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Russia: Some States Fear Putin's Vision

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 4 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's neighbors in the Caspian region may take comfort in the continuity of policies promised by acting President Vladimir Putin, but there may be discomfort once they examine what those policies are.

In one of his first official acts Saturday, Putin flew to Gudermes, the second largest city of Chechnya, to encourage the Russian troops who are fighting the war.

"This is not simply about restoring honor and dignity to the country, no," Putin said. "This is about how to bring about the end of the breakup of Russia. That is your fundamental goal."

In his statement, Putin made clear that he has set his own ambitious goals on the outcome. By defeating the rebels of Chechnya, Putin hopes to halt the erosion of Russia's boundaries, setting an example for other ethnic groups that may try to secede.

The question is how far Putin's vision of Russia extends, and how far he will go to attain it. Whether it will stop at Russia's borders or try to reclaim Soviet boundaries remains to be seen.

As analysts dug for clues in Putin's statements and writings, diplomats like Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem warned that the effects of the war could spill over onto neighboring nations.

"I fear that the continuation of the war and chaos in Chechnya will, and has already started to, affect the southern Caucasus and especially Georgia," Cem said Sunday on Turkish state television.

Last week, Russia's Foreign Ministry threatened trade retaliation against Georgian goods as part of an escalating row. Putin, who has accused Georgia of allowing passage for Chechen rebels, has imposed visa requirements on Georgians entering Russia. Tblisi responded by voiding a trade pact with Russia while refusing to let Russian troops patrol its border with Chechnya.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has charged Georgia with "anti-Russian" acts in rhetoric with ominous tones. As the only independent country bordering Chechnya, Georgia may face particularly high risks. Others commentators warned over the weekend that the hostilities may spread.

"Grozny will fall, but it is hard to see how stability could be restored throughout Chechnya," said Lord Hurd, the former British foreign secretary, writing in The Times of London. "Indeed," he wrote, "the whole Caucasus region is deeply unstable. If one had to identify today one part of the world which might see a major conflict in the new century, the Caucasus would look the most likely." Hurd noted that tensions of traditional rivalries in the region have risen with the flow of Caspian oil.

The Caspian factor may be a major one in the clash over Chechnya, which has historically hosted Russia's pipeline route from Baku. The high costs of the conflict may be seen as a measure of Russia's will to retain influence over the region's resources. The question is whether Russia will use military power to persuade others to use its pipeline routes.

Last week in an interview on CNN, Putin denied that Russia has designs on other nations.

"Quite often we hear that Russia has imperial ambitions, but this is not true," he said. "Russia has only one ambition -- to enjoy respect from other nations. We will surely achieve that."

But whatever terms are used, there seems to be little doubt that Putin intends to make Russia's will known to its neighbors. By visiting the troops at the start of his new administration, Putin was not only showing support for the Russian military but also receiving it. The symbolism is unlikely to be lost on generals like Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who recently charged the United States with pursuing policies to oust Russia from the Caspian region.

The continuity of government and the support of the military may calm concerns among those who fear for Russia's stability. But by continuing the bombing of Chechnya, Putin has chosen to write war on the clean slate of the 21st century, extending the violence in the Caucasus that has disfigured its past.

Writing in The New York Times on Sunday, Harvard University Professor Richard Pipes noted that Putin has promised to increase military spending by 57 percent to respond to "both external and internal threats." The danger of Putin's roots in the KGB and his drift toward the military is "authoritarianism fused with nationalism and imperialism," Pipes said.

If that combination proves to be the foundation of his presidency, it is likely to be a cold comfort for countries on Russia's borders and within the shadow of its power.