Policy Watch: Russian hostages in Iraq

By MARK N. KATZ   |   June 24, 2006 at 2:33 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 24 (UPI) -- On June 3, four Russian diplomats were kidnapped at gunpoint in Baghdad and a fifth was killed. On June 19, the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq (an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida in Iraq) claimed responsibility for this action and gave the Russian government a 48-hour ultimatum to pull its troops out of Chechnya and release Muslims from Russian prisons. On June 21, the Mujahideen Shura Council announced that since Moscow had not met its demands, a ruling had been made by the Council's Islamic Court to execute the four Russian hostages.

At the time this is being written, it is not clear whether the four Russians have actually been killed or are still alive. A June 22 report from the Russian news service, RIA Novosti, stated that progress is being made in talks aimed at their release, thus holding out hope that the captured diplomats are still alive. But however this episode turns out, it has some chilling implications for Russian foreign policy.

One of Moscow's principal foreign policy aims has been to prevent opposition to Russian intervention in Chechnya from rising up in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Muslim support for the Afghan mujahideen was at least as important as American assistance to them in frustrating Soviet military policy in Afghanistan during the 1980's and inducing Moscow to withdraw its forces from there in 1988-89.

Since then, Russia has been unable to subdue a rebellion within its own borders in Chechnya for many years now. The task it faces would be far more difficult if Chechnya became as much of a cause celebre among Muslims as Afghanistan was two decades ago.

And so Moscow, especially under Putin, has assiduously worked to convince the Muslim world that, unlike America, Russia is its friend. When America insisted on intervening in Iraq, Russia strenuously objected -- both at the time of the intervention and ever since. When the United States called for democratization in the Middle East, Russia indicated its willingness to work with existing authoritarian governments as they are. When the United States calls for sanctions or other strong measures in response to the Iranian nuclear program, Russia calls for restraint and even sticks up for Tehran. When the United States refused to talk to Hamas after it won the Palestinian parliamentary elections earlier this year, Russia hosted a Hamas delegation in Moscow.

Numerous other examples could be cited. Part of Moscow's aim in taking these actions seems to be to convey to Muslims that Russia supports so many causes dear to them that they should not concern themselves over what is happening in Chechnya. Moscow would prefer that Muslims actually support Russian actions there, but will be grateful if they are merely indifferent -- just as long as they do not actively support the Chechen rebels.

Remarkably, this Russian public diplomacy campaign has largely succeeded. While they do not approve of Russian policy in Chechnya, most governments as well as public opinion in the Muslim world have indeed largely ignored it. They focus instead on their opposition to American policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere.

Clearly, though, this Russian public diplomacy campaign has not worked with the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq. That Moscow still hoped it might, even after the Council's June 19 ultimatum calling for a withdrawal from Chechnya, was indicated by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman's statement in response: "[T]here can be no justification for the seizure of the representatives of a country energetically promoting the restoration of peace on Iraqi soil, and independence and well-being of the friendly Iraqi people," Mikhail Kamynin said. In other words: Why pick on Russians when it is the Americans, not us, who are occupying your country?

In its statement of June 19, however, the Mujahideen Shura Council indicated that, regardless of Russian opposition to the American occupation of Iraq, it still opposed Russian "aggression" both in Chechnya now and in Afghanistan in the past. "How can you ask us to forget what the weakened Muslims are encountering from the Russian government and its people?" the statement issued by the Council asked. Its June 21 statement announcing the decision to execute the four Russian diplomats declared that this was being done "in revenge for our brothers everywhere with whose blood the Russians' hands have been stained."

What is especially amazing about this incident is that it has happened at all. One might think that the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq already had its hands full fighting against Americans, Shiites, and its other enemies inside Iraq itself. But despite all this, the Council found the time to think about, and act against, Russian policy in Chechnya.

If the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq can devote this much attention to the Chechen cause when American forces are still in Iraq, it is likely to pay even more attention to it if the American presence there, which Moscow objects to so much, comes to an end. Even if an American withdrawal does not occur any time soon, the jihadists might well succeed in moving the Chechen issue off the backburner of the Muslim world's consciousness if they set their minds to it. And if they do, neither Hamas, Iran, nor any of Moscow's other "friends" in the Muslim world will do anything to help Russia.

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(Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.)

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