On November 3, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists at Khabarovsk airport in the Russian Far East that the Russian military force based in Chechnya had begun a massive, violent retaliatory operation against Chechen militants. Ivanov also announced that he personally had taken a decision to “suspend cutting back the [number of] troops in Chechnya” (RIA Novosti, November 3). “From today on,” Ivanov declared, “the forces in Chechnya are carrying out a harsh but targeted special operation in all districts of the republic in order to nip threats in the bud” (Newsru.com, November 6).
Ivanov’s words elicited indignation from one journalist, Yury Gavrilov, writing in the November 5 issue of Moskovskie Komsommolets: “Why,” he asked, “did the news of a new turn in the Caucasus war come from the mouth not of the president but of the minister of defense, Sergei Ivanov? Does the head of the war ministry have the right independently to halt the cutting back of troops in Chechnya or is that not rather the prerogative of the supreme commander-in-chief? Our experts have no one answer to these questions.”
And, in an interview appearing in the November 6 issue of the pro-democracy daily Novye Izvestia, retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov, the elected representative from Chechnya to the Russian State Duma, commented acidly: “When Sergei Ivanov makes such announcements, it only comes across as an attempted demonstration of strength and a desire to flex his muscles. No one [in Chechnya] understood what he wanted to say. What is to come next? A pinpoint operation, certain special measures, or targeted cleansing operations? As far as I can recall, not a single announced pinpoint operation has in fact been that. They have been accompanied, as a rule, by the mass death of [civilians] and by an enormous amount of destruction. Targeted special operations are another matter…. But what has Ivanov to do with them? Special operations are conducted by the FSB or the MVD…. Everybody knows that there is nothing for the army to do in Chechnya; it is the special services which should be there.”
On November 6, during a visit to Maikop in southern Russia, President Putin sounded a different note from that of Ivanov three days earlier. After stating that antiterrorist measures must be continued in Chechnya as long as they prove necessary, Putin then underlined: “But they must bear a precise, targeted character; and there should be no mass [military] measures. That would be harmful and inadmissible” (Grani.ru, November 6).
In a stimulating essay appearing in the November 6 issue of the website Grani.ru, journalist Vladimir Temnyi reflected: “From the outside, the declaration of the Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov, resounding from the Far East, and the statement of the president of the Russian Federation, Putin, coming from the south of Russia, look to be out of synch. Ivanov stresses the need for ‘large-scale, harsh’ operations in Chechnya, while Putin proposes that the operations ‘bear a precise character and that there be no mass measures.’ Ivanov speaks of the premature nature of the withdrawal of forces from Chechnya and asserts that ‘they [the rebels] have declared war’ against Russia. Putin clearly does not want to discuss the problem in such terms. He only indicates that ‘antiterrorist measures must be continued.'”
Some observers, Temnyi suspected, would see an “intrigue” in the situation: “The minister of defense, Ivanov, having gained the support of the military, is issuing a challenge to Putin and beginning a struggle for supreme state power.” “The admirers of Putin, by contrast, conjuring the image of the good tsar surrounded by bad boyars, have yet more grounds to speak of the struggle of the president with ‘the party of war’ headed by Sergei Ivanov. Putin, they can say, is doing everything he can to halt the war in Chechnya.”
But, Temnyi continued, “Vladimir Vladimirovicy [Putin] has a less complimentary alternative. The president is not in principle against going after the hotbed of terrorism in the North Caucasus. He recalls that such militant terminology brought him to the presidency…. But he has several differences with Sergei Ivanov and the generals concerning both the tempo and the character of the Chechen campaign…. The president has to take into account the moods of Russian society and to listen to the positions of the West.”
Finally, Temnyi noted, there existed yet another possible interpretation of the seeming differences separating Putin and his defense minister: “It is not to be excluded that, in reality, the approach to Chechnya of Ivanov and Putin is in fact indistinguishable, even in small details, and that everything that was expressed by Ivanov was agreed in advance with Putin. Simply, for understandable reasons, their public roles are different.” (Temnyi seemed to suggest that this last interpretation came closest to the truth.)
But even if this last explanation should prove to be the most accurate one, Temnyi concluded, “a few more explosions in Moscow, another hundred or so victims,” and Sergei Ivanov with his harsh, whip-like rhetoric might begin to be seen by Russian society as “fully appropriate for the role of savior of the Fatherland” and therefore as a replacement for the more “diplomatic” Putin.