The Russian authorities continued to exhibit a schizoid attitude toward the idea of continuing talks with Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader who was elected president of the separatists’ self-styled Republic of Ichkeria back in 1997. Following the meeting in Moscow last November between Maskhadov’s representative, Akhmed Zakaev, and Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential representative in the Southern federal district, the momentum toward a political settlement stalled. The Russian side accused the Chechen side of putting forward unacceptable conditions. By this it meant the Chechens’ refusal to accept disarmament as a precondition for talks. Yet after Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the Russian armed forces general staff, declared that there was “no possibility” for negotiations with either radical rebel commanders like Shamil Basaev or Khattab, on the one hand, or with Maskhadov, on the other, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s main spokesman on Chechnya, issued something of a clarification. It would be “wrong” to “completely and forever refuse the possibility of contacts with Maskhadov,” Yastrzhembsky said.

Such vague hopes, however, looked all the more unconvincing in light of the increasing violence in Chechnya. While the federal military command claims that its forces have killed well over 100 rebels this month, the Chechens have struck back fiercely. On January 17, rebels carried out separate ambushes of Russian military convoys in Vedeno and Urus-Martan. The Russian military initially claimed nine of its soldiers were killed in those attacks, but an unnamed military source later told that well over thirty Russian servicemen had died in the two ambushes and that Yastrzhembsky had ordered that the real casualty figures be kept secret.

And, as always, the civilian toll continued to mount. The Memorial human rights group reported that the situation in Chechnya had deteriorated precipitously in January, mainly as a result of violence committed during “zachistki” (mopping up operations) carried out by federal forces in the city of Argun and the village of Tsotsin-Yurt. The human rights group said it was particularly disturbed by instances of “unofficial activity by official power structures” which were behaving similar to “death squads” by illegally detaining people in “filtration points,” engaging in torture and committing murders. Memorial charged that the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly was closing its eyes to lawlessness and massive human rights abuses on the part of Russian forces in Chechnya so as to not complicate its relations with Moscow.

On Chechnya, the Europarliamentarians were getting it from both sides. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly and chairman of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, charged that a majority of them had failed to learn the lesson of September 11 and were thus still treating Chechnya’s “political extremists” as “freedom fighters.” “By the logic of a number of Europarliamentarians, the pilot-terrorists who aimed civilian airliners at Washington and New York were also freedom fighters,” Rogozin fumed.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry lodged a complaint with the British Foreign Office after officials of the latter met with Akhmed Zakaev in London, saying the meeting contradicted the “cooperation” and “partnership” between London and Moscow, including in the fight against international terrorism. Throwing more cold water on hopes that talks with Maskhadov will resume, the Kremlin-connected website reported that an Afghan national working on behalf of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network had been detained in the Russian republic of Kalmykia. The website alleged the captured Afghan was on a mission to deliver Islamic extremist propaganda–including, among other things, leaflets urging an anti-Russian jihad–to Maskhadov representatives.