During his time in early-1950s Kazakhstan, exiled Russian nationalist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was able to observe the behavior of various Soviet nationalities deported by Stalin to Central Asia in the Second World War. From Estonians and Volga Germans to Kalmyks, Koreans and Crimean Tatars, none were quite like the haughty and defiant Chechens:
But there was one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission – and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man. These were the Chechens…
And here is an extraordinary thing – everyone was afraid of them. No one could stop them from living as they did. The regime which had ruled the land for thirty years could not force them to respect its laws.
The Chechens walk the Kazakh land with insolence in their eyes, shouldering people aside – and the “masters of the land” and non-masters alike respectfully make way for them. The law of vendetta creates a force field of fear – and so gives strength to its small mountain people.
Everyday Americans experienced their first encounter with Chechens in gruesome fashion on April 15th, when brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are said to have bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three and maiming scores more. The Tsarnaevs’ manhunt brought the city under effective martial law and transfixed the nation as media commentators puzzled over their motives. The postmodern consumer cannot and will not understand historical and cultural context, which nonetheless can be distilled to street smarts: don’t fool around with the Chechens.
While the Czech ambassador to Washington reassured geographically challenged Americans that his country was not Chechnya, Russians have accrued centuries of bloody and bitter experience with the Vainakh mountaineers. Life in the Caucasus, as Mikhail Lermontov artfully conveyed, is both beautiful and brutal, and its peoples possessed of a certain savage gallantry. For his friends the Caucasian highlander demonstrates magnanimity and valor; against his enemies he is driven by a lust for vengeance. The Chechen people suffered greatly from deportations, displacement and pulverizing war, yet their warriors would also visit great suffering upon Russia’s theater-goers, schoolchildren, hospital patients and the mothers of conscripts.
Leaving the wisdom of specific Russian policies aside, such carnage has proven the terrible price exacted for preventing the country’s disintegration into chaos. From one generation to the next, Moscow has been saddled with the unenviable task of pacifying the anarchic tribes of the North Caucasus due to the region’s strategic significance. And though the Avars of Dagestan can boast of Imam Shamil’s exploits, it is the formidable Chechens who have consistently demonstrated the most implacable resistance to Russian authority. In the most recent conflicts, bands of hardened fighters roaming the mountains could only be matched by Moscow’s best paratroop and spetsnaz units, and young men like Zhenya Rodionov would endure martyrdom at the hands of cruel rebel field commanders.
With the experience of two decades of war and counterinsurgency in the North Caucasus immediately at hand, the Kremlin seeks “stability” in the Chechen Republic while understanding the limitations of that concept. Billions can be funneled toward an invariably corrupt administration in Grozny and all sorts of abuses tolerated so long as Ramzan Kadyrov safeguards energy infrastructure, suppresses terror cells and keeps the teips (clans) in line. Whatever may be the dreams of Western think-tank ideologues, mid-1990s independent Chechnya was a vortex of criminality and violence not merely from war with Moscow, but from the notable proclivities of Chechen culture itself. Customary banditry and the blood-feud, as noticed by Solzhenitsyn, make for a systemically rebellious and unstable society.
It is just this instability in the region that US foreign policy has aimed to exploit in the post-Soviet era. At the time of decrepit and often drunk Boris Yeltsin’s presidential tenure, the United States initiated several semi-official projects to detach the North Caucasus from the Kremlin’s grip. Russia was in disarray, and strategic planners in Washington looked to seize the perfect opportunity to finish off their greatest geopolitical foe once and for all. Moscow could not be directly confronted, of course, since a new era in relations had supposedly dawned after the end of the Cold War. Rather, specialists within the national security apparatus would carry on as before – through secret warfare and psychological operations.
Like the Afghan mujahedin, Chechen rebels were chosen by none other than former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski as an avant-garde in the quest to undermine Russian power. Along with liberal internationalists, neoconservatives like Iraq War architect Richard Perle readily became champions of the “freedom fighters” in media fora. Associated non-governmental organizations like the Jamestown Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus have long called for a “political solution” to territorial and ethnic disputes within the Russian Federation, i.e. the demolition of Russian sovereignty. The key objectives of US policy elites vis-a-vis the North Caucasus can be summarized as follows:
- Establish new states ranging from Kosovo-style NATO protectorates to an Islamic emirate from the Black to the Caspian Sea.
- Assume control over the flow of Caspian Sea energy resources (hence the continuing US occupation of Afghanistan and encirclement of Iran).
- Deny Russian access to the Black and Mediterranean Sea basins by generating sufficient instability in the North Caucasus and southern Russia, coupled with diplomatic entrees to Ukraine.
- Weaken and fragment the Russian state to permit unchallenged US dominance over the Eurasian heartland and its vast energy wealth, as well as transit networks for arms, narcotics and migrants.
The CIA and US Department of State play a crucial role in creating opportunities for power projection in Eurasia through both covert action and public diplomacy. With this end in mind, US intelligence has deftly used Muslim militant groups against Russian interests, oftentimes subcontracting operations and funding to allied services like those of the Saudis, Jordanians, Turks and Pakistanis. Not only can we list examples of this phenomenon in the Stinger-armed mujahedin of the 1980s and a web of NGOs sustaining the Chechen cause, but also in the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Benghazi-based overthrow of Muhammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the current NATO-backed insurrection against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government. For three decades now this jihadist international has often acted in concert with US geopolitical goals, and within it the Chechens have attained legendary stature.
Despite Obama administration and official press efforts to label the Tsarnaev brothers disaffected, “self-radicalizing” jihadists, the 26-year-old boxer Tamerlan and 19-year-old Dzhokhar, seemingly just along for the ride, come across as assets, not operational planners. Returning to the scene of the attack, we spot other unaccounted figures besides the two young Chechens. A Saudi student injured in the blast was investigated and cleared of culpability, but questions have been raised concerning his background and status in the US. Who exactly were the numerous private security contractors resembling ex-special operators, and what was their assignment at the marathon? And who was the plainclothes agent, blurred in surveillance footage, speaking into his earpiece right after Tamerlan and Dzhokhar pass by, presumably on their way to the bombing?
Matters become stranger still when reviewing what is known of the Tsarnaevs’ connections to the underworld of espionage and terrorism. Tamerlan had twice recently travelled to the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya in six-month stints, so what was the degree of his involvement with the local Salafist jamaats? The extent of the brothers’ terrorist ties remains somewhat murky, but it’s already been established that US intelligence agencies knew exactly who they were.
We’re now aware that Tamerlan’s record of contact with the FBI went back at least two years and was marked by a request for investigation by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, in 2011. Leaked Georgian counterintelligence documents purport to show Tamerlan registered as a participant at a Jamestown-sponsored Caucasus Foundation workshop just last year. Finally, the Tsarnaev boys’ uncle Ruslan “Tsarni,” a Duke-educated oil lawyer, was married in the 1990s to the daughter of Graham Fuller, a former senior CIA case officer and Middle East hand. The spouses lived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, when Samantha Fuller was employed with Price Waterhouse Coopers and Tsarni by USAID. Ruslan would also incorporate the Congress of Chechen International Organizations out of his then-father-in-law’s Maryland home. Move along, folks, nothing to see here!
When remembering the victims of the Boston attack, consider also that today Christians, Alawites and Druze in Syria are persecuted and murdered by a CIA-backed jihadist international, the very “freedom fighters” Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev so lionized. Our policy elites export chaos and terror abroad and then invite it back to our shores, happily confident that reality TV, rap music and spectator sports, the general “pursuit of happiness,” will unite even the most irreconcilable and mutually hostile peoples. Like the wolf they honor, the Chechens by their culture alone ruthlessly shred such flimsy delusions. The Pax Americana and its pluralist experiment have failed.