With Friends Like These

As you read this, Russian soldiers are once again rampaging through Chechnya, exacting what Russian leader (and former Communist Party and KGB boss) Vladimir Putin and his government specifically call "revenge" for the recent hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre.

In that crisis, 119 hostages and at least 70 Chechen rebels died; the problem is, however, that with the exception of one lone hostage -- shot when he attacked an armed Chechen woman -- it was Putin's government, and its use of a lethal, Fentanyl-based gas, that was responsible for the theatre deaths. Putin is taking vengeance for a crime his own government committed.

In the end, it scarcely matters; regardless of who first did what, hapless Chechen civilians and refugees are now paying the price, as they have repeatedly over the past eight years. An endless litany of reports by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documents the extent of Moscow's abuses in the conflict; Chechnya is one of several places in the world at the moment where the word "genocide" is being used by reasonable people. It is the Russian government, far more than isolated rebel bands in Moscow, who have reatedly targetted innocent lives during the conflict.

Russia's casual execution of the Moscow hostages was neither surprising nor inconsistent. Opiate gases like Fentanyl have a long history of controversy; many researchers believe they should be banned under the International Chemical Weapons Convention. Beyond the 119 dead, another 145 people, at last report, are still in intensive care, many on respirators because they have no lung function left. That's not the simple error in dosage first claimed by the Russian military.

Such concerns, and a culture of reflective secrecy, led Russian authorities to refuse to even identify the components of the gas when hostages began pouring into Moscow emergency rooms after the attack. It took toxicology reports in blood samples from corpses of foreign nationals -- shipped home to Western Europe -- to begin to make public the presence of not only Fentanyl, but several other lethal elements in the concoction used on the Chechens and their hostages. The pre-dawn attack on them came as rebels were still negotiating with authorities, having already released some of the hostages. At the time, only two hostages had been harmed by the Chechens -- the death mentioned above, and another man wounded in the same incident. The gassing was, by any calculation, unnecessary; it was premeditated murder, in a manner all to familiar to Chechens.

However, that wasn't the general tenor of media coverage of the incident here in the United States. The White House was quick to defend the Russians' actions, and many American networks went so far as to adopt the official Soviet, er, Russian characterization of the incident as not just terrorism, but "Russia's 9/11."

The theatre hostage-taking was nothing of the sort, of course. Beyond being Muslim, Chechens have virtually nothing in common with the sort of radical fundamentalism represented by groups like Al-Qaeda. (Though Chechnya is right alongside Palestine and Iraq on every Muslim terror group's short list of grievances against the West.) Most obviously, the presence of numerous women fighters among the Chechen hostage-takers suggests a very different culture than that of, say, the Taliban.

More importantly, the Chechen's seizure of hostages in Moscow was not a random incident; it was part of a war for independence, by a culturally distinct region chafing for escape from the control of Imperial Russia. Chechnya is a mostly Muslim slice of real estate in the Caucasus Mountains that, like many other nearby parts of the former Soviet Union, attempted to bolt Moscow's rule when the opportunity arose. Alas, Chechnya is also a small nation, squarely situated between the Caspian and Black Seas -- near any westward route for a pipeline that could deliver Caspian oil to market.

Since the start of the Chechen rebellion, the United States, far from helping the country escape the control of its former Communist rulers, has offered benign support to Moscow, including international credit that has allowed the Russians to continue to bankroll their massively expensive military campaigns. But the dynamics of Washington and Chechnya shifted dramatically after 9/11. Putin has campaigned relentlessly to have America and the West consider his anti-Chechen campaigns as part of any War on Terror. Tacit support -- along with a blind eye to any Russian atrocities -- was widely believed to be part of the price the Bush Administration paid for gaining Moscow's support for last year's U.S. attack on Afghanistan. And Russia, like Israel and India, used the Bush invention of a doctrine of "harboring terrorists" as a rationale for new military offensives. The precedent set by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan cost Chechen civilians dearly.

That cost, however, turns out to have been much more direct that simply shrough the setting of bad precedent. A report Monday on MSNBC puts the Moscow hostage deaths, and the U.S. response to them, in a troubling new light. According to MSNBC, documents obtained from the U.S. military Central Command show a much tighter relationship between the Americans and Russians in the Afghan campaign than either country has publicly disclosed. In particular, the U.S. has been using Russian rail, from ports in both the Baltic (Murmansk) and Pacific (Vladivostok), as a primary means of supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The troops and supplies have been shipped via the former Soviet rail system, which still connects Russia with the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Pentagon has established massive new U.S. military staging areas in those dictatorships (which also have abysmal human rights records) for its Afghan campaign.

The Pentagon's reliance on direct Russian support for its Afghan operations not only puts it in league with a military committing war crimes in Chechnya, but suggests a more troubling aspect to the agreement, announced earlier this year, to provide U.S. advisors and training to the military of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Specifically, the Pentagon is now assisting in Georgia's efforts to combat Chechen rebels that, according to Moscow, use neighboring Georgia as a staging area for anti- Russian attacks. The Afghan revelation also suggests the complexity and danger of behind-the-scenes negotiations as the Bush Administration offers further concessions to try to gain Russian approval for a tougher anti-Iraq resolution at the U.N. Security Council. How many Chechen lives is Washington willing to sacrifice -- or help kill -- in order to avoid a Security Council veto on invading Iraq?

In short, it's starting to smell like the United States is not simply agreeing to look the other way as Russia rampages its way through the civilian population of Chechnya. With the Pentagon working closely with the Russian military, part of the price may well be a much more active American role in supporting Russia's "anti-terror" campaigns.

Far from being an "anti-terror" war, Moscow's actions in Chechnya much more closely resemble how Saddam Hussein has treated the Kurds. And now, we can add gassing to the list of similarities. American media's glossing over of the context of the recent Moscow tragedy may not simply be a case of lazy journalism and a distant war. As with so many other global flash points these days, it is a dreadful conflict that the U.S. is apparently wading into ever more deeply -- on the wrong side.

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