Putin's declared ambition is to restore Russia great power status, how should the west respond to this weak, aggrieved post-superpower?by Thomas de Waal / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
The moment that defined for me the sickness of Yeltsin’s Russia came in autumn 1996, at the end of what we must now call the first Chechen war. The Chechen rebels had recaptured Grozny. The Russians were pulling their troops out. One by one, each garrison held a short departure ceremony designed to soften the ignominy of defeat. I turned up at the gates of the shabby army base at Khankala, outside Grozny, in order to find out whether the latest division had pulled out. A well-known Russian television journalist from the NTV channel was standing outside the gate, puffing on a cigarette. He confirmed that the division had indeed withdrawn and that he had watched the ceremony. Then he asked: “Do you want to know how I got to see the ceremony?”
The journalist explained that, before leaving Moscow for Chechnya, he had been to see the then defence minister, Igor Rodionov, and procured a personally signed pass authorising his access throughout Chechnya. When he presented the document at the gate of Khankala, however, the sentry smirked and said: “So the minister gave you this? Well, let him call me up and tell me that.” Only when a large-denomination dollar bill was produced did he get in.
A state is in real trouble when a sentry spurns the signature of the minister of defence. Time and again in Chechnya, it was not the brutality of the Russian forces that struck me, sickening though it was; after all, modern western armies have committed acts of savagery in Vietnam and Algeria. It was the cynicism of these young Russian men which was so striking. What kind of state is it whose young men engage in looting blocks of flats containing the same kinds of Soviet trinkets and television sets as in their apartments back home? Or-most impressively-whose young men routinely sell their weapons to the enemy they have come to “disarm,” again for US dollars? As Russia gets more bogged down in its second Chechen war, such stories are emerging again.
Russia’s lawlessness and Russians’ alienation from their leaders is usually seen as evidence of the “transitional” malaise of a country which lost its way in the world with the end of the Soviet Union. But this sickness runs deeper. This is no quick and violent fever, not 1917 revisited, or another Smutnoye Vremya, a “Time of Troubles.” The corrupt soldier at Khankala was not on the brink of mutiny; he just couldn’t give a damn. The most appropriate image for Russia in the year 2000 is of a swamp, a boloto, into which big projects, good and bad, sink without trace.