chechen War coincided with its rejuvenation — especially with a new and revitalized Kremlin led by then-Prime Minister (and later, President) Vladimir Putin. To put the new Russia in perspective, the official ending of war in Chechnya signals to the West that Russia has handled its Islamist insurgency, while the United States still fights the same fight in the Middle East, chasing militants from country to country. This is certainly how the official announcement is going to be welcomed in Moscow and spun by the Kremlin for consumption at home. Whereas Chechnya was once an Achilles' heel for the Kremlin, a pressure point that the West could use to knock Russia off balance, the message will be that it is now a symbol of Moscow's complete control over its vast territory. Of course, remnants of the Chechen Islamist insurgency are likely to continue to cause mischief from time to time and neighboring Ingushetia is always a threat to flare up with violence. However, the existential threat of Chechnya leading to a domino effect of the collapse of Moscow's ability to assert a monopoly of use of force over its territory is no longer a pressing concern for the Kremlin (although one that Russia's rivals will always be able to tap when Moscow's hold on power lessens). Furthermore, the official announcement of the end of combat operations in Chechnya signals to the rest of the world — and particularly Russia's neighbors — that some of the most elite and veteran military units are now available for stationing in various other locations. This will certainly keep Poland, the Baltic states and Central Asia nervous. The announcement therefore culminates what began with Moscow's war in Georgia in August 2008: The change in the perception of Russia, both at home and abroad, of a country being affected by geopolitical realities to a country capable of shaping a reality of its own. Moreover, perception in international affairs often allows one to carry on beyond the actual realities on the ground.
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