- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin’s rise was powered largely by a pledge to take down Chechen separatists. Yet the rebels are still killing Russian soldiers and appear increasingly bold in spilling civilian blood — being blamed for three dramatic attacks in little over a week.

Mr. Putin’s options seem limited.

His refusal to negotiate with the rebels and his rhetoric on wiping them out suggests he’s leaving little room to maneuver.

A campaign to win an overwhelming military victory in Chechnya appears remote as well. The 20-month war against the separatists in 1994-96 showed that the Russian army, underfunded and plagued by low morale, was ultimately not effective against a small but motivated guerrilla force.

And granting the rebels’ demand for independence would fly in the face of a decade of firm official statements that Chechnya is an integral part of Russia. Chechens have shown the strongest resistance to Moscow’s rule, but officials fear that releasing the mountainous region could open the door to other secessionist movements in the sprawling, diverse nation.

Instead, Mr. Putin appears committed to his strategy of a massive military presence in the republic, combined with what appear to be token efforts to restore a measure of civil society. It’s an approach that has brought little success.

Militants with ties to Chechen rebels are being blamed for bringing down two planes last month, a suicide bombing at a Moscow subway station last Tuesday and seizing a school full of children Wednesday in a region that borders Chechnya.

But with firm control over the media, parliament and security, Mr. Putin likely will weather the storm.

Although Russians have a tremendous desire to be rid of the Chechnya imbroglio, most also harbor inherent admiration for their president’s tough persona, great anger against the Chechens and a deep-rooted fear of any further dissolution of their sprawling but diminished empire.

In nearly five years in power, Mr. Putin has survived an array of disasters and embarrassments.

When a nuclear submarine that was the pride of the Russian fleet blew up and plunged to the bottom of the sea four years ago, killing 118 sailors trapped inside, Mr. Putin was widely criticized for his slow and seemingly hesitant public response, but he recovered quickly.

Western governments and businessmen have criticized Russia’s moves to rein in independent-minded TV stations and recent legal pressure on Yukos, the country’s major oil producer, but investors remain eager to tap Russia’s vast markets and Mr. Putin maintains good relations with Western leaders.

In the midst of the hostage crisis, President Bush called Mr. Putin and said the United States was prepared to give any help needed to resolve the situation, the Kremlin said, emphasizing that the United States and Russia are fighting international terrorism shoulder-to-shoulder.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled consultations on the school seizure, stepping up pressure on the hostage-takers and demonstrating a united front behind Mr. Putin.

Perhaps the most dismal moment for the Russian president was in 2002 when Chechen rebels raided a Moscow theater and took about 800 persons hostage. In a police raid, all 41 attackers were shot and 129 hostages died — most of them succumbing to a knockout gas that was never identified.

Mr. Putin fended off potential criticism then with an unusual move for a Russian leader — he went on national television and said simply “Forgive us.”

If anything, that raid and its tragic denouement strengthened Mr. Putin’s refusal to negotiate and his efforts to portray rebels as bloodthirsty and beyond reason.

Last week’s paroxysm of violence could have the same effect, even though the explosions and attacks contradict official claims that the rebels are growing weaker and Chechnya is stabilizing.

A week ago, Chechens elected a new Kremlin-backed president for their republic, top police official Alu Alkhanov — a development hailed by Mr. Putin but ridiculed by opponents, who claimed vote-rigging.

When the dust settles, analysts say Mr. Putin’s popularity could, in fact, increase.

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