On December 24, during a call-in to President Putin from Russian citizens throughout the country, which was broadcast over the state-run television networks ORT and RTR, Putin was asked a question concerning a recent statement by pro-Moscow Chechen official Bislan Gantamirov. “Bislan Gantamirov,” the caller, a 71-year-old pensioner, noted, “says where [Shamil] Basaev and [President Aslan] Maskhadov are to found in Chechnya. Why aren’t the special services using his information?” Seemingly disconcerted by this question, Putin responded, “You’re aware that he [Gantamirov] has been working as deputy envoy to the Southern Federal District. Before that he worked as mayor of Grozny.” This statement contained a noteworthy factual error. Gantamirov is in fact currently serving as chief federal inspector in the Southern Federal District, not as a deputy plenipotentiary presidential representative. Putin continued his remarks: “By and large, he [Gantamirov] was also in charge of Chechnya’s policemen. Therefore if he truly knew the whereabouts of this notorious bandit [presumably a reference to Basaev] he would have captured him.”
Even if the Russian forces knew precisely in which settlement Basaev was presently located, Putin went on to explain, it would not solve Russia’s problem: “Several thousand people live in the settlement [Gantamirov] mentioned…. Just carrying out special means on a massive scale… where thousands of people live–unfortunately we can’t do that. Nor can we use aircraft or heavy bombers on settlements like these, as they did in Afghanistan. We mustn’t forget that the people who live there are citizens of Russia, and we must be extremely correct in the way we act. But I have no doubt our special services will get them in the end” (RTR, December 24; BBC Monitoring, December 25). As we shall see, Putin misspoke here; Russia earlier this month did use aircraft and artillery against a Chechen city, thereby endangering Chechen civilians. Putin’s characterization of U.S. military tactics toward civilians in Afghanistan also appeared to be inaccurate.