Western spies help fight Chechens
While the West has been verbally hammering Russia over human rights abuses in Chechnya, its intelligence agencies have been providing Moscow with information on Chechen Islamic "terrorists."Skip to next paragraph
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News reports here that the head of the German intelligence service paid a secret visit to Chechnya last month are putting the West's policy toward Moscow's campaign in the Caucasus in an awkward light.
Over the weekend news leaked out that August Hanning, chief of German intelligence, visited Chechnya for two days in late March, apparently to find out whether Chechens were obtaining weapons and money from international Muslim contacts or from the drug trade.
The reports underscore the close post-cold-war cooperation that is developing between Western and Russian agencies in the fight against global terrorism. But they also highlight a dilemma that emerges when the country on the receiving end of the help is accused of human-rights abuses in routing out the alleged terrorists.
Human-rights proponents and opposition parties here are crying duplicity, having found another reason to criticize the West's slow and timid criticism of the bloody Russian campaign. Intelligence experts and the government, however, are claiming that the visit was business as usual for spooks in the post-cold-war world.
"The Russians and Western Europeans share a common problem in terms of terrorism and organized crime," says Paul Beaver of Jane's Intelligence Review in London.
At recent G-8 summits, the world's seven richest industrial nations, including the United States, and Russia have pledged to work together to fight terrorism and organized crime. In September, following a devastating string of terrorist attacks on apartment blocks in Russian cities, Boris Yeltsin reportedly phoned Chancellor Gerhard Schrder and requested assistance in uncovering the crimes.
In the framework of G-8, Western intelligence services, such as the CIA and the German BND, passed information to the Russians on suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his training camps in Afghanistan.
But cooperation with Moscow is nothing new, says a specialist who requested anonymity because of his connections to both Western and Russian intelligence. As early as 1991, he says, there were "systematic contacts" between the BND and the dissolving Russian KGB. For example, the Germans have trained foreign agents in recent years.
"There is no more East-West enmity," says the specialist. "In effect there are no global threats other than the terrorism that has sprung from a certain form of Islam. There has to be a transnational answer, so the services must talk with each other."
The BND has reportedly been trying to gain access to Chechnya for a year, long before Moscow cracked down on the rebels.
"The Germans have a lot of experience gleaned from working against the Soviets," says Beaver. "So they are ideally placed of all the Western Europeans because of their close proximity during the cold war to operate there."
"It's interesting that Germany has military missions in a variety of countries in former Soviet Central Asia," says Beaver. "And in the Caucasus in particular.... The reason is that Azerbaijan is a major Western prize in oil."
The Kremlin has justified its campaign in Chechnya as an effort to wipe out "bandits and terrorists," and the reported cooperation with Western intelligence services adds a certain legitimacy to this justification. Yet while the West and Moscow share the fear of an Islamic insurgency along Russia's southern flank, they are also competing for influence over Caspian oil - and whether it will continue to flow through Russia, or through a US-supported pipeline via Georgia to Turkey.
At the end of March, CIA director George Tenet was in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan for secret meetings with regional leaders. The region could become "a breeding ground for a new generation of Islamic extremists," Mr. Tenet told Congress in February. "As militants are pushed out of Chechnya, they may seek refuge - and stoke militancy - in the South Caucasus and Central Asia."
Later this month Madeleine Albright travels to Central Asia.
While such high-profile visits may feed Russian paranoia about Western incursions into what Moscow sees as its sphere of influence, the reality of global terrorism has forced cooperation among former rivals.
"There's a lot of cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies," says Sergei Kazyonov of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research in Moscow. "The Germans are trying to redeem their former sins - during the previous Chechen war - of letting Chechen commanders receive medical and other forms of assistance in Germany."
Similarly in the West, realpolitik has taken precedent over lip service to human rights. "Western Europeans are particularly concerned about an insurgence of newly established criminal gangs based on the old clan system in the Caucasus," says Beaver.
Yet at home, critics are attacking the Schrder government for the alleged Chechen spy mission at a time when Moscow was blocking humanitarian-aid organizations and human-rights groups from entering the region.
* Fred Weir in Moscow contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society