Saturday, October 1, 2016

Chechen and Afghan Echoes of Putin’s Military Operation in Syria

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 1 – On the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s decision to introduce Russian forces into the Syrian civil war on the side of Baghdad dictator Bashar al-Assad, commentators in Russia and Ukraine are pointing to ways in which this conflict recalls Moscow’s earlier interventions in Chechnya and before that in Afghanistan.

            Their conclusions should be disturbing to all people of good will around the world given the brutality of Soviet and Russian actions in those wars, but they should also serve as a warning to Russia and Russians given that such  military adventures did not end well for their authors or their authors’ country, however many victories Kremlin propagandists may claim.

            Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer notes that in Aleppo, “the Russians are using the Chechen tactic of the period of the second Chechen war” when they destroyed civilian areas in cities in order to defeat their military opponent in the field (

                Whether this constitutes “’a war crime,’” the analyst says, is up to an international tribunal; but of course, if it is found to be such in one case, it could easily be extended to others.

            Russian military commanders believe that if they can take Aleppo, “this will be a decisive victory” in the Syrian civil war, one that will give Asad a victory and make Baghdad into what was true in Chechnya after the second Chechen war, a pro-Russian vassal that will help project Moscow’s power in the region. 

            But, Felgengauer argues, Moscow is wrong. Taking Aleppo by such massive and indiscriminate use of force may be possible, but that will not lead to the end of the civil war in Syria. That conflict will “in any case” continue; and even more people will die there as a result of the actions of Assad and his Russian allies.

                Meanwhile, Ukrainian journalist Vladislav Kudrik compares what Putin is doing in Syria with what his Soviet predecessors did in Afghanistan, a conflict that undermined the USSR, led to a Soviet withdrawal, but didn’t solve the problem of that Central Asian country (

            At the moment, he says, many experts believe that Russia has “outplayed the West,” but most of them see this as a short-term rather than long-term  result because, in the view of many of them, “Syria is becoming for Moscow a new Afghanistan,” a place it cannot withdraw from without risks at home and abroad but that it cannot gain what it hoped for either.

            Moscow’s main goal in going into Syria was to force the West and above all the US to make a trade, with the West paying for Russian cooperation against terrorism in the Middle East with an agreement to end sanctions against the Russian Federation for what Putin is doing in Ukraine.  But if that was Moscow’s goal, it has clearly failed.

            Its actions have increasingly infuriated the West, which has stepped up its criticism of what Moscow is doing with its bombing of civilians in Aleppo, threatened to break off all talks on Syrian issues, and even to introduce new economic sanctions against Russia.  Most important, the West has refused to make any grand bargain with Putin.

            What is worse for Moscow, experts like Igor Semivolos, the director of Kyiv’s Center for Near East Research, say, is that Moscow has little choice but to keep fighting despite the increasing costs it is imposing on itself by that policy.  “In authoritarian regimes,” Semivolos note, “defeat in war usually very quickly leads to the fall of the regime.”

            Moscow is thus caught in a trap of its own making, incapable of winning either on the ground or in diplomacy but equally unwilling to take the risks involved of pulling out entirely. Russian leaders know what happened after Gorbachev pulled out of Afghanistan, and they don’t want the same outcome.


Medvedev Backs Radical Reform of Structure of Russian State

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 1 – In another indication that Russia may be on the brink of radical reform of its state structures and of how such a development may open a Pandora’s box of problems for the Kremlin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says that it is “necessary to replace the entire system of government administration” for another.

            Yesterday, Moscow’s “Kommersant” newspaper reported that Medvedev had said that “he could not but agree” with Aleksey Kudrin that “it is important not only to achieve all [social] but also “it is necessary to replace the entire system of state administration” with something new (

            The prime minister did not specify exactly what he personally had in mind; but Kudrin, the former finance minister and current head of the Moscow Center for Strategic Planning, earlier this week remarked that “the governors of Russian regions must be given more freedom in decision making (

            Since the Duma vote, there have been many articles suggesting Vladimir Putin plans to reform state structures in radical ways. For a discussion of some of these ideas, see But most of these articles have acted as if Putin now has a free hand to act as he wants.

            Medvedev’s intervention, to the extent that it is more than his typical penchant for saying more than he intends, points to something else: the possibility that others, be they governors or heads of republics, will decide that they should be participants in this process, something that could trigger conflicts that the Kremlin leader would then have to respond to.

            At the very least, this opens the possibility that many Russians will begin to reflect on Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation, frequently cited during Gorbachev’s time, that “the worst time for a bad government is when it decides to begin reforming itself” because such a move can open the way for more groups to get involved than the authors of such reforms plan on.

Tajiks Remember They Lost Their Independence to Soviet Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 1 – There are many ways the former republics within the Soviet Union can be classified, but one of the most important is whether their current residents view their states as the restoration of something Moscow took away from them or as something that they achieved as a result of Soviet nationality policies.

            Ever more countries in the region now view themselves as the victims of Soviet policy rather than its beneficiaries, and that represents what may prove to be the beginning of the final stage of the disintegration of the former Soviet space so many in Moscow and in the West still talk about.

            Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania view 1991 the recovery of an independence that Stalin took away from them. Moldovans see things the same way, as do an increasing number of Belarusians and Ukrainians. Armenians and Georgians talk about their independence after the 1917 revolution. And Azerbaijanis see themselves as continuing the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

            But in Central Asia, such discussions are far less common, given that the area was colonized by tsarist Russia and then divided up by Stalin’s policy of national-territorial “delimitation.”  Nonetheless, some Tajiks, are now looking back to the Emirate of Bukhara as a predecessor of their current state that Moscow suppressed.

            This past week at a meeting of Dushanbe’s Dialogue of Civilizations Club, Tajik historian Namoz Khotamov discussed “how we lost” not only Tajik’s national “independence” but also and importantly for the present and future, “Bukhara and Samarkand” (

                The Bukharan emirate, he pointed out, lost its independence in 1868 when Russian forces advanced and forced the emir to accept the position of Russia’s “vassal.”  But in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government confirmed the independence of the Bukharan emirate,” meaning that it was an independent state when the Bolsheviks seized power.

            After a time of troubles during the Russian civil war, Tajikistan was attacked and occupied by the Red Army under the command of Mikhail Frunze. “Objectively,” Khotamov says, this was “a progressive event.” The emirate of Bukhara was a backward and repressive state.

            But “at the time, the Bolshevik invasion and the revolutionary transformations which it led to brought the population many misfortunes and complicated the political, economic, and social relationships” among the Tajiks.  Among the most serious of these losses was the fact that “we lost our independence.”

            As a result, the Tajiks became the objects of Moscow’s policies rather than subjects in control of their own destiny.  Because of that, when Tajikistan was created, the Tajik cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were included in Uzbekistan, despite the urgings of Soviet foreign affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin that they be part of Tajikistan.

            Moscow’s decision to put Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Khotamov said, “had one additional objective reason: In January 1929, after the revolt of Afghan Tajiks, power in Kabul was seized by their leader Khabibullah Kalakani, more well-known as Bachai Sako.”

            “Stalin was afraid of the rise of yet another strong Persian-language republic neighboring Afghanistan and Iran, because he considered that they could unite and threaten the interests of Soviet Russia in Central Asia,” Khotamov concluded.

            As so often in this part of the world, these nominally historical discussions are not about the past but about the present and future, and to the extent that other Tajiks feel as the Dushanbe historian does, that both explains and represents a challenge to what the current Moscow government is seeking to do there.