Moscow plots escape from Putin's long and deadly war

Jonathan Steele
The Guardian

The war in Chechnya has been called Putin's war. It began in August 1999 - following Vladimir Putin's appointment as Russian prime minister - after Chechen Islamists invaded nearby Dagestan.

With the backing of the then president, Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin not only used air and ground forces to evict the invaders, but also sent Russian troops back into Chechnya to topple the government of Aslan Maskhadov, who had been elected in 1997.

It was an unexpected move, since an earlier war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, had resulted in humiliating defeat for Russian forces. After being driven out of the Chechen capital, Grozny, by massive air and artillery bombardment, the Chechen fighters had recaptured the city.

Their success forced Russia to make a peace deal, which gave Chechnya de facto independence within the Russian federation.

But Chechnya's image in Russia was poor, especially after terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in autumn 1999 killed more than 300 people. No one was convicted of the attacks, but the Kremlin and the Russian media blamed the Chechens.

The second Chechen war was initially popular and it diverted attention from Mr Yeltsin's poor economic legacy, allowing Mr Putin's supporters to do well in the elections at the end of 1999.

This war has gone better than the first. The Russians quickly recaptured Grozny and other cities, and have held on to them.

But four years of fighting have cost the lives of some 4,600 Russian soldiers and 10,000 Chechens, and the republic's infrastructure is as bad as that of Iraq, with minimal electricity, water, and gas supplies and no functioning economy able to provide jobs.

Mr Putin claims that the war is over and that the only task remaining is to hunt down a few terrorists. Yet Russian troops are still dying at a rate of around five a day.

Russia's new strategy is to isolate Mr Maskhadov and "Chechenise" the war by getting a new president for the territory and replacing Russian forces with a newly created Chechen militia. But the outside world is dubious. No reputable international organisation will observe Sunday's election; they say it will not be free or fair.

And many fear that the Kremlin's strategy will lead to a Russian-backed civil war among the Chechens, rather than peace negotiations and a ceasefire.