Features

Putin's power trip

International | Moscow takes control of Chechnya but fails to seize the high ground

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

in Grozny - Assured of a quick victory, Vladimir Putin and then-president Boris Yeltsin dispatched troops into Russia's southern flank last fall to wipe out "bandits and terrorists." Nine months and thousands of casualties later, the Russian army appears to be caught in a never-ending rerun of its 1994-96 war against Chechnya, when Russian troops were driven out in defeat. But the difference this time is Mr. Putin, who seems determined to snatch victory-at whatever cost in civilian and military lives-from the jaws of defeat. On June 8 Mr. Putin ordered direct rule in the rebellious republic, decreeing that Moscow will govern Chechnya indefinitely, instead of allowing it to hold elections to choose its own leadership, as provided in the 1996 ceasefire agreement. The move by Mr. Putin was a political end-run around the Russian army's far-from-certain control of the region. Russian commanders essentially declared victory in Chechnya in February after taking control of known rebel strongholds. All that remained, they said, was mopping up. Now the conflict appears likely to devolve into a guerrilla war that could last for years. Although Russian troops occupy positions captured from Chechen militants throughout the region, they live in constant danger of rebel attacks and ambushes. Driven from the cities and villages, rebels roam the mountains freely under cover of lush green foliage. Arab mercenaries and Islamic fighters from bases in Afghanistan reportedly battle alongside the Chechen separatists and supply weapons, food, and medicines. Chechen guerrillas kept up a steady attack on Russian positions last month, killing at least a dozen Russian soldiers per week in terrorist-like assaults. A suicide truck bombing June 7, for instance, killed two soldiers and wounded several others. Gunmen last month even opened fire on an ambulance near Grozny, the capital, killing three doctors and wounding three others, one of them seriously. Russia has lost more than 2,300 soldiers since fighting in Chechnya began on Sept. 30, according to official army figures. More than 7,000 have been wounded. Those losses exceed the official casualty count from the 1994-96 Chechen war. Still, Chechen civilians are bearing the brunt of the war. In Nazran, a town in nearby Ingushetia, 186,000 internally displaced people (IDPs, in the official lexicon) have fled the fighting, taking shelter in tent camps, train cars, abandoned factories, and even a dairy farm. Some have found spare rooms in local Ingushetian homes. Desperate to escape both Russian army and rebel attacks, most believe they will be stuck in Ingushetia for years to come. Many repeatedly ask outsiders who visit the camps, "Do we look like 'bandits and terrorists'?" IDPs live from day to day clutching the few possessions they can carry and surviving on humanitarian aid from international relief organizations. The hospital at Nazran treats the most seriously wounded. Men, women, and children languish with lost arms or legs, or with limbs full of shrapnel. Some lie in a coma after catching a sniper bullet in the head. Russia's response to the rebel insurgence has caused enormous suffering among civilians who had nothing to do with the conflict "and themselves wanted peace and stability," said Diederick Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. Mr. Lohman's organization and other human-rights groups working in the region have documented numerous war crimes and other human-rights violations by Russian forces since the latest fighting began. Violations include indiscriminate bombings of densely populated areas, drunken rampages, arbitrary detention, tortures and beatings, looting and burning of homes, hostage taking, rape of both men and women, and at least 100 summary executions of civilians. Heavy bombing in the early stage of the war destroyed 400,000 homes. Russia bombed Chechnya's capital city, Grozny, into rubble in what U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called a "grotesque monument to overkill." None of this, however, has rendered the war less popular among the Russian public. Mr. Putin, a virtually unknown bureaucrat, rode war sentiment to presidential victory after Mr. Yeltsin's resignation. Russians sided with the Kremlin in reaction to the alleged participation of Chechens in the invasion of Dagestan one year ago and in apartment bombings in Moscow that left nearly 300 dead, and the war remains a favored cause in the Russian capital. Meanwhile American and European leaders have condemned Russia's human-rights abuses and war atrocities against Chechens, but they support Russia's right to secure its borders and resist Chechen secession. Mr. Putin made London his first presidential visit to a Western country because British Prime Minister Tony Blair demonstrated a willingness to welcome Mr. Putin only two weeks after the Council of Europe stripped Russia of its voting rights over Chechnya. The Council further called on member countries to suspend Russia totally, a member only since 1996, unless it immediately ended human-rights violations in Chechnya. No country has ever been suspended in the body's 51-year history, but the censure has been without teeth. The Russian government claims that the situation inside Chechnya had deteriorated since 1996, demanding renewed intervention. In the absence of the rule of law, a criminal economy run by warlords and based on auto theft, gun running, drugs, and hostage taking had sprung up in Chechnya. Rivals and contentious factions plagued the last elected president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, and the region spun out of his control. Chechen warlords reportedly still hold 872 civilian hostages, including eight foreigners. European leaders are pushing Mr. Putin to allow a full investigation into human-rights violations. Although Mr. Putin told reporters his government would work with international organizations to make the situation "more transparent," he insisted that nothing would stop Moscow from restoring control of the region. "We are categorically opposed to any thesis of human rights being used to try to prevent Russia from bringing order to that territory," Mr. Putin said. With rebels and other separatist fighters dispersed to border areas with Georgia and Dagestan, as well as neighboring Ingushetia, analysts predict that the Chechnya war could drag on for years. And Mr. Putin has made it clear that-for now-democracy in Chechnya is a thing of the past.

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