If you have never heard of the case of Colonel Vladimir Budanov, the Russian military officer tried recently for the murder of a Chechen civilian, that's hardly surprising. Even though the case was widely regarded, both in Russia and abroad, as a test of Russia's willingness to rein in and punish human rights abuses by its military in the rebellious republic of Chechnya, Budanov's acquittal on New Year's Eve received only cursory coverage, well off the front pages of most Western newspapers.
The circumstances of the case bear repeating. By his own admission, Budanov, who was drinking heavily at the time, seized 18-year-old Elza Kungayeva, from her home, brought her to his quarters, cut away her clothes with a knife, beat her and finally strangled her. The autopsy also showed that the young woman had been raped.
Budanov was prosecuted for murder (the rape charge against him was dropped, on the theory that the sexual abuse was committed on Kungayeva's dead body by one of the soldiers whom he ordered to bury her). He claimed that the killing was the result of an interrogation gone wrong—that he believed the young woman to be a sniper who had killed several members of his unit, and that when she insulted him during questioning, he lost control and killed her.
The court acquitted Budanov on the grounds of temporary insanity. He is expected to undergo a short confinement to a psychiatric hospital. Many members of the military cheered the verdict as vindicating the honor of the Russian army (apparently by suggesting that it places brutal, mentally unstable people in charge of its troops).
On the same day that the Budanov verdict was handed down, Russia also announced that it would not renew the mandate of the mission in Chechnya of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Russian government wanted the mission to stick strictly to relief aid and not raise any bothersome questions about human rights. As a result of this move, there will be no more permanent international monitoring of any kind in Chechnya.
There is no question that the Russians are battling a genuine terrorist threat in Chechnya. The hostage crisis in Moscow last October and the suicide bombing of the offices of the pro-Russian administration in the Chechen capital of Grozny in late December demonstrated this in a stark and depressing way. The Russians may be exaggerating the role of the global radical Islamic terror network in Chechnya in order to secure the West's support for its actions there. But the Chechen insurgents have shown that, whether or not they have organizational ties to the Al Qaeda, they share in its willingness to kill innocent men, women, and children for the sake of ideology.
The hostage crisis and the suicide bombing brought home the fact that Russia and the West are allies in the war against terror and share a common vulnerability to terrorism. However, the Budanov case and the closing of the OSCE mission should remind us of the limits to this solidarity.
No political grievances, including human rights abuses, should ever be invoked as a justification for the deliberate murder of civilians—otherwise, we start down a slippery slope that leads to normalizing terrorism as a political strategy. At the same time, Chechen civilians clearly cannot count on the Russian government to protect them from wanton brutality by the Russian military.
The Budanov case also serves as a reminder of the double standards that persist in international public opinion. If an Israeli army colonel abducted, raped, and strangled a Palestinian woman, the case would likely send shock waves around the world. If an Israeli military court acquitted him, we would see mass demonstrations all over Europe.
Yes, innocent Palestinians, including children, have been tragically injured and killed in Israeli military operations. But for the most part, the Israeli defense forces have made a genuine effort to minimize civilian casualties, often at the expense of endangering their own soldiers. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that Russian forces in Chechnya have engaged in the systematic murder, rape, and looting of civilians. Yet we don't see European intellectuals comparing the Russian military to the Nazis. No one is calling on American universities to divest themselves from companies that trade with Russia, or organizing boycotts of Russian academics.
In the post-Cold War era, Russia wants to be seen as a part of democratic Western civilization. Its actions, then, should be held to civilized standard—a standard that, so far, they grievously fail to meet.