Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 292)



  Chairman: We move from the certainties of international law to the ambiguities in respect of our relations with Russia. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome Mr James Sherr, who is a Fellow of the Conflict Studies Research Centre of the UK Defence Academy, and Mr Tom de Waal, Head of the Caucasus Project in the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. The Committee will shortly be visiting Russia and therefore your evidence to us is extremely timely.

  Q280  Mr Olner: We all know that, since September 11, Russia is a very committed partner in the war against terrorism. 2001 seems a fair way away now. How committed are they in deploying their armed forces to ensure that the war against terrorism is their top priority?

  Mr Sherr: Let me begin by saying that, even as of 12 September 2001, we succeeded in developing only a limited partnership with Russia in the global war on terrorism. That is because there are a number of considerable differences in approach. They have developed over many years, and the Iraq war has intensified them. The first of these is that, from a Russian perspective, the war on terrorism is a matter of national survival. Many people in Russia perceive that we—particularly the United Kingdom and the United States— are using the war on terrorism-as a way of enhancing and extending our domination of the international system. Secondly, whereas we are inclined to link the issues of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation, other dangerous proliferation of weapons and material, the Russians are not inclined to do this and very clearly separate these issues. At the same time, they have also viewed the war on terrorism in some respects as an opportunity, because it has enhanced their position in Europe and in the world especially as a major player in energy. It has afforded them a new set of justifications for enhancing their own influence and domination over certain countries in the former Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine and Moldova, and certainly there are strong aspirations in this regard with respect to Georgia. So whereas over some issues such as Afghanistan there has been a very firm partnership, and there is potential for a far greater partnership in Central Asia and the eastern area of the Russian Federation, there are some real differences. I have not yet even mentioned Chechnya, which is Tom's special area of expertise.

  Q281  Chairman: Mr de Waal, does Russia just see these through the prism of Chechnya?

  Mr de Waal: As Mr Sherr has said, my perspective is very much on Chechnya, and I think that you have to be very careful about terminology here. The Chechen conflict began in 1994. Terrorism was not an issue there at all. We were talking about a separatist dispute—as it were, Russia's Basque country or Northern Ireland. The language of the fight against terror began when Russia fought the second Chechen conflict in 1999 and they started portraying Chechens as terrorists. In my view, this is very much the tail wagging the dog. Obviously there is now an objective terrorist problem in Chechnya, but one very much that Russia created itself by launching an internal war on its own territory, which it then subsequently portrayed as a terrorist problem. If we are going to discuss Chechnya more, we could try to gradate what is and what is not terrorism within the Chechen conflict.

  Q282  Mr Olner: I am trying to get a feel as to whether Russia is more involved in its own problems than in joining the fight against global terrorism, which is what our inquiry is basically about. Are the old-style generals still holding sway? President Putin wants to change some of the military things in Russia, but is the old guard still holding sway?

  Mr Sherr: I think that it is fair to say with regard to the key instruments in combating terrorists or dealing with Russian national security—and I do, not simply mean the armed forces of the Ministry of Defence but this formidable array of other military structures outside the Ministry of Defence—the Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Security Service, and so on—that there has been a very concerted effort, beginning in 2001, to conduct systematic reforms of all these structures; but there remain very serious problems. I would put the evolution in the following terms. When President Putin came to office, the Russian armed forces and security services had become so deficient in their capabilities and so pathological in their way of dealing with problems that they were actually a threat to Russia's national security, rather than an instrument of national security. Now the picture is much more mixed, but there remain very deep-seated problems in all of these structures. Many of them begin and end with morale, training and the quality of people who are called upon to undertake what we all know are extremely complex and difficult tasks. If the buoyancy of the Russian economy fails to sustain itself, I think that the significant but limited gains which have been achieved will not be sustained either. This therefore remains an area with which we all have to be concerned.

  Q283  Mr Olner: Given that one of the biggest weapons we have in the war against terrorism is intelligence, how effective are the Russians' intelligence services in ensuring that any threat in terms of global terrorism is countered?

  Mr de Waal: Judging by some recent objective incidents, not terribly good on its own territory. If you look at October 2002, we had upwards of 40 armed Chechens seizing a theatre in the centre of Moscow. So its own internal intelligence system has great failings, and I think is still very vulnerable, to corruption in particular. I would guess that the foreign intelligence service is more professional, but I am not an expert on that.

  Mr Sherr: On the other hand, in Afghanistan there is no question in my mind that we have benefited from Russian experience and Russian intelligence. There are areas of the world, certainly that the United States is engaged in, where, if the Russians were willing—such as Central Asia—we might also benefit from intelligence. Part of the collapse of the Soviet Union has also been a collapse of what had been a global intelligence entity. There are aspects of it which remain very strong but areas that are vital to Russia where, as Mr de Waal said, there are quite a lot of weaknesses.

  Q284  Mr Olner: In response to one of my previous questions, Mr Sherr, you mentioned the morale within the Russian armed forces. It leads me to a question I want to ask you on non-proliferation. There is perhaps a perception that, because of this low morale, there are weapons of mass destruction that are being carelessly held and that carelessly disappear. There is perhaps also the threat of nuclear proliferation, using India, Indonesia, and various other countries where Russia export their nuclear technology, which could be used for other means. Do you think that it is a real threat? If it is a real threat, how do you think it can best be addressed?

  Mr Sherr: I would address the problem at three separate levels. First, there are some very significant differences in official policy between Russia and ourselves, particularly with regard to providing the defence and technology, and nuclear relationship between Russia and Iran. In some respects these disagreements have hardened since President Putin came to office. They have not diminished just because our relationship has become stronger. This remains an open issue between us. There are other Russian actions which seem to have official backing but which are not admitted or publicised. For example, as the US State Department has affirmed in some detail during the recent war with Iraq, they included the supply of critical equipment to Iraq's armed forces in defiance of the sanctions regime, and the possible presence of Russian technicians during the war itself. There are two other areas outside these most dangerous ones where the issues that you refer to, Mr Olner, are very apposite. They involve conventional and smaller munitions. In the Transdniestria, the Pridnestroviye area of Moldova, the former Soviet Army left arsenals there equivalent in their scale to what was deployed at Nagasaki or Hiroshima. The inter-penetration in the so-called Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, between Russian-dominated structures of security, armed forces, business, and organised crime is very alarming. Without question, in Chechnya—and again I would defer to Mr de Waal on this subject—in the past, extremely poor conditions and a demoralised state of Russian Federation forces have led to Russian soldiers and Russian units trading their own military supplies with Chechens, which are then used against them.

  Mr de Waal: I can confirm that I personally saw evidence of weapons trading between Russians and Chechens in 1995, and I do not believe that the morale in the Russian armed forces has improved sufficiently that that would have been eradicated.

  Q285  Mr Pope: Perhaps I may turn to Chechnya, and try to get a clear picture of where we are currently. Going back to the first Chechen war, as you say, it was essentially a secessionist campaign. Currently it is not just a secessionist campaign, is it? On the one hand we have President Putin saying that it is part of the war on terror and he is very keen—for understandable reasons from his own point of view—to portray the Chechens as being part of a wider Islamic terror threat; but there is also some truth in that. It is not just Russian propaganda, is it? There does seem to be some evidence that, around the mid-1990s, there was a move away from traditional Islam to a more extreme form of Wahabism and so a difference in tactics with the Chechens. Perhaps you would say a few words on what you perceive the current situation to be?

  Mr de Waal: I will try to answer that by saying that I think there are at least three conflicts going on in Chechnya. One is a conventional sort of colonial/separatist conflict that we could know from places like Algeria, with a rather brutal government trying to defeat secessionists. The second one is an internal Chechen conflict—again, a feature much more of the last two or three years—where you have seen Chechens fighting Chechens, and Chechens becoming victims of bombings. Again, this is a result of Russia's policy of what they call "Chechenisation" which is, as it were, subcontracting the war to loyal Chechen satraps—although Chechenisation is in a lot of trouble since the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, its main object, on 9 May. The third one, as you say, is a terrorist war. When I first started going to Chechnya before the war in 1994, Chechnya was not an Islamic place. Even the separatist independent constitution was based on the constitution of Estonia. It was a recognisable nationalist problem. Chechens were Sufi Muslims; they did not link Islam with politics. Slowly, in the 1990s, you saw a radicalisation, as a result of the appalling destruction of people's lives and homes. People started turning to Islam. Simultaneously, you saw the arrival of foreign volunteers, and then you had a period of de facto independence where more volunteers arrived between 1997 and 1999. Of the two wings of the Chechen rebel movement during the current war, the Islamist radical wing suddenly became much stronger. Having said all that, I think that we should put this into context. We are not talking about Afghanistan. The number of foreign volunteers is probably a few dozen, rather than in the thousands. You have to remember that Chechnya is surrounded by high mountains. It is very difficult to access. It is very small. Fighters tend to live in villages. They cannot just set up a camp in the mountains. Secondly, the Chechnya population is still quite resistant to radical Islam. I have seen estimates that maybe 10% of them subscribe to radical Islam. Thirdly, I would go back to my main point: that even if all the foreign volunteers and all the Islamists were to die, you would probably still have a conflict in Chechnya—in the sense that fundamentally, underneath, that colonialist/nationalist conflict remains.

  Q286  Mr Pope: Can I concentrate on that minority of the extremists? I wondered to what extent those extremist elements have strong links with al-Qaeda. Also, when we were in Afghanistan recently we were talking to a number of people there about the links between Chechen fighters and Afghanistan, which, for obvious historical reasons going back a few years, were very strong. However, there was still concern that there may be Chechen fighters going to fight Coalition forces in the south of Afghanistan. Could you say a few words about how strong you think the links are with international terror groups which, in a kind of lazy way but understandably, we lump together as al-Qaeda, and also whether or not there are still links with Taliban elements who are fighting Coalition forces in Afghanistan?

  Mr de Waal: I think that the foreign Islamist jihad interest in Chechnya is stronger than the other way round. We have had, for example, Ayman al-Zawahiri trying to go to Chechnya, in 1997 I think, and actually spending six months under an assumed identity in a Dagestani prison—a very bizarre incident. His identity was not rumbled. You saw people trying to go to Chechnya, and there is this Saudi warrior, Abu al-Walid, who is still believed to be in Chechnya and who had been in Afghanistan. Obviously there are links there. You also saw phone calls being made during the Moscow theatre siege to Chechens based in Qatar and places like that. Having said that, I am much more sceptical about reports of Chechens fighting in Afghanistan, still less Iraq. People who have investigated this have found that, when people came across Russian speakers, they tended to dub them Chechens, whether they be Tajiks or Uzbeks or Tartars. There is almost no evidence of real, live Chechens being found in Afghanistan. Logically, I suppose, if you were a Chechen fighter and you had a war on your hands, why would you go to Afghanistan to fight? This is probably just a red herring. On both sides, again, I would say that the mountains of the Caucasus have played a favourable role. There were people based in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia trying to get across, but we are talking about the highest mountains in Europe; people going across in groups of a dozen in the height of summer, dodging Russian convoys and so on. So a lot of ideological support, some financial support; but, in terms of actual, logistical, physical support, still fairly limited—fortunately.

  Q287  Mr Pope: Where do the Russians go from here? It seems to me that their strategy is in ruins really. They have 80,000 or 90,000 troops in Chechnya. They have had the senior assassination in May, to which you referred. You mentioned Northern Ireland and other things. One of the lessons that people learned was that, in the end, there was no military solution. It would have to be a political process that would deliver some kind of peace. Where does Putin go from here? There seems to be no military solution that will deliver the kind of knockout victory that the Russians presumably want. I also assume that the Russians will not walk away from this. Too much blood has been spilt. There was probably an opportunity for them to walk away 10 years ago, but that has long gone. They are not going to walk away from it. Where on earth do they go from here, to take forward some kind of face-saving solution to it?

  Mr Sherr: May I answer this question and also partially comment on Mr de Waal's answer from my more lay perspective, although I very strongly agree with most of what he has said. Beginning in 1996, and more intensively in 1999, the Russian federal structures systematically eliminated any people, any networks and any institutions from Chechnya, which had credibility in Chechnya and which could have secured some kind of stable peace. The result of this, in my view, has been that a vacuum has been created into which these forces have entered and which are beyond the control of anyone. The official Russian view about the number of foreign fighters that I have seen is about 300 or 400; but, even when they say they have killed 300 or 400, they still say that there are 300 or 400. I am slightly more pessimistic than Mr de Waal about the signs that a lot of this conflict is spreading to other parts of the North Caucasus. I would therefore answer your question by saying that, if this has become a black hole, efforts need to be focused—and I think that international efforts also could helpfully be focused—on shoring up the civic orders, which are extremely weak and deficient in other parts of the Russian North Caucasus, so that Russia could contain this situation. Solving this situation is a very long-term issue, but the urgent priority is not to make it worse. The problem that the Russians continually face, as we see today—and they face real threats which they are not exaggerating, in my view—dire threats, but they threats are almost always the fruit of previous Russian conduct. We have somehow have to help them break that cycle.

  Mr de Waal: I have had the misfortune to watch this develop over almost 11 years now, from before the first Chechen war. I have seen Russia try a new tactic, probably every six months, usually governed by short-term, domestic Moscow politics more than a long-term appreciation of the needs on the ground. They have tried excessive force several times; they have tried a puppet leader several times, with different stripes; they have tried surrender—a very irresponsible kind of surrender, which was basically leaving and slamming the door. I think that there are two groups that they have pretty much entirely ignored over the last 10 years. One is the international community. They continually say now that this is an international problem but deny that there should be an international aspect to the solution, which seems to me to be a paradox. They do allow, on a limited basis, the Council of Europe to visit Chechnya; but the OSCE[24] mandate is now very limited. It seems to me that, if we can push the Russians on getting an expanded Council of Europe and OSCE presence in Chechnya to monitor what is going on, that would be in everyone's interests, including the Russians. The second group that they have consistently failed to talk to is the Chechen population as a whole. All elections have been rigged in Chechnya, and Chechnya actually has a very decentralised, community-based culture—or at least used to, before it was shattered by war. Everyone who knows Chechnya says that some kind of parliamentary system, some kind of Loya Jirga for Chechnya, would be a way forward, in which different groups could be brought together. Again, that involves the Russians loosening control, delegating power to ordinary Chechens—which is something they are very afraid of doing.

  Q288  Mr Pope: Could you say a word about the human rights situation for ordinary Chechens? Not for those involved in a jihad but for ordinary Chechens?

  Mr de Waal: I have some figures here from last year from Memorial, the human rights organisation. In 2002 they recorded 729 killings of civilians; 537 people abducted and disappeared. In 2003, 500 civilians killed; 470 disappeared. Most of these people were killed and abducted at night, when it is very difficult for the rebels to operate. We must therefore presume that these are either by the Russians or the pro-Russian forces. Memorial points out that it is only able to cover about 25 to 30 per cent of the territory of Chechnya, and so those figures are of a limited amount of territory. This year it is as bad, and last month has been particularly bad since the death of Kadyrov. To go back to the point made by Mr Sherr about morale, we are talking about very criminalised security forces who are pretty much out of control. Civilians continue to suffer a lot of extortion in relation to these abductions: people being abducted and ransoms being asked by people who are supposed to be their protectors, the Russian security forces. So still hundreds and thousands of people dying every year.

  Q289  Mr Illsley: Three or four years ago the Committee visited Russia and, when we raised the issue of Chechnya, we were told that it was an internal issue, not for discussion and completely off limits. When we visit in a few days' time, are we likely to be given a more accommodating answer or are we more likely to be told the same thing?

  Mr Sherr: I can only underscore the paradox that Mr de Waal mentioned, which I have seen even relatively recently. On the one hand, Russia's insistence that Chechnya be regarded as an important theatre in the war on terrorism, and therefore clearly an effort on the part of the authorities to solicit our sympathy and support; but, on the other hand, any form of criticism or suggestion is called interference. So I would expect that you will encounter this contradiction again.

  Q290  Chairman: What is the reason for the incursion into Dagestan? Why have the Islamists failed to make progress in either Dagestan or Ingushetia?

  Mr Sherr: May I put that in context, because I know that Mr de Waal will have a more specific answer? This is an area totally lacking in transparency. By transparency I mean the inability to know what decisions are taken, who takes decisions, where they are taken or why. In the North Caucasus there are so many different parties with so many different agendas involved, ranging from Russian businesspeople, to elements of security structures, to Wahabists, to factions amongst the Chechen fighters, that not only is the question unanswerable for us. With many of these episodes and occurrences of this kind—and the murder of President Kadyrov is another one—it is also possibly unanswerable to people who are there. There are so many cooks and such a poisonous broth that almost nothing is clear. I think that any answer focusing on a unique culprit would be wrong.

  Q291  Chairman: And the failure of the troubles in Chechnya to spill over into Dagestan and Ingushetia?

  Mr de Waal: Unfortunately they are spilling into Ingushetia. In the last few months Ingushetia has seen an upsurge in kidnappings and killings—not quite on the scale of Chechnya but certainly a worrying phenomenon. If you look further west than the North Caucasus, it is an incredibly localised place, with dozens of nationalities in places like Kabardino-Balkaria. I edit a bulletin on the Caucasus with people from those areas, and there are reports of growing attachment to Islam amongst unemployed youth who are not getting jobs, who feel more alienated from Russia because they are subjected to racism when they go north to Russia. So, unfortunately, we are seeing a slow spread of Islam amongst the younger generation. Maybe we do not see it yet, but we may unfortunately see it in 10 years' time.

  Mr Sherr: If it is borne out—and it might well be, because I think that the hypothesis is a very reasonable one—that President Kadyrov was actually murdered by elements in the North Caucasus Military District who resented the complication of these political structures and wished to finish the job by military means, then I think that even in the short-term we will see a noticeable deterioration of the situation there.

  Q292  Chairman: The report by Memorial on human rights which you mentioned to Mr Pope—could you possibly pass details of that to the Clerk of the Committee? I was not aware of this report.

  Mr de Waal: I will do my best, certainly. On Monday, Lord Judd is taking part in a meeting we are holding on Chechnya, and I can give you the details.

  Chairman: The Committee will be in Moscow at the time. Gentlemen, it has been very helpful, and we thank you.

24   Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 29 July 2004