tune like Yankee Doodle set George M. Cohan off his noodle. Will a jingoistic jingle put Russian hearts a-tingle?
News from Chechnya is carefully controlled to produce that patriotic fervor. Here are Russian soldiers, well-fed, well-clothed and well-armed, moving forward, defeating the enemies of the Fatherland, crushing the terrorists, the bearded fanatics, the West.
Yes, the West. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev explained that the West is out to drive Russia from the Caucasus, the Caspian, Central Asia. General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff and Russia’s most visible uniformed soldier, says Western action in Iraq is “a prelude” and Western presence in the Balkans “a bridgehead”–steps preparatory to a move against Russia’s underbelly. According to these four-stars, by standing against the black devils in Chechnya, the army stands as it has stood for fifty years, against NATO and the Americans.
And a popular stand it is, at least among the political class. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose outspoken belligerence has made this Putin’s war, is riding a wave of official approval toward a presidential candidacy in next June’s elections. President Boris Yeltsin predicts a Putin victory. “Just look at his actions,” Yeltsin said, “analyze his moves: how logical they are, how intelligent, how strong.” All but one of Russia’s former prime ministers speak well of him. Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Kirienko said their parties might well endorse Putin for president. Yevgeny Primakov, a likely candidate himself, backed Putin’s policy in Chechnya. Primakov’s patron, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, said Putin’s “singlemindedness and persistence” are worthy of respect. To show that respect he did some public schmoozing with Putin at the Kremlin Cup tennis tournament.
But public support for the Chechnya campaign is thinner than the politicians or the propaganda suggest. Most Russians polled three weeks ago believed the war would go badly, leading to a stalemate or a prolonged and spreading conflict. Even last week, with Russian troops moving easily toward Chechnya’s capital, a survey found that only two-thirds of Russians fully or partially favored the use of force in Chechnya. One-third apparently is ready to let the wretched province go.
The government’s vision of the foreign role in Chechnya is clear: no speaking part. Putin laid it out in an op-ed piece in the New York Times: “The antiterrorist campaign was forced upon us…. The understanding of our friends abroad would be helpful.” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was allowed to visit refugee camps near Chechnya but was not to do anything about conditions she found there. At the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov agreed that OSCE representatives could visit the region, but “there is no question of any political mediation or interference in Russia’s internal affairs.” Boris Yeltsin spent five minutes in a meeting with critical European Union leaders and then walked out and flew home.