Elusive, swift-striking Chechen guerrillas have been Russia's most ferocious and resolute internal enemy for almost two centuries, and dozens of Russian troops continue to die weekly in Moscow's latest 30-month-old campaign to subdue them. Some reports say US forces may now be squaring off against the same deadly foe in Afghanistan hundreds of Chechen fighters who have embraced Al Qaeda's global jihad.
"There are a lot of them, and they sure know how to fight," an un-named US officer told Agence France-Presse after US troops clashed with Chechen guerrillas in this month's "Operation Anaconda," aimed at corralling diehard Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan's eastern mountains. General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces, was more circumspect at a Moscow press conference last week. "The number of nationalities represented in the detainees we have is about 35 and, to be sure, the Chechen nationality is represented among those nations," he said.
Russian veterans say they are not surprised to hear the Americans are encountering hard-core Chechen fighters in Afghanistan, and finding the going tough. "Chechens are fanatical soldiers," says Viktor Putilov, chairman of the Union of Vityaz Veterans, an association of former spetznaz special forces troopers. "The first thing a male Chechen baby is given is a weapon, and they grow up believing a man's only destiny is to fight. Their great strength in battle is that they do not think of their own lives, or anyone else's."
But most experts who study the tiny, traditionally Muslim republic of Chechnya say they doubt its legendary warriors have joined Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in large enough numbers to become its "biggest single component," as some reports have claimed. For one thing, they say, most Chechens are not religious. "Islam did not strike deep roots among the Chechens, and has played only a slight role in their rebellions against Russian rule in the past," says Alexander Iskanderyan, head of the independent Center for Caucasus Studies in Moscow. "Religion is not the key to understanding Chechens; their painful past is."
Many experts agree that a history of bloody defeat, mass repression and bitter exile, combined with a martial culture in which boys become full-fledged soldiers at age 12, may have led significant numbers of young Chechen men to join Al Qaeda, seeking revenge not just against Russia, but the entire non-Muslim world. "The Chechens cannot forget or forgive the mass suffering they have endured, and which they continue to bear," says Svetlana Omarova, an expert with the Confederation of Repressed Peoples of the former USSR, a human rights organization. "This is not to offer excuses, but one must understand how profoundly offended this nation is. These are men who are used to fighting for a lost cause."
General Mikhail Yermolov, who led Russian forces in a ruthless 30-year campaign to crush Chechnya in the 19th century, called them "congenital rebels." Novelist Mikhail Lermontov, who took part in that struggle, was more admiring of the Chechens, writing in 1832: "Their god is freedom; their law is war."
Yermolov conquered Chechnya by burning its forests to deny cover to the guerrillas, and by killing dozens of Chechen captives for every Russian soldier he lost. Later Chechen rebellions against czarist and Soviet rule were put down with equal ferocity. In 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and deported the entire nation, half a million people, to Central Asia and Siberia. An estimated 150,000 of them died in the forced winter march.
"Deportation and the exile that followed united the Chechens, in bitterness, sorrow, and rage," says Vladimir Dmitriyev, a top expert on the north Caucasus, with Russia's Institute of Ethnology in St. Petersburg. "We are reaping the harvest today, as the Chechens are the only Russian national minority who are absolutely unreconciled to being part of the Russian Federation."
Hoping to restart contact between the Kremlin and Chechen separatists, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly and the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, organized a forum, called the Chechen Consultative Council, which had its first meeting in Moscow last week. The forum has not been endorsed by President Vladimir Putin, nor did the Kremlin-backed civilian Chechen administration or rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov send representatives to the meeting.
Post-Soviet Russia has fought the Chechens twice. In 1994 President Boris Yeltsin sent in troops to squelch a nationalist independence drive. The Russians were defeated by Chechen irregulars in a 20-month war that killed up to 80,000 people, mainly civilians. In 1999, after a string of terrorist bombings in Russian cities blamed on, but never proven to be the work of Chechen rebels the Kremlin invaded again.
Russian officials say that after the first war, Chechnya spiraled into lawlessness and became a staging ground for the global pan-Islamic jihad symbolized by bin Laden. The FSB security service, the domestic successor of the Soviet KGB, has provided evidence that money collected by terrorist-front "charities" around the Islamic world has flowed into Chechnya to underwrite rebel military operations. The FSB also claims that up to 1,500 foreign Muslims, turned out by Al Qaeda terror training camps in Afghanistan, are fighting against Kremlin forces in Chechnya while "hundreds" of Chechen military specialists migrated to Afghanistan in recent years to work for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. These allegations appear to jibe with US forces' reports of violent contact with Chechen fighters there.
But experts say the evidence should be weighed carefully. "Sometimes I wonder if the Americans don't emphasize the presence of Chechens in Afghanistan just to please Moscow," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "Of course, there are some; there have always been some Chechen volunteers and mercenaries fighting in wars around the Near East and Central Asia.
"But as far as anyone can estimate, the majority of Chechen men are still in Chechnya or the immediate region, and they are continuing to fight the only enemy that has ever mattered to them, which is Russia."