By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 28, 2001; Page A01
MOSCOW, July 27 – On his first day as Russia's prime minister nearly two years ago, Vladimir Putin vowed to put down an uprising by Chechen rebels within two weeks. More than a year after that, Putin declared victory. And six months after that, Putin declared victory again, this time promising a massive troop withdrawal would begin soon.
Today, Putin has abandoned such boastful claims, canceled the troop pullouts and settled in for the long term. The conflict that reignited in the summer of 1999 and vaulted the little-known Putin to the presidency has become a prolonged guerrilla war that top Kremlin officials now compare to decades-old conflicts like Northern Ireland. Determined to avoid another "national humiliation," as he called the Russian retreat after the 1994-96 Chechen war, Putin has steadfastly pushed Russia into a war it appears unable to win, and unwilling to stop.
In recent weeks, Russian soldiers have sharply escalated punitive sweeps targeting civilians in the mainly Muslim breakaway region, according to human rights groups, and military sources say dozens of Russian soldiers are still dying there every week. Not only are there no peace talks scheduled, there is little discussion even of the prospect of talks.
But Russian public opinion – once dramatically in favor of Putin's war – has shifted. While Putin's own popularity has not yet suffered, he is so publicly identified with the war that the military impasse presents an increasingly complicated political challenge to the Kremlin.
Putin has vowed twice in the last month to stay the course. "This is my approach, and I am not going to change it," he said at a news conference earlier this month. The war, he said in June, is a battle to stop international Islamic terrorism from invading Russia: "We won't allow it!"
But inside the Kremlin, according to interviews with numerous officials and political observers, there has been a clear shift in strategy away from proclamations of victory and toward preparing the Russian public for long-term bloodletting.
"The historical parallel is Northern Ireland," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the chief Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, said in a recent interview. "It would be naive to forecast the finish of this situation in some foreseeable future. It's necessary to prepare public opinion for quite a long period of time. There is no medicine for quick treatment of this crisis."
Even top military officials now consider the war unwinnable, according to former Gen. Eduard Vorobyov, a senior commander in Chechnya before becoming a member of Russia's parliament. "Today we've reached an understanding of the fact that a solution to the Chechnya problem by forcible means is impossible."
Russia first went to war in Chechnya 200 years ago in a czarist-era imperial expansion. In the Soviet era, the entire Chechen population was deported to Central Asia in 1944, and not allowed back for a decade. As the Soviet Union collapsed, a new cycle of confrontation began with a Chechen separatist movement, which Russian President Boris Yeltsin clumsily attempted to crush. The army suffered heavy casualties. Yeltsin reached a cease-fire with the Chechens, pulling out Russian troops in 1996, when the war had become a heavy liability for him. Putin's war started after rebels launched a foray into the neighboring region of Dagestan in the summer of 1999, but in many ways, it was a continuation of an old conflict, not the birth of a new one.
Acknowledging this long history of violence, the Kremlin's new Northern Ireland parallel is meant to placate Western critics by comparing Russia's behavior to that of European countries. "The EU countries have several Chechnya-like situations," Sergei Karaganov, deputy head of the Institute of Europe, recently told reporters. "Think of Northern Ireland and the Basque country."
In fact, these comparisons far understate the scope and brutality of the Chechen wars. About 800 people have died in Spain's Basque region in more than 30 years, and about 3,000 in Northern Ireland since 1972. In Chechnya, thousands have died in less than two years and as many as 400,000 people have been left homeless. According to new government statistics that human rights workers say are too low, 3,400 Russian soldiers have died and more than 10,000 have been wounded; Chechen rebels claim that more than 40,000 civilians and 1,500 of their troops have died.
"They need to have some kind of explanation for why their repeated statements of victory turned out to be false – hence the comparisons to Northern Ireland," said Oleg Orlov, leader of the human rights group Memorial. "But this is not Northern Ireland; it's much more horrible."
As a political strategy, such comparisons and the notion that Putin is fighting global Islamic terrorism seem to have succeeded in muting criticism from the West. The United States has never made more than routine complaints about human rights abuses in Chechnya. Now, even those have become a rarity; President Bush didn't publicly mention the matter after his meeting Sunday with Putin in Genoa, Italy.
"It's important for Putin to claim this is a world Islamic movement; it helps him prove himself on the world stage," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "But this is not a war against a world Islamic threat; it is a local liberation movement."
Putin appears to have become increasingly defensive as the war has dragged on.
"Putin is painfully grasping his way toward the truth about the fact that Russia has lost the war in Chechnya without achieving a single one of its stated aims," Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies wrote this week, calling the public "mortally weary of this hopeless war."
In 1999, after the Chechen incursion into Dagestan and after Putin blamed the rebels for apartment bombings in Russian cities that killed more than 300 people, polls showed more than 70 percent supported Putin's launching of a full-scale war. That number fell to 35 percent last month, according to the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), while 58 percent supported an end to the war and peace talks. Fully 75 percent said the government's policy has shown no results.
"The situation in the public mind has already changed drastically. Already citizens are passionately against the war but they have not yet arrived at active action against it," said Lev Ponomaryov, a Soviet-era dissident turned anti-war activist. "When they do, their activism will be aimed directly at Putin. Putin became president because of this war; in the mentality of the people, Putin and the war are inseparable."
At a time when Putin has consolidated political power and faces almost no organized opposition to any of his programs, anti-war activism has been limited to small protests by human rights groups and liberals. But there are some indications that Putin is being faulted for the war. "There is a growing pessimistic assessment of Putin," said Lev Gudkov, director of political polling at VTsIOM. "About 60 to 65 percent of people now believe Putin has failed to solve the problem in Chechnya. Nonetheless, trust in Putin remains at a certain, high level."
In part, that may be because a huge majority of Russians view the Chechen conflict as an unsolvable morass. According to Gudkov, 35 to 40 percent believe the war won't end for 10 to 15 years and another 35 percent think it will smolder for decades.
But few Russian politicians have dared to publicly discuss how to end the war; most public dialogue recently has focused on whether Chechen "gangsters" should be executed in public squares, as Gen. Gennady Troshev, military commander for the North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, suggested.
"I have a sense that the military people are flat-out against a peaceful settlement and they believe it's useless to hold negotiations, as does the [pro-Moscow] civilian administration," said Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's representative in parliament. "I believe compromise could be found, but unfortunately there are more opponents of negotiations than supporters."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company