Putin's war with radical Islamists
By Dmitry Shlapentokh
Russia - which usually makes world news only in relation to gas and oil - has
recently emerged as an important foreign-policy broker. President Vladimir
Putin's government has engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Iran and the West
and between Hamas and the West.
Dealing with Iran and Hamas, Putin tried to persuade them to abandon radical
rhetoric and practices and incorporate
themselves into the Western international order. At the same time, he tried to
convince Western partners that the Iranians and even Hamas are not the worst of
all possible regimes or
movements, and with certain encouragements and guarantees could be incorporated
into the Western order.
Moreover, their help could be crucial in confronting the real implacable enemy:
This aspect of Putin's recent foreign-policy initiative is well known and is
apparently related to his attempt to boost Russia's prestige, to reinvent
Russia if not as a superpower, at least as an important global player. At the
same time, this attempt to incorporate radical nationalists into the political
mainstream has not just international but domestic implications. In fact, the
two sides of Putin's activities are related.
Chechen state or global jihad
Recently, the Chechen Internet site Kavkaz (www.kavkazcenter.com/eng/) - a sort
of semi-official organ of the Chechen resistance that has engaged in a nearly
15-year war with the Russian state - published two long articles from two
prominent figures in the movement, Ahmed Zakaev and Movladi Udugov.
Both pieces dealt with the general outline of Chechens' future. Zakaev argued
that the present war should be driven by the pre-modern forces of Chechen
nationalism and lead to the creation of an independent Chechen state, which
should be incorporated into the concert of modern powers, and with a
gravitation to the West.
In fact, Zakaev, who is based in England, where he has the status of a
political refugee, admitted that the United States, with all its administrative
hesitation, understands Chechens' legal rights. Consequently Chechens, with all
due respect to Islam, should in general follow international law.
Udugov's views on Chechens' future are different. He advocates a philosophy
quite popular among international jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, which has
discarded any ideas of carving out a Chechen state in the current world order.
What Zakaev sees as the civilized Western world, Udugov argues is the same
brutish, corrupt system that one can see in Russia, except the Western
predators are perhaps more polished.
Udugov argues that any state in today's global community is an institution of
oppression and corruption, and the Chechen state, if it were to be established,
would inevitably fall into the same pit. What Chechens should have is not a
regular state but an organization that is separate from the rest of the world;
one that could be used for launching the global jihad that would finally lead
to the establishment of the global khalifah (caliphate) and transcend
One might state here that al-Qaeda's model is not just wishful thinking but is
a reality, as can be seen in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, where the
Taliban and al-Qaeda have created a quasi-state designed exclusively for
jihadist purposes (see
Pakistan battles the forces within, March 7).
This state, curiously enough, reminds one of the Soviet state in the first few
years of its existence; it was in conflict with the entire "capitalist" world -
and the Bolsheviks regarded it as a springboard for a global revolution.
Udugov is different from Zakaev not only in his vision of future states but in
what he considers the very nature of the forces that will fight the
anti-Islamic world. In sharp contrast with Zakaev, though, he discards Chechen
nationalism, not only because narrow nationalism makes it harder for Chechens
to forge alliances with other ethnic groups, but also because jihad requires a
different type of people.
These folks should be united not by blood but by common spiritual bonds of
dedicated Muslims. Elaborating on this point, Udugov writes that this is why he
feels an attachment to other Chechens, even though he is a collaborator with
the Russians. At the same time, he feels himself attached to the story of the
Russian boy who forsook alcohol, fornication and other sins and became a
This stress on embracing people of all ethnic backgrounds who are ready to
embrace Islam, al-Qaeda, and similar-minded Chechens is hardly unique. The
Taliban and al-Qaeda follow the same principle. The story of the "American
Taliban" - John Walker Lindh, the American Catholic who on conversion to Islam
joined the Taliban and was captured by US troops - is well known, at least in
the United States. Less known, but even more interesting, is the story of
another American convert. A few years ago a videotape, allegedly circulated by
the Taliban or al-Qaeda, showed a man speaking with an American accent
promising the US a new and even more devastating repetition of the events of
September 11, 2001. It was revealed that the man on the tape was an American
Jew - if one could judge from his name - who apparently became a convert and
joined the jihadis.
The Russian jihadists
Putin understands well that radical Islamists, whose philosophy and practice
replaced the communist movement of the last century, are an implacable mortal
enemy of his regime. The call for Islamic unity, so similar to Karl Marx's call
for workers of all countries to unite, could unite the Muslim people of the
Caucasus and spread to Muslim enclaves in the Russian heartland. The movement
could even include ethnic Russians.
Putin also understands that Russian jihadis are a part of the "worldwide
revolution" of Islamic radicalism, and that the US is in as much peril as
While similar to Bush in his approach to confronting jihadism, Putin is
apparently wiser than the US president. This is not because of Putin's personal
faculties, but the result of leading a collapsing superpower that has tasted
the bitter fruits of protracted war and defeat in Afghanistan and now Chechnya.
Al-Qaeda follows the same principle, seeing what Bush cannot see: that military
preponderance is useless in the United States' "long war" or "war on terror",
which could be too long to endure both for Russia and the West.
This is one of the major reasons that Putin appeals to those he regards as
moderate, at least in comparison with the jihadis. Izvestia, one of the leading
Russian publications, recently published a positive account of Zakaev. It is
also one of the major reasons Putin has been dealing with Hamas and Iran. Yet
it is not likely that he will succeed in his endeavors, and the "long war" will
continue, bringing results that quite possibly are unforeseeable for any of its
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history with the
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is
author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of