Putin and the Chechen War: Together Forever

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The piercing wail of ambulance sirens, victims' bodies covered in blood, fear in the eyes of those who managed to escape unharmed this time. This was the scene after the storming of the Dubrovka Theater in October 2002, and after the terrorist attack at a rock concert in Tushino last July, and after a bomb exploded on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa less than a week later, and after the blast outside the National Hotel in December. Last weekend we saw it all again after the explosion in a metro car at Avtozavodskaya station.

President Vladimir Putin may look nothing like Aphrodite, but he was born of the same element. According to legend, the sea foam from which the Greek goddess emerged was mixed with the blood of Uranus, castrated by his son Cronus. As a politician, Putin rose from the blood and muck of the Chechen war, and they have left their mark on his entire presidency.

Endless war in the North Caucasus has proven to be Putin's all-purpose campaign strategy. In the summer of 1999, the ruling elite was at a loss. Boris Yeltsin was clearly not up to running the country, but no suitable successor could be found. The obvious candidates -- Sergei Stepashin, Nikolai Bordyuzha and Sergei Kiriyenko -- weren't presidential material. But then Chechen separatists staged a raid into neighboring Dagestan. Putin directed the operation that drove the fighters from Dagestan, and after two apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow, Putin launched an "anti-terrorist operation" in Chechnya. Suddenly Putin was the No. 1 politician in the country.

Surprisingly, the heavy losses suffered by Russian troops in Chechnya and the generals' failure to establish control over the breakaway republic did nothing to dent Putin's popularity. To give Putin his due, his modus operandi from the day he became prime minister has differed markedly from the leadership style of former Kremlin bosses. Beginning in the 1980s, Soviet and then Russian leaders did everything possible to avoid taking responsibility for ordering the use of military force. Decades passed before we learned who had made the decision to send troops into Afghanistan. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin preferred not to create a paper trail when he sent troops into combat. When things went wrong, the top brass took the heat. You may recall that after sending troops into Chechnya in 1994, Yeltsin suddenly underwent a nose operation. At least a week went by before the leadership explained anything to the people.

As prime minister, with no formal control over the armed forces or the security agencies, Putin nevertheless took full responsibility for starting the second Chechen war. His trip to Grozny in a fighter jet showed everyone just what they wanted to see. The elderly were moved by the similarity to the famous scene of Stalin's arrival in the movie "The Fall of Berlin." Middle-aged Russians were impressed by Putin's fitness -- after a flight in a supersonic war plane, he was able to haul himself out of the cockpit. Young people liked his cool, tough image: a mixture of Batman and James Bond.

Starting "small victorious wars" to boost a leader's popularity is nothing new. But even Putin's spin doctors could not have foreseen that his authority would not suffer despite his failure to emerge victorious or even to keep the war small.

The war's value for the presidential campaign was obvious to both sides from the start, during the battle for Grozny. The Chechen fighters were operating on the assumption that the Kremlin would not tolerate substantial losses on the eve of the election. This is why Chechen detachments flouted military logic and remained in Grozny after it was surrounded, continuing to offer fierce resistance.

Putin's campaign managers also assumed that heavy Russian losses would hurt his chances at the polls. As the fighting in Grozny took its toll, they feared that by election day in June 2000 Putin's support would have evaporated. This concern probably explains Yeltsin's decision to step down early, bringing the election forward by several months.

As we now know, those fears were groundless. Heavy Russian losses had no impact on Putin's poll numbers. The four years of Putin's first term, during which the war raged on unabated, have made clear that Russian voters are prepared to endure endless lies from their leaders about the latest "phase" of the "operation" in Chechnya, as well as a staggering number of Russian dead.

I doubt that any Russian politician today would have the nerve to remind Putin of the promises he made back in 2000. He vowed "to crush the terrorist scum" once and for all, to restore law and order in Chechnya and to ensure the safety of the Russian people. Realizing that it would be a good idea to restore at least the semblance of order in Chechnya before the recent State Duma elections, the Kremlin staged a constitutional referendum, arranged for Akhmad Kadyrov to become president and then rigged the parliamentary vote so blatantly that even Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov couldn't keep quiet about it.

None of this changes the basic facts in Chechnya. The army has more or less taken control of the entire region, destroying large groups of separatists along the way. But it seems never to have occurred to the generals who proudly announced the destruction of all organized resistance in Chechnya that from that moment on, the fighters, operating in small groups, gained a tactical advantage. A war of diversions and land mines gripped the entire region. To establish control the army was forced to divide its forces among garrisons all over the republic. In the absence of large groups of fighters, the army's greatest advantage, its aviation and artillery, became useless.

We have come full circle and are back at the first Chechen war. Once more soldiers are holed up in their fortified checkpoints and headquarters, allowing the fighters the freedom to move at will. As before, army checkpoints have become collection points for tribute payments. Federal forces are defending themselves, and brutally and blindly avenging their dead comrades in "sweep operations." They kidnap people, torture them and demand ransom from their families, trying at the same time to recruit their victims by means of forced confessions and neighbors' fearful denunciations. Such "informants" are in no position to learn of future terrorist attacks, of course. The army's tactics neither reduce the number of separatists nor break their will.

The failure of the so-called power ministries to crush armed resistance in Chechnya is all the more glaring when you consider that under Putin, the generals have been given free rein in the region for the last four years. Yet these same generals now say the conflict could drag on for decades. The only way the government can justify the fact that Russian soldiers are dying every week is by claiming that thanks to the war in Chechnya, the wave of terrorism has not washed over the rest of Russia.

The Chechen terrorists therefore focus their attacks on Moscow. When metro cars blow up, it becomes harder to follow Channel One's advice and "think about the good things," a slogan that pretty much sums up Putin's election campaign.

Russian voters are just happy that Putin has demonstrated decisiveness, persistence and force of will. In his book "In the First Person," Putin declared that his primary mission as president was to solve the Chechen problem. Under his leadership the country has been at war for four years. Now he plans to devote his second term to the same senseless, brutal "anti-terrorist operation." The war is more than just a campaign stunt for Russia's second president -- it seems to be his means of existence.

Alexander Golts, deputy editor of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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