Putin's risks in Chechnya

Russia's war against breakaway Chechnya is escalating amid worries that Moscow hawks may be seeking to launch a knockout blow against political opponents at home as well as the rebels in Chechnya.

For the past week, Moscow has been rife with rumors that Army generals hoping to avenge their 1996 defeat at the hands of Chechen guerrillas, allied with tough-talking Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, may have sidelined President Boris Yeltsin and are preparing to plunge into full-scale war in the turbulent Caucasus. That speculation reached a climax over the weekend when Mr. Yeltsin was hospitalized for what the Kremlin described as "flu." By yesterday, however, the Russian leader was recuperating at his country home.

"These rumors about Yeltsin passing his powers are just an attempt to drive a wedge between the president and the government," his deputy chief of staff told journalists. The situation is strongly reminiscent of the 1994-96 war to crush Chechnya's independence drive, when Yeltsin frequently disappeared and left subordinates to take the heat for risky military decisions.

He may once again deliberately be distancing himself from a war that is threatening to spin out of control. Over the past two weeks, Russian forces have occupied the northern plains of Chechnya. Most experts believe the plan is to create a pro-Moscow regime in this "liberated territory," which is about a third of the republic, and wait for the government of Chechen President Aslan Makhadov to crack.

Despite heavy fighting over the weekend, Russian losses remain relatively low. Chechnya has been hammered by the steady bombing of its roads, airports, and economic infrastructure. Observers report that civilian targets are also being hit, despite Russian claims to the contrary.

Russian military leaders may now be thinking of making a lunge for the capital. "If the Chechen people ask us to liberate Grozny, we will do it," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Sunday night. In the previous war, Grozny was a key battleground where Russian troops suffered huge losses.

Analysts say Yeltsin's illness may be a sign that an assault is about to begin.

For Mr. Putin, his anointed successor, it is a make-or-break moment. Parliamentary elections are slated for Dec. 19, with a presidential contest six months later. Since the new Chechen war began, Putin's rating as a presidential candidate has shot up from 2 to 12 percent, according to the independent Vox Populi polling agency.

"Putin is manipulating the situation for his own political purposes, and so far it's working splendidly," says Martin Shakkum, director of the Reforma Foundation, a Moscow think tank. But Mr. Shakkum adds, "Putin has one huge vulnerability. Yeltsin can fire him any time. All it takes is one bad step."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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