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Putin's Sheath
by Kim Petersen
September 8, 2004

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“Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”


-- Jesus Christ


The North Ossetian town of Beslan was the scene of a great tragedy. The involvement of civilians, and especially children, as pawns in violent maneuvers is morally reprehensible. The Caucasus region has been the scene of much blood spilling and the latest death toll has reach at least 338 with many more still missing. Hundreds more are hospitalized and in serious condition.


The Russian government came in for much criticism but the Associated Press noted that  “the criticism, which was almost certainly sanctioned by the Kremlin, stopped short of the president himself.” (1) Agence France-Presse headlined au contraire “Putin slammed in Russian media.” (2)


The Russian war president Vladimir Putin, who has pursued the violent course against Chechnya, saw fit to criticize Russia’s security agencies for being caught unguarded. Said Putin, “We showed weakness, and weak people are beaten.” These words reveal a man who will assume only partial responsibility and deflect most of the blame elsewhere.


World leaders joined in condemnation of the hostage-taking in Russia. (3) European Foreign Affairs Minister Claudie Haigneré and Danish counterpart Per Stig Møller affirmed in Copenhagen “that the Chechen problem cannot be resolved through terrorism and they appealed to the Chechen society to unite in refusal of terrorism.” (4)


Two NGOs, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) quickly denounced the targeting of civilians in Russia. The destruction of two civilian aircraft on 26 August, the explosion outside the Moscow metro station on 31 August, and the Beslan atrocity were deplored. Ludmilla Alexeyeva, chair of the MHG and president of the IHF, stated, “This rash of attacks on innocent civilians is abhorrent and senseless. There can be no justification whatsoever for targeting civilians, especially young schoolchildren, in this cowardly manner.” (5)


Nevertheless, the IHF and MHG pointed to the linkage between the terrorist incidents in Russia and “the climate of impunity in Chechnya, where very few serious human rights violations against civilians committed by Russian security forces are ever punished.”


The commercial media, however, left many questions unasked. Are not the Russian fighters destroying Chechen villages, and killing Chechens including their children in far greater numbers? Why do world leaders and media not equally condemn this terrorism? After all state terrorism is the most lethal form of terrorism. If terrorism is to be denounced then it should be denounced across-the-board, without exception.


The Chechen website Kavkaz-Center provided its own justification from the Bible: “What measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.” To elaborate:


So, how is the hostage-taking of the school with children in Beslan supposed to be understood, which was presumably conducted by militants of one of the national liberation movements of the Caucasus? The way it must be understood is that by its bloody crimes, by its aggressor policies and its sadistic brutalities Russia is putting its children, and not just adults, under attacks.


However many children in that school were held hostage, however many of them will die … it is incomparably less than the 42 thousand Chechen children of school age, who were killed by Russian invaders (6)


In a television address, a “shaken” Putin promised tougher security and a rooting out of corruption in the “all-out war” on terrorism. (7)


The Guardian comments that much as the US’ iron hammer approach has failed in Iraq, “Putin's iron fist has got nowhere [in Chechnya].” (8)


What about Putin’s decision to storm the school? It was a surefire death sentence for many of the children. Putin had brushed off criticism for the decision to storm a Moscow theatre in June 2002 where a weapon-of-mass-destruction was used that killed 118 hostages. Putin refused to cave in to “blackmail.” (9) Would Putin have been so cavalier if one of his loved ones was a hostage? Although not approaching the monstrous acceptable blood price of Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton, Putin’s actions imply that hundreds, if not more, lives are worth sacrificing in his civil war. It could have been much worse though as the Kremlin has since admitted it lied about the number of hostages in the Beslan crisis -- over 1,200 were actually held captive. (10)


What is the justification for this war? Putin is trying to preserve the unity of Russia. But it is in violation of Article 1.2 of the UN Charter that calls for the “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of people.” Waging war except for self-defense is also in contravention of the UN Charter. The self-determination that was finally granted the former states of the USSR is denied the Chechens.


What should the Chechens do to prevent their slaughter without giving up their right to self-determination against the Russian military power? The lopsidedness of the battle is defined by resorting to the ultimate weapon of the weak and desperate: sacrificing one’s own life. The Chechen suicide-corps did cowardly decide to take the fight to defenseless children but in the end it was Putin who made the decision to use lethal force with children’s lives in peril.


The Foreign Threat


The sovereignty question is not so black-and-white.


Switching to a “defiant tone,” Putin accused foreign enemies of sowing the seeds of separation. “Some,” he said, “want to cut off a juicy morsel from us; others are helping them. They are helping, believing that Russia, as one of the world's biggest nuclear powers, is still posing a threat to them. Therefore, this threat must be removed.” (11)


The Caucasus region is mineral and oil rich and strategically important to the economy and security of Russia. It is a region that has long been coveted by imperial powers. By the summer of 1919 14 western nations and their client states had invaded Bolshevik Russia. (12) US Senator William Edgar Borah admitted then that the US was at “war with Russia, while Congress has not declared war.… It is a violation of the plain principles of free government.” (13)


For 25 years “the anti-democratic and anti-Soviet conspiracy.…kept the world in an incessant turmoil of secret diplomacy, counterrevolutionary intrigue, terror, fear and hatred, and which culminated inevitably in the Axis war to enslave humanity.” (14)


The fall of communism in 1991 led to the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. After capitalists scavenged the remaining carcass, a plunge in Russian living standards and life expectancy ensued. Concomitant with market-driven economics was the formation of an oligarchic elite while the masses became immiserated. Western corporations were eyeing Russia’s resource riches and the huge profits-to-be-made avariciously. A further splitting of Russia would make expropriation and exploitation easier.


Putin understands this well but he has chosen a wrong-headed and iniquitous strategy to hold Russia together. The Cold War contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union. To become embroiled in another intractable conflict is folly.  Russia must pursue the path of peace and make conciliatory gestures to Chechens if it wants to seek a harmony.


As long as Russia fights internecine battles, its long-term development is stymied. There are signs that Putin is realizing this. After railing against Chechen “child-killers” he then spoke glowingly about the bravery of Chechens during the WWII. Putin opined that Chechen heroes proportionately outnumbered any other ethnic group. (15) Considering General Douglas MacArthur’s unreserved praise for the Red Army this would make the Chechens the best of the best. On 23 February 1942 MacArthur told Americans:


The world situation at the present time indicates that the hopes of civilization rest on the worthy banners of the courageous Russian Army. During my lifetime I have participated in a number of wars and witnessed others, as well as studying in great detail the campaigns of outstanding leaders of the past.


In none have I observed such effective resistance to the heaviest blows of the hitherto undefeated enemy, followed by a smashing counterattack which is driving the enemy back to his own land.


The scale and grandeur of the effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history. (16)


Putin deplores the historical blunders committed by former Soviet leaders in dealing with the Chechens and understands how this “could not but lead to separatism.” (17) If Putin’s words are genuine, then it is time to back up those sentiments with a genuine apology and concrete actions. This is the only route to reconciliation.

Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:


(1) Associated Press, “Russia observes national day of mourning,” MSNBC, 6 September 2004

Agence France-Presse, “Putin slammed in Russian media,”, 6 September 2004


(3) AP and Reuters, “World leaders join in condemning hostage-taking in Russia,” International Herald Tribune, 4 September 2004


(4) With AFP, AP and Reuters, “La Russie enterre ses morts, Poutine capitalise les soutiens,” Le, 6 September 2004


(5) Statement, “IHF and MHG condemn attacks against civilians in Russia,” International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 2 September 2004


(6) Boris Stomakhin, “What measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you,” Kavkaz-Center, 3 September 2004

(7) Burt Herman, “Beslan mourns as Putin vows tough response to 'all-out war' by terrorists,”, 6 September 2004


(8) John Kampfner, “Putin's iron fist has failed,” Guardian, 3 September 2004


(9) Staff and agencies, “Putin rejects criticism over theatre raid,” Guardian, 28 October 2002


(10) Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn, “Russia Admits It Lied On Crisis,” Yahoo! News, 6 September 2004


(11) Herman, op. cit.


(12) Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn, The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia (Little, Brown and Company, 1946) p 79

(13) Quoted in ibid, p 85


(14) ibid, p 392

(15) Mary Dejevsky, “Putin vents his anger at the West: Don't tell me to talk to child-killers,” Independent (UK), 7 September 2004


(16) Quoted in Sayers and Kahn, op. cit., p 390-391

(17) Dejevsky, op. cit.

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