Russian backlash against Chechens begins

President Putin steps up the fight against the rebels this week, and asks US to blacklist them as terrorists.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Russian experts are calling it the "Putin Doctrine."

In an iron-fisted Kremlin response to a mass hostage-taking by Chechens last month, Russia has launched a major drive to crush Chechnya's decade-old rebellion. And Mr. Putin may ask the United States to accept a greatly increased use of military force – even if it means preemptive strikes into neighboring Georgia by Russian troops.

The doctrine includes new rules allowing the Russian military to attack terrorist threats across international borders, a diplomatic offensive to convince the world community that Chechen rebels are terrorists, rejection of any future peace talks with even moderate Chechen opposition leaders, and tough restrictions on journalists covering the conflict.

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"Our answer No. 1 to this terrorist act is: Wipe them out!" says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Kremlin-connected Politika Foundation in Moscow.

Russia has asked the US State Department to add Chechen rebels to its international terrorist blacklist. Moscow is also attempting to extradite an emissary of Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, from Denmark.

Following the hostage tragedy, in which more than 150 rebels and hostages died, Moscow wants the US to see that Russia is engaged in a similar death struggle with terrorism and agree to work more closely with Russia.

"The Americans must see that the fight is the same, and it requires tough methods," says Sergei Kolmakov, an expert with the Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism, which is linked to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

This week Russia's Defense Ministry canceled plans to reduce the 80,000 troop presence in Chechnya and began a security crackdown in the tiny breakaway republic.

"People in Chechnya are panicking," says Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a pro-Moscow Chechen deputy of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "The military is greatly mistaken if it believes this is the way. They cannot make people give up by using force."

Refugees are streaming out of Chechnya, after a long period of relative stability, he adds.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Tuesday announced that his forces have received the Kremlin's approval to hit terrorist bases and personnel abroad, much as the US did this week when it killed six suspected Al Qaeda leaders with a missile-firing unmanned drone in Yemen. Mr. Ivanov said that Russia is also developing high-precision weapons for such purposes, capable of dealing "extensive destruction" over large distances.

"This may seem surprising, but a war has been virtually declared on us," Mr. Ivanov said. "It has neither fronts, nor borders, nor a visible enemy. But war it is."

The immediate object of the new policy is likely to be Georgia, a former Soviet Caucasus republic which Moscow has long accused of harboring terrorist forces from neighboring Chechnya and even Al Qaeda members.

Many experts say that, with the winter loss of foliage cover in mountainous Chechnya, some fighters may drift across the border to areas such as the Pankisi Gorge, where they rest before returning to battle in the spring. Georgia insists that recent security operations have brought this lawless area under control – a claim Moscow derides.

"What is Georgia?" says Mr. Nikonov. "It is a failed state that controls nothing on its own territory."

But Moscow's hand has been stayed, at least so far, by clear US warnings not to interfere in independent Georgia. American Special Forces have been in Georgia since March, training a special antiterrorist unit of local forces to deal with security problems like the Pankisi Gorge. Whatever the merits of Moscow's case against Chechen rebels, there are suspicions that the Kremlin is using the issue to intimidate pro-Western Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze and promote its own neoimperial interests in the region.

"A Russian military strike against Georgia would probably not have much effect on Chechens, since they seem pretty good at hiding," says Dmitri Furman, an expert with the official Institute of European Studies in Moscow. "But it might serve as a kind of demonstration to Shevardnadze that it's not a good idea to defy Russia."

If the Kremlin succeeds in convincing the world that even moderate Chechen leaders such as Mr. Maskhadov are terrorists, however, opposition to broader Russian military action could evaporate. Maskhadov, the military leader of Chechen resistance in the 1994-96 war of independence against Russia, was elected president in the republic's only democratic poll in 1997. Though he condemned last month's Moscow hostage-taking after the fact, Russian leaders say that such a large operation must have taken place with Maskhadov's knowledge – or, that if he was unaware ot it, he is incapable of controlling Chechen rebel forces and thus not worth talking to.

The persuasiveness of Moscow's argument is being tested in Denmark, where a close aide to Maskhadov, Akhmed Zakayev, was arrested on a Russian warrant last week and is being held by Danish authorities pending documentary proof of his connections with terrorist activity.

If Denmark accepts the Russian evidence and extradites Mr. Zakayev, it may mean the end of Maskhadov as the leader of Chechnya's national struggle for independence.

"If Maskhadov is discredited as a leader, then there is no one with any credibility left in Chechnya to talk to," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "This will suit the hawks who want to impose terms on Chechnya by force, not negotiate peace."

Cracking down on the home front as well, Russia's Press Ministry announced tough policies on journalists covering antiterrorist operations such as the war in Chechnya, which include a ban on interviewing terrorists or their supporters.

The pro-Kremlin Duma majority earlier approved tighter rules, which will bar anyone from analyzing terrorist demands "on an amateur level" in the Russian media without first consulting security forces – an apparent reaction to the open, audience-participation format used by two Moscow TV networks to cover last month's hostage crisis.

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