Commentary: Chechnya: Time for the West to Pressure Putin

A hard line. That's what Russian President Vladimir V. Putin took to resolve the Moscow hostage-taking crisis that gripped his country last week--and that's what he is sticking to in his approach to the underlying cause of the ordeal in the first place, the bloody, stalemated war in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. It's a formula with little prospect for success--and it's in the interest of Western leaders to help him to see that.

Putin's decision to send in Russian special forces to free some 800 captives in a Moscow theater from Chechen terrorists armed with explosives was a difficult but defensible call. At least 117 people have died from the fentanyl-based gas used to immobilize the hostage-takers--but who's to say the terrorists would not have killed everyone in the building? "We showed that Russia cannot be brought to her knees," Putin said on Oct. 26.

But the price of preserving the motherland's honor--if Putin, as he is signaling, refuses even the idea of a negotiated settlement to the Chechen conflict--is likely to grow in the days, months, and, yes, years ahead. His tactics are no more likely to subdue the Chechens than the get-tough policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have vanquished the Palestinians, also fighting a war of self-determination.

After all, some 4,500 Russian soldiers have already died in three years of savage fighting--and another 10,000 died in the first Chechen war from 1994-96. Putin's claim that Russian forces control the ground in Chechnya is belied by continuing rebel assaults on Russian units and helicopters. "Using only military force, we will never have a solution," says Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Russia's liberal Yabloko party.

The Moscow hostage-taking brought the war home to a political elite that has attempted to deal with Chechnya as a nettlesome but manageable problem. The public has been shielded from the war's brutality by Putin-muzzled broadcast media. Now, with illusions of quiescence shattered and terrorism brought directly to the capital, Putin must pay urgent attention to the grim and perhaps unattainable project of constructing a Fortress Russia. Chechen rebels are threatening to strike at economic targets, including nuclear power stations. With the largest land mass of any country in the world, Russia is a wide-open target for such assaults.

As security services ramp up their anti-terrorism operations, Putin's principal domestic priority, the rebuilding of the nation's economy, inevitably stands to suffer. Although Putin has given broad direction to his economic team to pursue a liberal policy course, he frequently is called upon to settle disputes on key initiatives between warring business interests. For now, less of his time will go to essential overhauls of the electricity, gas, banking, legal, and education sectors. Granted, the new focus on anti-terrorism efforts may in the short term ease the market's concerns about Russia's political stability. But the pace of important structural reforms could slow, which over the long haul will turn off foreign investors.

Putin says he's fighting international terrorism--alongside the U.S. in its battle against al Qaeda. There are undoubtedly links between Chechen insurgents and Arab Islamic militant groups, who have helped to finance and train the rebels. But the origins of the Chechen conflict lie not in Islamic militancy but in the 19th century Chechen struggle to resist absorption by the Russian empire. Osama bin Laden's group, with its broad focus on America as a global evil, has amorphous aims. The Chechens have a specific objective: independence. Such a focus opens the door to diplomacy.

Indeed, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, says the Kremlin must talk to local Chechen rebel commanders to find a political solution. That's unlikely, unless the international community nudges Putin towards pursuing a negotiated settlement. U.S. President George W. Bush has given Putin a free hand in Chechnya. But this is no great favor to Russia, in whose social and economic health the West has a stake, too. "We're all hostages to a flawed policy," says Lyubov Kuznetsova, 49, a founding member of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee of Russia, an antiwar civic group founded in 1989. She's right. Now, more than ever, is the time to search for a way out.

By Paul Starobin

With Catherine Belton

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