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HomeThe Journal of Power Institutions...Issue 18Book Reviews - General (8)Julie Wilhelmsen, Russia’s Securi...

Book Reviews - General (8)

Julie Wilhelmsen, Russia’s Securitization of Chechnya: How war became acceptable

Routledge Critical Terrorism Studies, 2017, 239 pages
Fernando Avakian
Bibliographical reference

Russia’s Securitization of Chechnya: How war became acceptable, Routledge Critical Terrorism Studies, 2017, 239 pages

Index terms

Keywords :

War, Chechnya

Countries :

Russia, Chechnya

Research Fields :

Political Science
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Full text is grateful to Kevin Roberts who edited this book review

1Wilhelmsen´s profound exploration into the process of legitimation of the second Chechen war stems from a series of critical studies on terrorism that build on post-structuralist bases. Its interest lies in the innovative standpoint from which terrorism and national security are understood as the result of reflective, intersubjective practices, thus surmounting the traditional reification of such concepts in the fields of political science and international relations. In this book, the author examines the mechanisms by which the military efforts undertaken by the Russian federal government for retaking Chechnya in 1999 became acceptable for Russian society, and how this support allowed the Kremlin to continue waging war until its formal ending in 2001 notwithstanding the enormous human and material costs of the endeavor. Particularly, Wilhelmsen seeks to explore how discursive practices “re-phrased” Chechnya and Chechens, in order to present them as a radical Otherness posing an existential menace to Russia –the imminent threat of Islamic fundamentalism– and reshaping in turn the threatened Russian Self in a context of political fragmentation by the end of the Yeltsin era. She bases her analysis on a substantial corpus of official statements referring to Chechnya and testimonies from experts, journalists and the political elite beyond the Kremlin. Underpinning the book, is the idea that the representation of Chechens as the incarnation of the Islamist threat to Russia was the result of a collective endeavor including the participation of the targeted audience and multiple social actors, rather than a top-down, unilateral imposition from a single political leader. The timescale investigated covers the period between 1996 and 2001, with special emphasis on 1999 as a turning point in the re-securitization of Chechnya.

  • 1 O. Waever, "Securitization and desecuritization", In R.D.Lipschutz (ed.), On security. New York: Co (...)

2The author bases her study on certain revised principles of Copenhagen School securitization theory (including, but not limited to, the works of Ole Wæver1). By considering the threats to national security as the product of intersubjective construction, political violence is not seen as the inevitable clash of timeless, objectified structures. This school of thought is concerned with the process of shaping the menace and generating a gradual change of public’s attitude towards phenomena defined as a threat. In the Chechen case, as said, the acquiescence of the Russian society for waging war was the outcome of a complex and multifaceted process of othering Chechens and securitizing what could be considered a postcolonial or a local separatist conflict. During the first war, Russian society identified with Chechen suffering; however, the gradual transformation of the latter into a matter of security –to the point of considering this group as an existential threat to Russia– provoked a radical estrangement of Chechens from Russia and gathered public support for the breakup of the second war. Through the performative action of speech and, later on, concrete political measures and military actions (which are discursive elements themselves), the representation of Chechens in the Russian public sphere mutated from the image of “freedom fighters” to that of Salafist terrorists attacking Russian cities under the influence of international terrorist networks. The latter was a representation of the enemy that the Russian public would not identify with, and with which no negotiations would be possible or desirable.

3Who were the main agents of this discursive construction? Wilhelmsen points out that, while the Kremlin had a privileged role in portraying Chechnya/Chechens as the embodiment of Islamist fundamentalism threatening Russia, different actors with varying degrees of autonomy and diverse interests participated in this process. She focuses specifically on the discursive shifts of experts, journalists and the political opposition campaigning for seats in the Duma. The deep rooted, competing historical narratives voiced by the audience are examined as well. She stresses nevertheless that a different discourse might have appeared in the crucial year of 1999, one not alienating Chechnya/Chechens from Russians but replacing war by peaceful interaction. In doing so, Wilhelmsen steps into the counterfactual hypothesis by which war was not inevitable.

4After detailing the theoretical framework of securitization theory and the working tools, method and sources in the first chapters, Wilhelmsen devotes chapter 4 to chronological and empirical revision. In particular, she revisits the interwar period (1996-1999) during which Chechnya was not presented as a radical Other. Furthermore, during this period a discourse of reconciliation arises among political deciders, making of this moment an interesting case of de-securitization; for instance, Chechnya´s then President Aslan Maskhadov is regarded as a valid partner for peer negotiations. The re-securitization of Chechnya in 1999 is addressed in chapter 5. Resorting mainly to official statements, Wilhelmsen inquires how the Kremlin prepared the ground for the outbreak of war by associating Chechnya with jihadist fundamentalism. The preexisting terrain in which the securitizing discourse took root is swiftly explored in chapter 6; that is to say, the series of negative representations of Chechens in Russian popular culture throughout the XIXth and XXth centuries. In chapter 7, the author delves into the political elite´s role in the securitization of Chechnya, analyzing in particular the reverberations of the official discourse in the politicians campaigning in the 1999 legislative elections. In the following two chapters, she studies the statements of influential experts and the media. Chapters 10, 11 and 12 analyze the “material practices” that the securitization discourse entailed and that were meaningful in the overall securitizing process: the sealing off of Chechnya, its relentless bombardment and the practice of “cleansing” Chechen villages. These extraordinary measures were foregrounded in and legitimized by the linguistic articulations explained in the previous chapters. In turn, these measures reinforce the discourse that permitted the outbreak of war, that is, the synonymy between Chechnya and terrorism. Finally, she summarizes the core findings of her research and outlines broader perspectives for the studies of counterterrorism in Russia, such as the securitization of other ethnic groups across the Federation.

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1 O. Waever, "Securitization and desecuritization", In R.D.Lipschutz (ed.), On security. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 46-86. O. Waever, Identity, integration and security: solving the sovereignty puzzle in E.U. studies, Journal of International Affairs, 48(2), 1995, pp. 289-431.

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Electronic reference

Fernando Avakian, « Julie Wilhelmsen, Russia’s Securitization of Chechnya: How war became acceptable », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 18 | 2017, Online since 15 October 2017, connection on 04 March 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Fernando Avakian

Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales

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