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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Campaigns Military And Political

Washington, 15 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Political leaders throughout history have used military campaigns to draw on the patriotism of their people and thus boost their own political prospects. But frequently these leaders have discovered that it is far more difficult to end such politically useful military efforts than it was to launch them in the first place.

Commentaries in both the Moscow and Western media suggest that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is currently learning this ancient but often forgotten lesson about the ways in which military and political campaigns interact.

No one has gained more politically from the Russian military campaign against Chechnya than Putin. From a virtual unknown at the time of his appointment last summer, the former security officer has seen his stock rise to the point where he is now favored to win election as president next June.

If the presidential vote were taken this week, all Russian polls suggest, Putin almost certainly would win. But because that vote is still seven months away, the Russian Prime Minister must navigate a parliamentary election this Sunday and decide how to end the Chechen conflict in a way that will not deprive him of the popularity he has achieved.

As the events of the last few days suggest, that is not going to be easy, not least of all because Putin does not have complete control of his own destiny on either the military or the political battlefields.

Many in Moscow are pressing for quick action against Grozny, a strategy that could backfire in any one of at least three ways.

First, it could lead to a Russian victory rather too early for Putin's purposes, opening the way to the kind of second guessing by his political opponents that might cost him support before he has to face the voters.

As long as the popular military campaign continues, most of Putin's political opponents are likely to avoid criticizing him or it in ways that might cost them their own popularity. But once the war is declared over, that will quickly change. Putin has not yet provided evidence that he can maintain his political popularity except by military means.

That fact indeed has led some in Russia and even more in some of its neighbors to speculate that the Russian prime minister might decide to launch some action against them after declaring victory in Chechnya.

Second, such a strategy could lead to the kind of humanitarian disaster which might cause the West to adopt a tougher line toward Moscow. In the short term, Putin would likely win support for appearing to stand up to the West. But in the longer term, a cutback in Western assistance and cooperation could lead some Russians to question what he has done.

At present, as one Russian observer noted this week, "the tougher Moscow's policy in Chechnya gets, the more it is welcomed by most Russians and the more it is criticized in the international arena"

So far, most Western powers have avoided imposing sanctions to back up their critical words. But that may now be changing: In the last week alone, the International Monetary Fund has delayed the disbursement of a $640 million loan installment, the Council of Europe has threatened to suspend Russia's membership in that organization, and there have been calls to drop Russia from participation in future G-7 meetings.

If Russian forces commit atrocities in their campaign to achieve what some Russian analysts quoted in the Moscow press have called "the final solution of the Chechen problem" and if the international community focuses on these atrocities, Western governments are likely to face ever greater popular pressure to take a stand.

And third, the Russian military campaign could trigger terrorist actions by Chechens against civilian and military targets far from the North Caucasus. Again, Putin might win support for a short time with a harsh response, but over time, ever more Russians would likely begin to ask why he could not have avoided precisely this disaster.

For all these reasons, many analysts are now suggesting that Moscow may suspend its Chechen campaign over the winter after Russian forces occupy Grozny. But even if these suggestions prove to be the case, such a decision would not necessarily solve Putin's political problem.

Indeed, it would only highlight the ways in which leaders like Putin who seek political gains through military action often find themselves trapped by their own strategy, forced to do things which may in the end deprive them of victory on either field of battle.