Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 176

In his televised September 24 speech, President Vladimir Putin not only laid out Russia’s position on the U.S.-led international antiterrorism campaign, but gave an ultimatum to the Chechen rebels, demanding that they sever all links with international terrorist organizations and contact federal officials within seventy-two hours to begin discussing “methods of disarming illegal formations and groups and a way to include them in civilian life in Chechnya.” While Putin’s remarks appeared to hold open the prospects for a political solution to the conflict, Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov initially accused the Russian president of trying to use “the tragic events in the United States”–the September 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York–to prevent the West from criticizing “the barbarous actions of Russian troops” in Chechnya (Kommersant, Moscow Times, AFP, September 25). The day after Putin’s speech, however, Maskhadov changed direction and sought to give it a positive spin. In a statement released by the rebel Chechenpress news agency, Maskhadov said that a remark Putin made in his speech, that the Chechen conflict had its own “prehistory,” suggested that the speech had created “a new chance to start negotiations on the quickest possible cessation of military activities” (Chechenpress, September 25). Some Russian observers also interpreted Putin’s demarche as a sign that he is ready to seek a political solution to the Chechen conflict. Vedomosti newspaper commentator Vitaly Portnikov called the speech a first step toward a political solution in Chechnya. According to Portnikov, the speech showed that Putin understood that Russia must find a way out of the “Chechen dead-end” if it wants to play an important role in world politics and effectively aid its allies in Central Asia in the fight against international terrorism (Vedomosti, September 26).

Most political observers, however, believe that Putin’s deadline was aimed not at paving the way for a political settlement in Chechnya, but rather, on the contrary, at justifying an escalation of its military campaign in the breakaway republic. Since the speech, some officials have been downplaying any hints of a readiness for negotiations. Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, said today that the federal authorities would talk to Maskhadov only about “the voluntary surrender of weapons by his formations, without preconditions or any intermediaries.” Discussions about the rebels’ integration into civilian life were possible, Kazantsev added, but only after they surrendered their weapons (Interfax, September 26). The rebels, of course, are unlikely to accept these conditions, and while Putin did not say in his speech what would happen if they failed to meet his deadline for disarmament, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov today hinted that a serious military escalation would follow. “It will be as follows: If you didn’t hide, don’t blame me,” he said. Ivanov, who was in Brussels meeting with NATO defense ministers, then clarified his statement, saying that “directed operations” would be carried out against the rebels (Polit.ru, September 26).

Whatever the case, there are signs that the civilian population in Chechnya is expecting the conflict to intensify. The Interfax news agency reported yesterday that the number of refugees fleeing from Chechnya into neighboring Ingushetia had increased significantly (Interfax, September 25; see also Chechnya Weekly, September 26). With winter just weeks away, this will create new problems for the refugee camps in Ingushetia, which are already unable to cope.