The real mystery of the fortnight in Russian politics was Moscow’s Chechen policy. A flurry of contradictory official statements about the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the war had observers scratching their heads. Were these statements part of a clever attempt to assuage the West while continuing the military onslaught, or simply a sign of good old-fashioned policy disarray?
On April 11, in an apparent response to repeated calls by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov for negotiations without conditions, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President-elect Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, said that the Kremlin had been in contact with Maskhadov through intermediaries. Two days later, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reiterated that Moscow had been talking to Chechen leaders, and said that the efforts would lead to “concrete results.” However, the day after Ivanov’s comment, the Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing surprise at media speculation that negotiations with Maskhadov were in the offing, given that “the destruction of the bandit formations” had reached “a final phase.”
The apparent reason for the Foreign Ministry’s sudden about-face were comments from the head of state. On April 13 Putin declared that, while “restoring order and respect for human rights” was one of Russia’s priorities in Chechnya, Maskhadov and his predecessor, Djohar Dudaev, had created “a criminal-terrorist enclave where lawlessness and suppression of human rights were allowed to rule unchecked.” The comment was a reminder of the fact that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, back in February, had charged Maskhadov with organizing and participating in an armed rebellion, for which he could receive a twenty-year jail sentence. The day after Putin’s demarche, the Federal Security Service reported that it had detained Apti Batalov, head of Maskhadov’s presidential administration, and brought him to Moscow for interrogation concerning his possible involvement in “criminal activity.”
According to one theory, sketched out by the daily newspaper Vremya-MN, the mixed signals were part of a clever Kremlin strategy: The hints about the possibility for a negotiated settlement, it reported, were simply “political cover” for the war, aimed at Western public opinion. In reality, the paper said, Moscow’s aim was still a total military victory.
Whatever the case, one group which could not be accused of engaging in double talk was Russia’s military leadership. General Gennady Troshev, the commander of the Russian military forces in Chechnya, said his forces were prepared to continue prosecuting the war until the Chechen rebels were destroyed “totally.” Negotiations with Maskhadov, he added, would be a “betrayal” of the Russian army. General Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff, categorically ruled out negotiations with the declaration: “The best bandits are dead bandits.” Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said that as long as Maskhadov and his fighters did not turn over their weapons, Russian POWS and wanted terrorists, the idea of negotiations was a “nonstarter.”