Russian to conclusions

The international response to the Moscow siege captures the confusion of the war on terror.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘It is unreasonable to be too critical of the decision taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin’, says today’s Independent, claiming that the Russian authorities were faced with ‘difficult and limited choices’ for ending the Chechen rebel siege of a Moscow theatre.

The siege may have ended tragically – with the deaths of 120 hostages caused by the as yet unnamed gas pumped into the theatre by Russian troops – but according to the Independent, ‘the outcome was better than it might have been’ (1).

This has been a common response to the Moscow theatre tragedy. Outright criticism has been muted in favour of a hesitant praising of the Russian authorities for making ‘difficult decisions in difficult circumstances’ and for ‘doing their best’.

‘Putin may have had few realistic alternatives to the tactics [that his] authorities adopted’, says the Financial Times (2). For Daily Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel, ‘[T]he Russians did the only thing they could and if they lost many hostages, well, they saved many others’ (3). The Mirror couldn’t resist contrasting the Russian troops’ clumsy actions with ‘the success of the [British] SAS in storming the Iranian Embassy in 1982’ – but still concluded that ‘President Putin and his force had no alternative’ (4).

Across Europe and the USA, politicians have not condemned Russia for using lethal gas against innocent civilians – as they might have done if a different state had ended a siege in this way – but instead claim that Putin had little choice but to ‘be firm’. They cite the events in Moscow as another reason why Russia must ‘fully join the war against terrorism’. ‘I recognise that the Russians were faced with a tough choice’, said a sympathetic French politician.

So why hasn’t Russia been condemned for using ‘chemical weapons against its own people’? Because the responses to the Moscow siege have been shaped more by global concerns than by the specifics of the events themselves.

Russia’s dirty war with Chechnya is often depicted as a strange little Eastern affair, separate from the dynamics of international affairs more broadly. But in the 10 years since it started, the Chechen conflict has been shaped and influenced by the foreign policy concerns of Western elites as well as by the internal concerns of the Russian elite.

American leaders spent the Cold War condemning Russian leaders as oppressors and demanding freedom and independence for the republics that made up the Soviet Union. Yet when Boris Yeltsin sent bombers into Chechnya in December 1994, laying much of the capital Grozny to waste, Western leaders either stayed silent or offered tentative support for Russia’s attempt to resolve this ‘internal problem’ (5).

At the end of 1994, the New York Times captured the Bill Clinton administration’s stance on Chechnya: ‘The three-year insurrection cannot be allowed to stand. Although a negotiated settlement would be the best outcome, Yeltsin is justified in using military force to suppress the rebellion.’ (6) In the same month, President Clinton sent his vice-president Al Gore to Moscow to ‘offer America’s support’ to Yeltsin.

In the uncertainty and confusion of the post-Cold War 1990s, Western governments abandoned their previous talk of freedom for the former Soviet republics, and supported Russia’s attempts to clamp down on the Chechens and restore order to the state. In December 1994, the London Times claimed that ‘the weakening of Moscow’s authority…would have security implications for the whole European land mass’ (7).

In such a fearful and uncertain climate, as the institutions and certainties of the Cold War were unravelling, Western governments were not about to criticise Russian attempts to quash the Chechens.

Today, similarly global concerns are driving the reaction to the Moscow siege. Surveying the media’s uncritical response to the Russians’ use of lethal gas, the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh notes that ‘there is good reason for this restraint: Russia has a key role in the endgame now being played out by the United Nations as it comes under pressure for a showdown with Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein’. In short, writes Kavanagh, ‘we need Russia to help stop Saddam’, and ‘it’s time for Vladimir Putin to stop dithering and help us do it’ (8).

As America and Britain try to build a coalition to support invading Iraq, they are keen to win over Russia’s support – and it is this that has shaped the response to Putin’s handling of what he calls ‘Russia’s own war against terror’.

Those who did criticise Russia over the weekend tended to focus on the Russian authorities’ attitude rather than their actions. It wasn’t so much the gassing of 120 people that some found objectionable, but the way in which the Russian authorities refused to repent or ‘be open’ about what had taken place.

According to a headline in the Independent, ‘Mr Putin was right to end the siege, but let him be honest about the mistakes’. The Daily Mail’s big problem with the ending of Moscow siege was not so much the loss of life as the ‘echo of Cold War attitudes’ that followed (9).

The Mail praised Putin for showing ‘resolve and determination’ when ‘faced with a terrorist incident on such a scale’ – but it criticised the way in which the Russian authorities ‘have since acted with a mixture of arrogance and distrust [that is] all too reminiscent of Cold War attitudes’ (10).

The Times (London) said that throughout the crisis President Putin’s ‘decisiveness and cool nerves were admirable’. But ‘the greatest failure is the old Russian nemesis: the failure to be honest. No one expects total government openness during the tense hours of negotiations, but what desperate relatives and an angry nation have a right to know is how and why decisions were taken and by whom’ (11).

For many, the problem with Russia’s ending of the Moscow siege was the old-fashioned and arrogant way in which it was conducted – which is definitely out in our age of humanitarian intervention, when food parcels are dropped alongside cluster bombs and when President Bush talks about ‘my friends, the Afghan people’ while bombing Afghanistan.

Many commentators must have been relieved when Putin eventually appeared on Russian TV with moist eyes to explain his actions – and indeed, The Times praised him for ‘wisely acknowledging the cost [and] asking forgiveness for his failure to rescue all the hostages’ (12).

The response to the Moscow siege also captured the gap between rhetoric and reality in the war on terror, and the increasing surrealism of demands to attack Iraq. Somehow, some commentators managed to link the ‘bloodbath in Moscow’ (caused by Russian troops, remember) with the Bali bombing (caused by persons unknown) with the alleged threats from Iraq and the ‘newly nuclear’ North Korea. Everything was thrown together as evidence that we live in an ‘age of terrors’, which the ‘civilised world must confront’.

Under the headline ‘Chechen or North Korean, they are the very devil to sup with’, the Daily Telegraph’s Barbara Amiel responded to the Moscow siege by claiming that ‘the fight to prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction among truly evil people is the significant battle of our times’ – even though the Moscow siege had nothing to do with the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

For Amiel, ‘if a state run by people with the same tactics and aims as those holding the hostages in Moscow were allowed to acquire such weapons, the consequences would be dire’ (13) – and apparently the lesson for the West of Moscow’s siege is ‘the need to prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by evil people’, everywhere from Iraq to North Korea. How Amiel got from a Moscow theatre to North Korea is anyone’s guess.

For the Sun, the lesson of the Moscow siege that must be learned by ‘both Russia and the West’ is…. ‘Saddam has to be stopped from developing any more horrific weapons’. The Sun article, which starts out ‘understanding’ Russia’s use of lethal gases, ends by claiming that ‘Saddam has biological weapons – including incurable diseases like ebola, the plague and smallpox…. Once released, [these] deadly diseases would cause millions of deaths worldwide within months, bringing our economy and way of life to its knees’ (14).

Maybe all the talk of lethal gases and biological weapons has made more than a few commentators drowsy. Even the gassing of 120 people by the Russian authorities can be twisted into an argument for disarming Saddam before he has a chance to ‘unleash his poisons’.

In attempting to describe a ‘new evil’ allegedly threatening the civilised world, the response to the Moscow siege has in fact captured the confusion and uncertainty of the war on terror and the planned attack on Iraq.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

One war that Bush has already lost , by Mick Hume

(1) ‘Mr Putin was right to end the siege, but let him be honest about the mistakes’, Independent, 28 October 2002

(2) Leader, Financial Times, 28 October 2002

(3) ‘Chechen or North Korean, they are the very devil to sup with’, Barbara Amiel, Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2002

(4) Grim lessons of hostage nightmare, Mirror, 28 October 2002

(5) New York Times, 14 December 1994

(6) New York Times, 14 December 1994

(7) The Times (London), 21 December 1994

(8) Why we need Russia to help stop Saddam, Trevor Kavanagh, Sun, 28 October 2002

(9) ‘Echoes of Cold War attitudes’, Daily Mail, 28 October 2002

(10) ‘Echoes of Cold War attitudes’, Daily Mail, 28 October 2002

(11) Russia’s 9/11, The Times, 28 October 2002

(12) Russia’s 9/11, The Times, 28 October 2002

(13) ‘Chechen or North Korean, they are the very devil to sup with’, Barbara Amiel, Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2002

(14) Why we need Russia to help stop Saddam, Trevor Kavanagh, Sun, 28 October 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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