In an interview with French journalists published in Le Figaro on October 26 (and carried in Russian by Gazeta.ru on October 27), Russian president Vladimir Putin offered a combative and, at times, emotional defense of Russia’s “anti-terrorist” military operation in Chechnya. “Shamil Basaev,” Putin began his comments, “declared that he wants to send 150 of his own people to the Middle East. Imagine those fighters laying mines and taking hostages whom they would then torture by barbarian methods. It’s not important that they comprise 150 men; their presence alone could give the [Israeli] conflict another path of development.” Putin then posed a question of his own to his French interlocutors, asking: “And I, in turn, would like to ask you a question: if we didn’t conduct an antiterrorist operation in Chechnya, how many fighters could Basaev then send to the Middle East? What heights might his expansionist projects reach?” In issuing such warnings, Putin ignored the belief of many analysts that Basaev had not in fact issued such a threat and that, even if he had, he did not possess the capacity to put it into effect. (Putin’s suggestion that Russia is defending the West and Israel against the spread of international terrorism is also noteworthy.)
The Russian president continued his emotional defense of the Russian war effort: “For me everything is clear. We have to stop the criminality [in Chechnya] and, in order to stop it, we have to hand the criminals over to the courts. If we don’t strangle terrorism in Chechnya, then tomorrow it will become the master of the whole territory of Russia and, the day after tomorrow, the master of what lies beyond her borders. Believe me, I am not exaggerating! We consider the actions which our military are taking in Chechnya to be life-giving (zhivitel’nymi).” The president’s visceral commitment to continuing and winning the war was abundantly clear.
Putin concluded his comments on Chechnya by underscoring his conviction that the conflict was drawing to a close. “The main goals which were set more than a year ago,” he declared, ” have been achieved…. The situation is quietly stabilizing. A majority of the Chechen fighters have already been destroyed…. One can boldly say that the anti-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus has entered its final phase…” Was there a light at the end of the tunnel? “For us,” Putin affirmed, “that light is a Chechnya liberated from international terrorists. A Chechnya living in peace within the Russian Federation.”
In an interview broadcast over Radio Russia on October 20, Putin’s chief presidential aide for questions concerning the conflict, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, emphasized that the approaching winter would witness the “liquidation” of the Chechen fighters. “From operational information,” he confided, “we have learned that the fighters are beginning to grow nervous; there are problems with warm clothing, there are problems with fuel. For this reason, there will be attempts by them to descend from the highlands, to move to the flatlands, to assume a guise of legality, perhaps to lie on the bottom for the period of the winter. This period precisely offers additional possibilities to the federal forces to administer blows against those groups that try to leave their mountain locations.”
Noting that in the North Caucasus, “winter is a rather long period,” Yastrzhembsky stressed his conviction that “in the upcoming months the federal forces will indeed succeed in liquidating the bandit formations, and I believe that in the first place there lies the task of neutralizing their chieftains.”
In a similar vein, on 19 October, Colonel General Georgy Shpak, commander of Russian paratroopers, was cited by Lenta.ru as asserting that “in the winter there will begin full-scale work for the destruction of bandit formations, and the complete rout of the [Chechen] fighters will de facto be accomplished.” On October 21, Russian military specialists told Interfax that they planned to increase the number of checkpoints in the lowland regions of Chechnya in order to catch the Chechen fighters as they move down from the inhospitable mountains.