Vladimir Putin has been planning for the Sochi Olympics for a very long time. This is his shot at showcasing his Russia in front of the world. He’s so concerned that it goes well that he has released people from prison just to take away reasons for protesting during his sports festival. However, when two bombs went off in Volgograd before the New Year, it was a signal from Chechen Islamic terrorists that they were prepared to die to disrupt his fun. The question most of us in the West have is just who the hell are the Chechens anyway? And a second question is what the hell do they want?
Since Ivan the Terrible almost five centuries ago, Russia has been a multiethnic, multinational empire. Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus region was a political football between Russia and the Ottoman Empire from the time of Ivan onwards. Long story short, the Russians won when they became the Soviet Union’s biggest group. When the USSR went out of business in 1991, Chechnya became a republic within the Russian Federation. A lot of Muslim Chechens didn’t like this and declared independence in November 1991. Russia had bigger problems until 1994. Then, Russia launched an attack sparking the First Chechen War, which the Russians managed to lose. In 1999, there was a Second Chechen War, which the Russians won, and they installed a puppet government and proclaimed Chechnya reintegrated into the Russian Federation. Terrorist resistance has persisted.
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Now, before you go thinking that the Russians under Mr. Putin are big, bad bullies and the Chechen resistance fighters are noble freedom lovers who deserve our sympathy, a little more information is needed. Doku Umarov runs a resistance movement in the region known as the Imarat Kavkaz (the Caucasus Emirate group in English), and he calls himself the “emir of the North Caucasus.”
Now, I can call myself the Duke of Kensington (a long story), but it doesn’t make it so. Actually, Umarov is a terrorist with about 100 backers. He supports a very fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, and has been called the Russian bin Laden — a term he’d probably reject not because of the bin Laden label but because he isn’t Russian.
The U.S. State Department said in 2011, “Umarov has issued several public statements encouraging followers to commit violent acts against declared enemies, which include the United States, as well as Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom.” The same document said, “Umarov has claimed responsibility for various attacks including the 2010 Moscow subway bombings, which killed 40 people” and that he “claimed to have masterminded the 2009 Nevsky Express train bombing, which killed 28 people.” Last spring, a couple of Chechen immigrants to the U.S. set off bombs during the Boston Marathon; the two were inspired by Umarov, and Russian intelligence told the FBI about them before they set off their bombs.
And of course, last week, they killed a few dozen people at a train station and on a bus in Volgograd. That isn’t the worst thing that has ever happened there; the place used to be called Stalingrad, and 1 million people died there when the Soviet Union finally broke the back of the Nazi Empire. Still, the bombings put the city on edge.
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Still think these are the good guys?
The trouble is that Umarov and his gang have no problem with suicide attacks, and that makes it very difficult to stop them. While Mr. Putin may be able to put a “ring of steel” around Sochi to protect the games themselves, Russia’s a big place. There is no way to prevent an attack from taking place somewhere in Russia during the Olympics.
Now, Chechens as a whole are like everyone else, just trying to get through the day with a little happiness and an occasional bit of good luck. I don’t think very many of them like being part of Comrade-Secret Policeman Putin’s Russian Federation. I think even fewer want to live the way Umarov wants them to live, back in the 11th century. Given a choice, I guess I’d pick Putin on the grounds that I like electricity and running water, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.
When the parade of nations begins and the Olympic torch arrives in the stadium, Russia is going to be on high alert. For 16 days, every Russian security operative is going to be sweating blood, and Umarov’s people will likely try to strike someplace near Sochi if they can’t get in. This war is centuries old, and the objective is to either keep the Chechens part of Russia or make them part of some Islamic theocracy. This time, though, the battle will be televised between figure skating and curling.