Three years after halting the war against Chechen independence that cost 80,000 lives, Russian troops and armor this past week once again crossed over into the rebellious republic. This time the stated aim was the establishment of a “security zone” aimed at preventing raids into neighboring republics, like those carried out by Islamic militants against Dagestan starting in August. Russian military officials called it an “antiterrorist” operation, stressing they had no plans to carry out a full-scale ground invasion. According to several press accounts–putatively based on high-level leaks–the ultimate goal was to seize the northern part of Chechnya down to the Terek River, a region traditionally more pro-Moscow in sentiment. Over 50,000 federal troops were reportedly massed in Dagestan, North Ossetia and Ingushetia, and over the weekend elements of this force penetrated several kilometers into Chechen territory, on three fronts. Russian officials said there had only been “isolated clashes” with Chechen fighters so far, while Chechen sources claimed that twenty Russian soldiers were killed and a number of armored vehicles destroyed.
Meanwhile, the apparent intellectual author of the new Chechen campaign, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, announced that the Chechen parliament elected in 1996 was the “only legal authority” in the republic. That parliament, which had been elected while half of Chechnya was occupied by Russian troops, was disbanded later that year by Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya’s democratically elected president, and fled with the withdrawing federal forces. One Russian television correspondent reporting Putin’s new puppet government had a hard time keeping a straight face.
The step was either a sign of self-assuredness or foolhardiness: With it, Moscow jettisoned any chance working with Maskhadov, who had long been seeking a meeting with Yeltsin and had long been on the verge of war with Shamil Basaev and Khattab, the radical field commanders behind the Dagestan attacks. In fact, the new Chechen campaign as a whole seemed irrational, given that the Russian military was said to be in even worse shape than it had been during the disastrous 1994-1996 campaign, while the Chechens were far better armed and trained.
Yet there were also signs that Moscow had thought things through much better this time. Its forces were, first of all, moving carefully and incrementally on the ground, supported by a massive air campaign that the military authorities were trying hard to portray as something akin to NATO’s air war against Serbia. Few observers, of course, took seriously their insistence that the air force was “pinpointing” terrorist training camps and infrastructure, like bridges, which could be used by terrorists to cross over into neighboring regions. Chechen officials claimed that hundreds of civilians were killed in little more than a week of air raids, and the mass exodus of refugees into neighboring regions–by week’s end more than 80,000 had entered Ingushetia alone–suggested that civilians, as in the previous war, were bearing the brunt.
Regardless, the new campaign seemed to be supported by most Russians, many of whom were still traumatized by the terrorist attacks last month in Moscow and other Russian cities last month, which took some 300 lives and were blamed on the Chechnya-based Islamic rebels (they have denied responsibility). Moscow was also successful in blunting international criticism of the air attacks by insisting that it was part of the fight against international terrorism and highlighting the alleged links between the Chechen radicals and the infamous Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden. The response of the United States and various European states was limited to expressions of concern and calls for a political solution. The gulf between the West’s response to this conflict and the one in Kosovo was not lost on the Chechens.
Finally, the more conspiratorially minded observer could note that the Chechen campaign had succeeded in raising the approval rating of Putin, Yeltsin’s designated successor, five-fold in just two weeks (from 2 percent to 10 percent, according to one poll). It also pushed the Kremlin corruption scandals and Fatherland-All Russia, the coalition led by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, off the front pages.
What is more, Russians–or Muscovites, at any rate–seemed to be getting used to the constant presence of an unprecedented number of heavily armed police and Interior Ministry troops on the city’s streets. They were also given notice that this was not likely end any time soon when Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service, warned that further terrorist attacks were quite possible.
Another six months or so of this emergency-like atmosphere, and Russians might not even blink if elections were put off for more peaceful times. It is also possible that, were Putin seen to be imposing order with an iron fist, he might win the right to succeed Yeltsin in a free vote.