Mr. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, has embarked on a high-stakes gamble. After a series of mysterious bomb blasts in Russia and armed incursions into the Russian republic of Dagestan, Mr. Putin has declared war on Islamic extremists who, he claimed, were being sheltered by the Muslim government in Chechnya. A monthlong offensive has killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people; its indiscriminate nature has ensured that civilians have born the brunt of the attack. If the war does not end soon — and history suggests it will not — Mr. Putin could drag Russia into another quagmire, one that will undermine his government, its relations with the Islamic world and those with the West.
Chechnya is a convenient target for Mr. Putin. In the Russian mind, the Chechen people are linked to organized crime and are therefore regularly discriminated against. Many Russians still smart from the humiliation inflicted by defeat in the war waged against separatist rebels from 1994 to 1996. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in that conflict, Russia’s international image was blackened, and the government was ultimately forced to accept an independent Chechen republic in everything but name. Revenge is a key consideration in this latest campaign.
The number of casualties in the latest round of fighting is unknown, but Russian tactics have ensured that they are high. Moscow claims to have lost 200 soldiers and killed 2,000 militants; the Chechens say they have lost fewer fighters and killed more Russians. The number of civilian casualties is high. Last week, a rocket attack on an outdoor market — originally blamed on the rebels, and then acknowledged to have been the work of Russian special forces — killed at least 118 people and wounded several hundred. Nearly 200,000 have fled the republic, creating a potential humanitarian disaster.
So far, the gamble is paying off. Mr. Putin’s hard line has pushed his popularity to record highs. But if the war drags on, casualties mount or the militants go on the offensive, Mr. Putin will become the war’s next victim.
Thus far, he has avoided the mistakes of the last campaign. He has not committed ground troops, perhaps remembering how badly they were outmatched by their Chechen counterparts last time. Russian tanks are reportedly converging on the Chechen capital of Grozny, the site of a spectacular Russian defeat in December 1994. The government has said that it will not send its army into the city, but it is doubtful that the Russians can pound the militants into submission from the air.
It is even less clear that attacking Chechnya will have any impact on the Islamic militants. Mr. Putin’s ostensible target is warlord Shamil Baseyev. He led the incursions into Dagestan and took over 1,000 hostages when he invaded the town of Budyonnovsk, in southern Russia, during the fighting in 1995. He killed over 100 Russian soldiers stationed in the town and then escaped to Chechnya. He tops the Russian most-wanted list and has a $1 million bounty on his head. But Mr. Baseyev has no ties to the Chechen government, which is why the attacks on Grozny look more like vengeance than anything else.
And vengeance comes with a price. International condemnation of the campaign is mounting. The United States, the European Union and several governments in the Islamic world have all called on Moscow to moderate its tactics. The Chechen excursion is looking a lot like Yugoslavia’s war in Kosovo — one reason Russia opposed the NATO campaign — and the West will soon have to face that fact and respond.
Worse, questions still hang over the “terrorist bombings” that triggered the Russian offensive. The ties to Chechen militants have never been proven. Russian security forces were reportedly caught planting explosives in another building. But if the Islamic militants were not linked to those first attacks, Russia’s indiscriminate violence is likely to push them to get involved. And growing resentment of Moscow’s tactics may win them backing from sympathetic governments in the Islamic world. In other words, if Russia did not already face an Islamic foe, Mr. Putin will have created one.
That is the worst possible scenario, but it is not too far-fetched. The lessons of the first Chechen war and Kosovo, as well as recent events in Central Asia and even East Timor, are that military might cannot defeat a motivated people who believe in their right to determine their own future. Mr. Putin may win a battle here and there, but he is fighting against history. That is a war he cannot win.
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