Two Russian newspapers today again detailed what they claimed were Moscow’s plans to introduce ground forces into Chechnya. One of the papers, Segodnya, reported that the Russian military aims at gaining control over the entire breakaway republic, not just the region around the Terek River, as other media reported this week (see the Monitor, September 28). According to Segodnya, Russian forces will attempt to drive the radical Islamist forces into Chechnya’s mountains in time for the winter, in order to “freeze” them out–literally (Segodnya, September 29). Defense Ministry sources told a Russian news agency that plans for a ground operation are in their final stage. According to these anonymous sources, combat-ready airborne and infantry units will be the nucleus of the strike force, and some 20,000 servicemen from both the Defense and Interior ministries have been transferred to Dagestan and North Ossetia as reinforcements. A high-ranking military official was quoted as saying that the ground operation will not include an attempt to seize the Chechen capital (Russian agencies, September 29).
While the military campaign against Islamic militants in Dagestan and Chechnya have been generally popular with the public, some Russian politicians have started to question its wisdom. Aleksei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said a bombing halt should be considered, while Sergei Kovalev, a Duma deputy and President Boris Yeltsin’s former human rights ombudsman, who led the antiwar campaign during the 1994-1996 Chechen conflict, warned that a ground campaign would inevitably turn into a guerrilla war that could only be won by “carrying out genocide.” Samara Governor Konstantin Titov said there was no proof thus far that Chechen terrorists were behind the terrorist bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia earlier this month which killed around 300 people (Russian agencies, September 28-29).
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, while on a visit to Cuba, said that the Russian government would hold a “political dialogue with the Chechen leadership, but only if the Chechen government ends ‘warlike’ actions against Russia and… agrees to the extradition of terrorist bosses.” This suggests that the Russian authorities have adopted a policy of holding Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to blame for the actions of Islamist militants, even though he is opposed by the radical field commanders Basaev and Khattab. Yesterday a Russian defense ministry official accused officials of Maskhadov’s government of aiding the radicals in preparing new terrorist attacks (Reuters, AP, September 28).
Other Russian notables have weighed in on the latest Chechen war. Anatoly Chubais, head of United Energy Systems (UES), Russia’s electricity grid, proposed this week that the federal government cut off electricity supplies to Chechnya, which owes UES around US$27 million (Russian agencies, September 27). For his part, Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed, who brokered the agreement ending the last Chechen war, was quoted by the French newspaper Le Figaro as saying that the bombing of Chechnya and the terrorist attacks in Moscow appeared to be “a wide-ranging attempt at destabilization” on the part of the government, aimed at canceling elections (Reuters, September 28).
RUSSIA-CHINA-INDIA “AXIS” STILL A WAYS OFF.