Putin's endgame for Chechen bear trap

Today, Europe's top human rights body considers reinstating Russia, censured for Chechnya excesses.

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Struggling to find an exit from the increasingly unpopular 16-month-old military campaign to subdue secessionist rebels in the volatile republic of Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin has hit upon a strategy eerily reminiscent of the US experience in Vietnam.

The plan, laid out in a series of Kremlin decrees over recent days, is to radically scale back the Russian military presence in the north Caucasus republic from the current 80,000 troops to a permanent garrison of just 22,000. The pullback is slated to begin in mid-February.

Also, the task of destroying the remaining Chechen rebel groups will pass from the Army to the Federal Security Service (FSB) - successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

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A real measure of political power is to be handed to the Kremlin-appointed head of Chechnya's administration, former Muslim cleric and ex-separatist leader Akhmad Kadyrov, and armed Chechen police forces under his command expanded from 5,000 to 15,000 men.

Critics say a campaign to "Chechenize" the conflict will lead to the same disastrous outcome that met American attempts to give South Vietnamese forces "the tools to do the job" of defeating a Communist insurrection in the early 1970s, or the USSR's hopes that a pro-Moscow regime in Afghanistan could hold out after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989.

"It's an old colonial tactic to try to get local forces to do your fighting for you," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert. "But Moscow has very few cards to play in this game. Basically, there are no forces that can defeat the rebels where the Army has failed."

Some argue the whole plan is a propaganda gambit, to convince Russians and the world that the war is over in Chechnya and that civil conditions there are normalizing despite the deadly clashes that take place on an almost daily basis.

Today, the influential Council of Europe is set to begin hearings on Moscow's human rights record in the conflict, and to consider whether Russia's voting rights in the body - taken away amid a wave of criticism last year - should be restored. "Of course the timing of these Kremlin announcements looks calculated to influence world public opinion," says Viktor Litovkin, a political analyst with the liberal Obshaya Gazeta newspaper. "But the decisions were made some time ago, and are dictated by the Kremlin's own political logic rather than external concerns."

Supporters say it is a logical response to the changing character of the conflict. "Moscow always called it an antiterrorist operation, but in fact it was a full-scale war in its first stages," says Yuri Gladkeyevich, an analyst with the independent AVN military news agency. "But now the enemy's main forces have been defeated, and it is mainly a problem of consolidating civilian authority while using special forces to hunt down the remaining [rebels]."

Transferring control of military operations to the FSB suggests the Kremlin has in mind post-World War II counter-insurgency campaigns waged by the USSR against guerrillas in the Baltic States and western Ukraine.

"It took over a decade, but the [rebels] were isolated from society, ground down, and gradually eliminated," says Arkady Popov, a specialist on ethnic conflicts with the Merkator Group, an independent Moscow think tank. "Of course, Russia is no longer a totalitarian state, but the emphasis on using the FSB in Chechnya suggests these methods will now take the foreground in this struggle."

But critics say Mr. Putin is frantically seeking ways to reduce the constant stream of Russian losses and to stem the inexorable erosion of public support for the seemingly endless conflict. Last weekend, separatist forces struck a police post in the heart of Mr. Kadyrov's administrative center, Gudermes, reportedly killing 14 troops. A repetitive study by the independent Institute for Public Opinion Research in Moscow has found that public backing for continuing the military campaign has fallen from a high of 70 percent in February, 2000, to 38 percent last week.

"The Kremlin is grasping at straws, trying desperately to regain the initiative in a war that is hopelessly bogged down and clearly unwinnable," says Galina Kovalskaya, a military expert who covers Chechnya for the weekly Itogi.

Analysts say Putin could be responding to lobbying from the Army brass, who have been trying to unload responsibility for the conflict. "The attitude of the generals is that they've done their part, smashed the rebels' main formations, and now it's time to pass the buck to someone else. Let the FSB have this hot potato," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "It probably won't actually result in any major troop pullbacks, but at least the generals in Moscow won't have to take the political heat anymore."

Some analysts suggest the Kremlin has been greatly impressed by Mr. Kadyrov, a warlord from Gudermes who was elected Chechnya's first Mufti, or Muslim spiritual leader, in 1995.

"Kadyrov has received more audiences with Putin lately than most government ministers get," says Mr. Popov. "He has apparently persuaded Putin that the Army, with its looting and violent ways, is the main obstacle to stabilizing the situation in Chechnya." But few experts believe Kadyrov can live up to his own ambitions. "Kadyrov wants to run things, but his writ does not extend beyond his own town of Gudermes - and is limited even there," says Ms. Kovalskaya.

Ultimately, the Kremlin could be driven to the same conclusion that most of the world's imperial powers have had to face in their day: that there may be no solution to the Chechnya problem under the Russian flag.

"The experience of similar conflicts around the world suggests that Russia's current tactics in Chechnya will simply not work," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow.

"At the moment, the Kremlin is just projecting its own confusion and paralysis onto the situation in Chechnya."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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