The Russian Approach To Counterinsurgency
Via Abu Muqawama — who has a Jay Z-like approach to his retirement from blogging — here’s a C.J. Chivers piece in today’s New York Times about Russia’s twilight counterinsurgency in Chechnya. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine currently privileges economies of force, the cultivation of both local knowledge and local proxies, and parallel-tracked assistance to bolstering local economies and structures of governance. The Russian approach is to burn things down.
The men who set fire to Valentina Basargina’s house arrived in the stillness of 3 a.m. There were three of them. Each wore a camouflage uniform and carried a rifle. One held a can of gasoline. They wore masks.
They led Ms. Basargina and her son outside and splashed gasoline in their two rooms, she and her relatives said. One man produced a T-shirt, knotted onto a stick. It was damp with gas.
“This is for the one who is gone,” he said in thickly accented Russian. Ms. Basargina’s nephew had recently disappeared; the police had said he joined the small but smoldering insurgency fighting for Chechnya’s independence from Russia.
The man lit the torch and tossed it inside. The air whooshed. Flames shot through the house.
For every counterinsurgent, there’s an equal and opposite reaction — the one who says it’s foolish to coopt your enemies; you should be pounding them into oblivion. Think, say, Donald Rumsfeld, or Cavil, the Cylon on “Battlestar: Galactica.” In this case, however, the Russians actually did pound the Chechen capitol, Grozny, into oblivion. And yet the insurgency, after a period of regrouping, continues.
But wait, you say. Be fair to Rumsfeld and Cavil. Isn’t the Russian objective in Chechnya no more than retaining control of it? And isn’t the Chechen insurgency little more than an annoyance? Doesn’t the Russians’ cavalier attitude toward brutality amount to as much of a guarantee of success as is possible?
Perhaps. But it’s a vicious circle. Every time Russia demonstrates its iron grip, each smaller act of Chechen resistance takes on a greater significance: there’s one who slipped away. Russia is forced to expend ever-greater resources to scorch the earth ever more completely. In a sick but strategic way, the cost of Chechen insurgency decreases, in the sensible calculation that Russia will eventually exhaust itself and look to cut a deal. In the meantime, of course, Chechen civilians die, and the survivors suffer state terror attacks like the one Chivers reports. So it’s not entirely the case that the insurgency holds the cards as brutality increases — after all, a first-order goal for Chechen insurgents is not to sacrifice their entire populace in the pursuit of liberation.
Still, the rabbit hole here is fairly clear: it’s much, much more cost-intensive, in terms of both human life (most importantly) and Russian treasure, to deepen its brutality in the morass of Chechnya than it would be to adopt a strategy of cooptation. The U.S. military, of course, never would in a million years propose adopting Russian tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else. But still, it’s an illustration of where indiscriminate force can lead.