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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Hearts And Minds

Washington, 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that his government has failed to win the trust and support of the population of Chechnya, a striking concession that may presage either a redoubling of Moscow's military efforts there or a move to find a political settlement that would end the bloodletting.

Putin told visiting senior officials of the European Union on 17 May that "the trust of the Chechen population for the central authorities has not reached a high level." And he further conceded that "not everything had been done" to increase the likelihood that the Chechen people will adopt a positive view of Russia and the Russian authorities.

The Russian president's remarks came on top of three other developments that have undercut Moscow's claims that Chechnya is returning to normal.

First, and also on 17 May, Russia's hand-picked mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, announced that he was resigning because he could no longer continue in that position. He gave no details, but he has clashed regularly with other pro-Moscow officials there over how to deal with the continuing conflict.

Second, Moscow admitted that more than 3,000 of its troops had died in combat there since the summer of 1999. That acknowledgement called attention to just how expensive this conflict has been for Russia, and it appears to have forced the Russian authorities to reaffirm their commitment to conduct future operations in Chechnya in ways that will minimize Russian casualties.

And third, earlier this week, senior Russian officials responsible for the campaign met to discuss how to proceed and decided to change the commander on the scene. That meeting sparked speculation in the Russian media that perhaps Moscow is looking for a more diplomatic approach as a way out of the current conflict.

These developments, together with continued reports of Russian losses and the absence of reports about Russian successes against Chechen military and political leaders, appear to be reinforcing war-weariness among many Russians and contributing to a new confidence among the backers of Chechen independence.

Polls taken on the occasion of Putin's first anniversary as president showed that most Russians give him high marks for everything except his handling of the Chechen conflict. On that point, various opinion samplings show, most are unhappy and want the conflict to end, with a plurality favoring negotiations and a small but vocal minority advocating the application of more force.

Meanwhile, statements by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders suggest that they believe their war of attrition against Russian forces is having an affect. Indeed, that has been their strategy for much of the past year.

In an interview given to a Polish newspaper, Maskhadov predicted that "Russia will not win this war. Nobody has won a war against guerilla fighters, no superpower, no regime, no army. Not in Vietnam, not in Algeria, not in Afghanistan. There will not be a victory over Chechnya either." And in the end, he said, "Russia will lose this military conflict and emerge yet more humiliated and shamed."

Putin's statement this week suggests that he is beginning to learn what the leaders of other powers involved in such wars have learned: namely, that in conflicts of this kind, the side that possesses superior military force is not guaranteed victory. Instead, the one that captures the hearts and minds of the people on the ground is more likely to emerge victorious.

If Moscow is able to win the trust of the Chechens, then the pro-independence fighters almost certainly will lose out. But if does not, and Putin has conceded that Moscow has not done so yet, the Russian government is likely to be the loser, forced either to maintain a permanent armed presence against people who do not want to be part of the Russian state or to seek some kind of political settlement.

Putin came to power in large measure because he portrayed himself as the man who would do what was necessary to win in Chechnya. And because of that, he is certain to be especially sensitive to what is happening there. Consequently, his acknowledgement that Moscow has as yet failed to win the most important thing in Chechnya may lead him to change policy, but it will also encourage those Chechens who now believe they are on the winning side.