Perhaps the most startling comment of the political fortnight came from Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s main spokesman on issues related to Chechnya. On February 8 the presidential aide said that the “antiterrorist” operation in Chechnya would have been over a long time ago had a significant portion of the republic’s civilian population not continued to “support, harbor and medically treat members of the illegal armed formations, and to participate in direct military action against the federal forces.” Yastrzhembsky’s admission of significant popular backing for the Chechen rebels was all the more startling given the host of assurances from top Russian military and political officials over the last year or so that the Chechnya campaign was all but over, with only the “mopping up” of small rebel bands left to do. Indeed, Yastrzhembsky himself had all but declared victory at the start of 2001, claiming that the rebels’ large and mid-size units had been destroyed. He had also predicted only last December that this winter would be the Chechen rebels’ last.
Yastrzhembsky’s sudden burst of candor may have reflected a growing frustration inside the Kremlin. And understandably so, given that along with the usual flow of bad news out of Chechnya–reports of rebel hit-and-run raids, bombings and assassinations of pro-Moscow Chechens–there were also reports of military helicopters going down over the republic. Four choppers have been lost in Chechnya since January 28, when the crash of an Mi-8 killed fourteen servicemen, including the deputy interior minister for the Southern Federal District and the deputy commander of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops. At issue was not whether the rebels’ claims to have shot down three of the four choppers were true. Indeed, even if the helicopters had crashed due to technical malfunctions, as the Russian military was suggesting, news about the crashes was doing little to convince the Russian public that their can-do president was handling the problem they had in large part elected him resolve.
Frustration over Chechnya also expressed itself on the foreign policy front. While the Russian government had hoped the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington would push Western governments toward a position of unmitigated support for its “antiterrorist” operation in Chechnya–and the comments of some Western leaders had encouraged such hopes–Moscow suddenly had to face the fact that a host of Western foreign ministries had agreed to meet with representatives of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader elected as the republic’s president in 1997.
In response, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov used the occasion of an international security conference in Munich to accuse the West of a “double standard” regarding “separatism, religious extremism and fanaticism” for meeting with Maskhadov’s emissaries while conducting a war against international terrorism. The Russian Foreign Ministry, which made the same argument, also claimed there was now “irrefutable evidence” that the Chechen rebel leader had links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. The ministry was apparently referring to a report carried by Strana.ru, the Kremlin-connected website, which purported to detail how Arab mercenaries who had fought in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaida had joined Maskhadov’s “bandit formation” inside Chechnya. While Maskhadov’s representatives had consistently denied all of the Russian allegations regarding their alleged links with al-Qaida, those claims received some potential (albeit vague) validation from the Daily Telegraph. Its Afghanistan correspondent quoted bin Laden’s former cook, now a prisoner of the Northern Alliance, as saying he believed the Saudi terrorist had fled to Iran and then into Chechnya via Azerbaijan.