- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

Resurgent Chechen rebels again battled Russian troops yesterday, fighting off a fierce Russian counterattack and raising fresh doubts that the war will prove the anticipated electoral bonanza for acting President Vladimir Putin.

Russian generals said yesterday they had reclaimed control of two key towns near the Chechen capital of Grozny in the face of determined Chechen resistance. The towns, Shali and Argun, had been attacked by rebel forces over the weekend in fighting that produced some of the heaviest Russian casualties since the war began in September.

Mr. Putin recently reshuffled the military command in Chechnya and yesterday approved a new, more aggressive strategy to root out suspected Chechen fighters using the coordinated forces of Russia's military, security and Interior Ministry services.

But the new fighting presents a political land mine for Mr. Putin, who became the odds-on favorite to win the presidential poll set for March 26 on the strength of his aggressive and popular handling of the war to date.

"The whole Putin battle plan is in jeopardy, both militarily and politically," said Heritage Foundation Russia analyst Ariel Cohen.

"If the Russians are defeated in the field, Putin could be swept away as fast as he has risen, and then all bets are off," Mr. Cohen said.

The analyst said it was too early to call Russia's reverses a turning point, but, significantly, the once-solid support of Russia's leading media for the Chechen campaign has shattered this week.

Both the Moscow daily Izvestia and NTV, the country's leading private television channel, featured critical accounts of the government's handling of the recent fighting, reminiscent of the harshly critical coverage of the later stages of Russia's disastrous war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996.

Izvestia, in a front-page report Monday, wrote: "The course of the military operations in recent weeks has turned out so badly for the federal forces that there can no longer be any talk of successful special operations in Chechnya."

Russian artillery yesterday shelled Shali and Argun. By late afternoon, rebels in the towns were scattered and Russian troops were combing the towns for remaining fighters, the Itar-Tass news agency reported, citing military sources.

Russian generals, stung by the Chechen strikes and still battling with determined Chechen resistance in Grozny and the province's southern hill country, said yesterday they would impose harsh new controls on all Chechen men between the ages of 10 and 60, and hinted at introducing more powerful artillery against rebel positions in the south.

"It's very difficult to get them with ordinary weapons in the gorges and holes in the mountain," said Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, head of Russia's air force.

The early success of Russia's latest Chechen military effort helped make Mr. Putin, a little-known former KGB officer, the country's most popular politician even before former President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned Dec. 31 and made his hand-picked prime minister the country's acting president.

Even Mr. Putin acknowledged that the resignation, which moved the presidential election date up from June to March 26, gave him an enormous leg up on potential rivals. Unity, a 2-month-old party closely identified with Mr. Putin, surged to second place in the Dec. 19 State Duma parliamentary elections, largely on the strength of its perceived closeness to the 47-year-old prime minister.

The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Cohen said it was still much too early to call the Chechen campaign a political liability for Mr. Putin, and analysts say the acting president has more going for him than just a successful war.

Susan Eisenhower, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Nixon Center, said Russian voters appreciated the plain-spoken, decisive Mr. Putin after years of the erratic and ailing Mr. Yeltsin.

"I think it's naive in the extreme to think that Putin came to power just on the strength of success in Chechnya," Mrs. Eisenhower said. "There's a strong sentiment in Russia that the country has been humiliated, and Yeltsin's behavior fed into that. At least you know that Putin will show up at the office each day."

Anders Aslund, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian program, also noted that Mr. Putin has benefited from a distinct uptick in the Russian domestic economy. Rising oil prices have helped, as have expanded markets for Russian exports in the wake of the painful devaluation of the ruble in 1998.

Just yesterday, Mr. Putin announced a 20 percent increase in pensions effective Feb. 1, coming on the heels of a 15 percent increase in October. The raise, helped by better tax collection and rising oil revenues, was in sharp contrast to the delays and cutbacks in pensions under Mr. Yeltsin.

A new Russian poll released Monday, taken before the latest Chechen fighting, puts Mr. Putin's support at 56 percent, compared with 14 percent for Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov and 10 percent for former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of the Fatherland-All Russia alliance, his two closest rivals.

Both Mr. Zyuganov and Mr. Primakov have publicly supported the Chechen campaign. Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party and another expected presidential candidate, is the most prominent Russian politician to date to criticize the war.

Mr. Yavlinsky received 3 percent in the new poll.

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