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Russia: Putin Vows Harsher Measures in Chechnya -- But Can He Win?

  • Valentinas Mite

This week, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would use all possible means to crush Chechen separatists. During four years of conflict with the breakaway republic, Russia has been unsparing in its efforts to secure victory. RFE/RL asks whether there are any tough new tough measures that Russia could apply and whether they are likely to be successful.

Prague, 1 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin told cabinet ministers on 29 October that he would grant the military broader powers to deal with what he called "suspected terrorists," especially in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Putin said the country would take "appropriate measures" against these "terrorists" wherever they may be.

But will those new measures work?

Kirill Koktysh of the Moscow Institute of International Relations believes the answer is "yes." He said there are a number of measures Russia can implement, ranging from more vigorous efforts to interdict supplies to trying to close the offices that the Chechens maintain abroad.

He told RFE/RL that Russian special forces will be much more aggressive this winter, when the trees no longer provide good cover for the Chechen guerrillas.

Koktysh also said the Russian government will try to cut off all supplies that come to Chechnya from neighboring states, particularly Georgia. "This announcement primarily concerns Georgia and problems of Pankisi Gorge. I think that in the near future [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze will either take serious actions and put an end to the activities of gunmen there or Russia will be made to act in the same way as the Americans did in Afghanistan," Koktysh said.

For its part, Georgia has consistently denied Russian allegations that it offers support to Chechen fighters.

Koktysh believes that Russia will use diplomatic means to convince governments of other countries to close Chechen information centers located in their territories. "Russia will aim for the closure of all Chechen centers in Europe and everywhere. And on the whole it has a moral right to demand this. I mean that non-loyal Chechen opposition does not represent Chechen society -- the society is split. There is not a single leader there, and it is impossible to conduct talks with [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov," Koktysh said.

Koktysh said the time is not ripe for talks since Russia does not have a proper partner with which it could negotiate. But he added that if Russian special forces manage to crush the Chechen separatists during the winter, moderate Chechen politicians will come to the fore, and then negotiations could commence concerning the future of the republic.

Leonid Smirniagin was a member of Russian presidential council from 1993 to 1999. He told RFE/RL that Russia cannot resolve the Chechen problem by force. Resorting to force has already been tried, and it has proved to be unsuccessful. "Giving priority to force leads to a no-win situation, and not only because of moral scruples. Everything like this has already happened before," Smirniagin said.

Smirniagin doubts that Russia has enough well-equipped units of special forces that could seek out and destroy the Chechen gunmen who are based in the mountains. He said the only way out for Russia is to begin negotiations with Maskhadov. "Everybody knows that Maskhadov does not completely control the situation. He controls small parts of the country. But he is the only legitimate figure. At least he was elected by Chechen people," Smirniagin said.

Smirniagin believes that the onset of negotiations would lead Maskhadov to distance himself from more radical elements.

Andrei Piontkovskii, the head of the Moscow-based Strategic Research Institute, said Russia has already used all the weapons in its arsenal in the war against the Chechen fighters. He said the relations between Russia and Chechnya have been pushed back to where they were a year ago, but eventually both sides will have to return to the negotiating table.

Jakub Swiecicki, a senior analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said Putin will now try to solve the problem by military means. He will not succeed, Swiecicki said, since a regular army cannot win a guerrilla war. "It isn't possible to be a victor in such a war. But Putin seems not to understand that. It exactly fits a comparison with France and Algeria in the middle of the last century. Almost no Frenchmen could imagine an independent Algeria. But after several years, [then-French President Charles] de Gaulle realized that the war harmed France much more than anything else," Swiecicki said.

Swiecicki said that at present no Russian can conceive of an independent Chechnya. The Russians are ready to support Putin's tough measures. He said it could take years for ordinary Russians and the government to come to their senses and grant some form of independence to Chechnya.