Claim (in 2004, 2015 and 2017): The U.S. government supported Chechen separatism.

Partially Correct: There is no publicly available evidence that the U.S. ever provided direct material support to armed Chechen separatist groups, much less North Caucasus-based militants who have engaged in terrorist attacks. However, U.S. officials did openly meet with Ilyas Akhmadov, who represented the Chechen separatist movement and whom the Russian government described as a terrorist. In addition, former and serving U.S. government officials publicly expressed sympathy for “moderate” Chechen separatists and the separatist cause.

Source of the claim: Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of having had direct dialogue with Chechen separatists, whom he likened to Osama Bin Laden, shortly after a hostage-taking at a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan that took place on Sept. 1-3, 2004, for which notorious Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev had claimed responsibility. Speaking in the wake of the attack, Putin addressed Western policy experts at the inaugural, closed-door meeting of the Valdai discussion club; there, CNN reported, he criticized the U.S. tendency to view anti-Russian fighters in Chechnya as “freedom fighters” rather than terrorists. In particular, he claimed that the Americans had met with Chechen separatist representatives and that Russia’s complaints about these contacts had been met with the response that the U.S. “reserve[s] the right to talk with anyone.”1

In 2015, Putin again spoke of communication between militants from the North Caucasus and U.S. officials. In an interview with the Rossiya television channel he said that, “once, our special services noted direct contacts between rebels from the North Caucasus and representatives of the special services of the United States in Azerbaijan”; Putin suggested that the latter even “helped with transport” for the militants.2 His complaints about the matter to the U.S. administration, he said, ended with a letter from U.S. intelligence stating that the U.S. government had the right to maintain contacts “with all opposition forces in Russia.” 

Putin then accused U.S. intelligence services of providing direct support to “terrorists” in Russia in Oliver Stone’s 2017 documentary “The Putin Interviews,” saying that “when those problems in Chechnya and the Caucasus emerged, the Americans, unfortunately, supported those processes. We assumed the Cold War was over, that we had transparent relations, with the rest of the world, with Europe and the U.S. and we certainly counted on [their] support, but instead, we witnessed that the American intelligence services supported [these] terrorists… We had a very confident opinion back then that our American partners in words were talking about support to Russia, the need to cooperate, including fighting terrorism, but in reality, they were using those terrorists to destabilize the internal political situation in Russia.”3 Regarding evidence for these claims, Putin remarked that “as to information and political support, that was evident to everyone, no proof is necessary. It was done publicly. As to operational and financial support, we have this proof, and moreover, we submitted it to our American counterparts. … I even showed him [President George W. Bush] the names of employees from the U.S. special services who had contracted [sic] militants from the Caucasus… They were providing technical support, transporting fighters from one place to another.”4

Putin’s claims have been echoed by a number of other Russian officials, including the head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as by officials of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). In particular, the FSB claimed in 2001 that Rizvan5 Chitigov, a native of Chechnya who was reportedly involved in military operations on behalf of the unrecognized Chechen separatist government, was likely an “agent of the CIA.” When local security forces killed Chitigov in March 2005, the FSB repeated this claim, alleging that he had lived in the United States for a time in the early 1990s and possibly had a green card. (Russian news reports claimed—presumably on the basis of information from local security services—that Chitigov had served as a U.S. Marine and that he was wearing a dog tag when killed; however, the inscription reportedly on the tag does not match the U.S. Marine Corps format. See details below.)

Remarks by Putin and his subordinates can be broken into two distinct claims:

  • Claim #1: U.S. government officials met with representatives of armed Chechen separatist groups whom the Russian leadership described and/or officially designated as terrorists.
  • Claim #2: The U.S. government provided direct material support and/or intelligence to armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus that tMoscow described and/or officially designated as terrorists.

Checking Claim #1: U.S. government officials met with representatives of armed Chechen separatist groups whom the Russian leadership described and/or officially designated as terrorists.

The U.S. government—which supported a political settlement to the second conflict in Chechnya (1999-2009) and did not equate all separatists with terrorists—permitted several visits in the early 2000s by Ilyas Akhmadov, the foreign minister in Chechnya’s unrecognized separatist government; in 2004 a U.S. immigration judge granted Akhmadov asylum—with support from several sitting senators and former policymakers. Akhmadov had been reportedly allowed “low-profile” meetings with U.S. State Department officials in early 2000, October 2000 and March 2001, in spite of Russian objections; the late Sen. John McCain reportedly said he’d met with Akhmadov three times. In late 2002, the prosecutor’s office of Dagestan, a republic bordering Chechnya, issued an arrest warrant for Akhmadov relating to his alleged involvement in the planning and execution of an armed incursion by jihadists from Chechnya into Dagestan in September 1999. According to Brian G. Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and author of “Inferno in Chechnya,” the invasion of Dagestan, launched by Salafi-jihadist factions inside Chechnya with the support of like-minded militants from Dagestan, was not supported by “moderate” factions in the Chechen government, including Akhmadov. Russian authorities, however, maintained that Akhmadov was connected with terrorist activity; Akhmadov denied these accusations. In August 2004, Russian officials stated that Russia had asked Interpol to add Akhmadov to its wanted list and that the Russian government had asked the U.S. to extradite him, with Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko describing Akhmadov as an “accomplice to terrorists.” In 2005, an official at the Russian Embassy in Washington again stated that, in Moscow’s eyes, Akhmadov is “a terrorist, there is no doubt about it." While the Russian government designated Akhmadov a terrorist at the time, the U.S. government did not make a comparable official designation for him or for the unrecognized Chechen separatist government that he represented in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did initially appeal Akhmadov’s asylum, reportedly calling him a terrorist and seeking to deport him to Russia; however, DHS dropped the appeal within a few months, reportedly due to a lack of evidence.

Our team of in-house and external researchers found no publicly available evidence for Putin’s claim of U.S. intelligence contacts with Chechen separatists through Azerbaijan. (A leaked State Department cable from 2006 about new approaches to the Chechnya conflict—written by then-Ambassador William Burns—recommends encouraging Azerbaijan to help “contain instability in the North Caucasus” by “[s]trengthening border forces” and ramping up trade, inter alia.)    

Checking Claim #2: The U.S. government provided direct material support and/or intelligence to armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus that tMoscow described and/or officially designated as terrorists.

Multiple searches of open sources by our team of researchers has yielded no evidence of the U.S. government’s direct support for armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus. The team found no public evidence that would suggest that the United States supported terrorism aimed at achieving Chechnya’s independence, even though Russian authorities did claim that some actions by U.S. officials amounted to such support. These included the 2004 granting of asylum to Akhmadov; that same year, he received a federally funded fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy, which cited his work “to focus international attention on the humanitarian tragedy in Chechnya and to promote a negotiated end to the war with Russia.” In 2008, after Moscow recognized two breakaway Georgian republics as sovereign states, McCain, then the presumptive Republican nominee for president, reportedly said that “Western countries ought to think about the independence of the North Caucasus and Chechnya.”

In addition, the Russian press has pointed to the alleged presence of CIA agents in Chechnya as further evidence of the United States’ malicious intentions in the region. Needless to say, such claims are difficult to either verify or disprove. As noted above, one search of open sources netted a claim by the FSB that Chechen rebel Chitigov may have been a CIA agent; that claim did not include any corroborating evidence.

Furthermore, Russia’s Kommersant daily alleged that Chitigov had spent four years in the U.S. in the early 1990s, arriving there through the “services of some international Muslim foundation” and that Chitigov told compatriots he had served “on a contract basis with a U.S. Marine battalion” while there. The newspaper identified neither the foundation nor the source of the claim about Chitigov’s military service. Both Kommersant and Lenta.ru alleged that Chitigov wore a U.S. Marine Corps identification tag; however, as noted above, the inscription reported by both outlets, “Chitigov Rizvan Umarovich. Chechnya. 1965,” does not match the Marine Corps format for such tags, which includes last name, first and middle initials, blood type, Social Security number and religious preference. Mark Kramer, the director of Harvard’s Project on Cold War Studies, searched the National Personnel Records Center shortly after Chitigov’s death and found no record of anyone with that name having served in any branch of the military. Kramer told Russia Matters that “Chitigov briefly visited the United States in the early 1990s” but that he “was never affiliated with the U.S. military or any U.S. government agency.” In order to corroborate Kramer’s findings and due to the difficulty of accessing recent immigration records without written consent or state-issued death certificates, Russia Matters filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the National Personnel Records Center and the FBI, both of which would be able to release information, if it were present, relating to Chitigov’s immigration and/or military service. As of Sept. 3, 2020, the request with the Records Center remained delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Claims of American weapons being found in Chechnya have been used to support the idea that the U.S. provided material support to the rebels. In 2017, after the release of Stone’s film, Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency published claims that the U.S. had provided anti-aircraft Stinger missile systems to extremists in Chechnya. Such claims had surfaced before. In October 1999, RFE/RL reported that the vice president of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Vakha Arsanov, had announced the possession of 50 Stinger missile systems and showed the weapons on local television. That same month, the separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, stated that separatist forces had brought down a fixed-wing Russian aircraft with a Stinger. Whether that aircraft was brought down by a U.S.-made or a Russian/Soviet-made missile (the rebels did operate some of the latter) is unclear. Also in October 1999, Russian officials claimed that the Taliban had sent Stingers to Chechen fighters. A report from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think-tank focusing on armaments and military affairs, agrees that these systems originated from the remaining stocks of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, which the U.S. had been attempting to buy back. Analyst Olga Oliker provided an alternative explanation, suggesting that the rumors around the infamous weapon system were greatly exaggerated as part of a Chechen disinformation campaign meant to reduce morale among Russian pilots, and that the separatists never possessed a significant quantity of the systems. Oliker argues “their most likely source would have been Afghanistan,” but, as the United States had ceased sending Stingers in 1988, any missiles the rebels did have “would be in disrepair and unusable.”

Some U.S.-based non-governmental organizations did provide an avenue for the support of armed groups in Chechnya. One group that operated in the United States, the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), which functioned under the guise of a humanitarian aid organization, funneled money to insurgents in the North Caucasus. According to U.S. court documents, in 2000, BIF spent over 40 percent of its budget on direct cash transfers and supplying medical equipment and other material aid to armed groups it identified as “Chechen mujahedeen” in internal documents.

However, no credible evidence has been produced that this organization acted on behalf of the U.S. government. Moreover, according to court documents, a website linked to BIF “alleged secret [U.S.] financial support for the Russians fighting in Chechnya,” and wrote that supporters should “consider them all [the U.S. and Russia] as [their] enemies and in the same group." BIF was designated by the U.S. Treasury as a financier of terrorism in 2002, and its director, Enaam Arnaout, was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a U.S. court in 2003. RIA accused several other U.S. Islamic aid associations of providing support to separatists; however, these accusations are vague and unverifiable.

The NGO perhaps most linked with U.S. support for separatists in the North Caucasus was the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC). This was an initiative of the partially government-funded Freedom House and was chaired by former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. The ACPC came under scrutiny in the international press in 2004 for its alleged support of Chechen insurgents; however, we have found no indication that this group ever attempted to directly support the fighters on the ground outside of lobbying for “Russia to take constructive steps toward negotiating a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the leadership of the Chechen government.” Nonetheless, it is likely that such a message coming from hawkish former members of the U.S. foreign policy elite was interpreted in Moscow as the United States’ tacit support for the separatists’ objectives.

Overall, the U.S. seemed to draw a distinction between figures like Chechen separatist-turned-jihadist Basayev, whom the U.S. designated a terrorist in August 2003, and those whom one ACPC official termed the “mainstream Chechen resistance.” Russia did not draw such a distinction, considering both Akhmadov and Basayev terrorists. The U.S. was willing to treat the separatists as a party with valid political concerns, although the U.S. did not recognize Chechen independence; however, our team of researchers was unable to find any evidence to suggest that this tacit political support ever resulted in the operational or financial support of armed groups operating in Chechnya and/or other parts of the North Caucasus.

Footnotes:

  1. CNN’s translation.
  2. The translations in this paragraph and elsewhere in the fact-check are RM’s unless otherwise noted.
  3. Filmmakers’ translation.
  4. Filmmakers’ translation.
  5. Sometimes spelled “Rezvan.”