Russia detains a rebel leader, but Chechens undaunted

The March 12 arrest came as Russian forces suffered some of their heaviest weekly losses.

The capture of a notorious Chechen guerrilla commander is a morale-booster for Russian troops and fodder for campaign spin-doctors two weeks before presidential elections. But military analysts say it will have little impact on the rebels' fortunes.

The image of the bearded Salman Raduyev, known as "The Terminator," blazed across newspaper front pages here March 14, accompanied by triumphant words from Acting President Vladimir Putin. The government depicted the arrest of its first senior Chechen commander as a major coup in Russia's 5-month campaign to regain control of the breakaway Muslim republic.

But while Mr. Raduyev was hated in Russia for a hospital hostage raid in the 1994-96 Chechen war, he lacks the stature of top commanders Khattab or Shamil Basayev. He is even rumored to be at odds with them. Thus, the flamboyant warlord is not viewed by military experts as a vital figure for rebel strategy.

They say his arrest should have little effect on the hardened guerrillas defending the mountains of southern Chechnya. The separatists' campaign took a major turn over the past week with Russian soldiers enduring some some of their heaviest losses yet in the current war. Analysts say this may be just the start of a rebel counterattack.

"Raduyev was created by our mass media. He is a second-rate figure," says Mahmut Gareyev, president of the Academy of Military Science in Moscow. "His capture has no importance or impact on the development of the military campaign."

Russian newspapers raised questions over why a seasoned fighter would step into a trap in government-held territory. The influential Kommersant Daily here speculated that he may have been a victim of infighting and was handed over by a pro-Basayev camp. Some other newspapers even questioned Raduyev's mental health, suggesting he may be impaired as a result of past head wounds.

Raduyev's role questioned

"We should not exaggerate the real weight of Raduyev," said Nezavisimaya Gazetta in Moscow.

Such queries have not stopped Kremlin spokesmen from wringing all they can out of Raduyev's capture. The war is a major vote catcher for Mr. Putin, who hopes to be confirmed in presidential elections on March 26.

Raduyev's being brought to Moscow on terrorism charges may distract public attention from serious setbacks in the government's Chechen campaign.

The government's boasts two weeks ago that the war was virtually over - a claim repeated by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev on March 14 - have been countered by a switch in guerrilla strategy that has shaken Russian troops. Now that the guerrillas are systematically fighting in small bands that strike into territory thought secured by the government, the potential for another drawn-out war looms large.

This is the same strategy that led to Russia's failure in the previous conflict. Then, the Russians captured huge tracts of Chechen territory only to see the rebels take it back. Last time, the two sides eventually reached a negotiated settlement. In the current climate, observers say such a resolution is unlikely.

"I don't think the Russians have a cohesive plan," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an well-known independent military analyst. "It's leading nowhere. Everyone understands that the fighting will go on and on and on."

For the spin doctors, Raduyev serves not only as a diversion from difficulties in Chechnya but also as a convenient scapegoat for incidents which some conspiracy theorists say involved Russian secret services. Raduyev has claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in February 1998. The claim drew skepticism from a spokesman for the Georgian Security Ministry. He told reporters on March 14 that investigators had found no evidence pointing to Raduyev's involvement.

Moscow authorities also maintain that Raduyev played a role in September's series of apartment bombings in Russia, which led to the start of this war.

According to a Moscow radio station, Ekho Moskvi, Raduyev was being interrogated over the explosions. Blaming the blasts on him would help deflect growing public doubt over the government's account that Chechen terrorists were responsible.

Putin, whose 50 percent-plus poll ratings center on the popularity of the war, would have preferred to end the fighting in Chechnya before the election, say analysts. The common wisdom was that his prospects would be hurt by a dragged-out Vietnam scenario.

Putin the popular

On the contrary, Putin's popularity appears undented by the recent defeats. The bigger the setbacks, the stronger the public desire to crush the rebels.

"His support at this time surprises me," says Yelena Bashkirova, the general director of Russian Public Opinion and Marketing Research, a Moscow-based polling company.

"The attacks seem to have intensified hatred of Chechens rather than the other way around. There is a certain contradiction in public opinion. On the one hand, people want the conflict to end. But at the same time, they understand that it will take time."

She says that Putin's support has moved beyond his firm handling of the war.

"At first, it was the decisive factor. Now his personality is also a drawing point. People like his decisiveness, physical strength, and straight talk.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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