Campaigning By Tank

The Unity Party's election objectives appear to have been reached in Sunday's Russian parliamentary polls, driven as much by tanks in Chechnya as by the party's actual policies.

Campaigning By Tank

The Unity Party's election objectives appear to have been reached in Sunday's Russian parliamentary polls, driven as much by tanks in Chechnya as by the party's actual policies.

Thursday, 23 December, 1999

Following Sunday's victory for the Unity party, the Kremlin is no doubt satisfied that all of its primary objectives have been achieved.


Prompted by the wave of renewed nationalist feeling which swept through the country in the wake of the bomb attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk, the Russian army was able to help Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in scoring a series of victories over the Chechen rebels.


A spirited new nationalism, the Chechen invasion and some solid campaigning on Unity's behalf from the media, has left Putin feeling unassailable, and eager to prove himself the strong leader Russia so desperately needs come the Presidential elections in June next year.


But this post-election honeymoon period should not blind the Kremlin to the problems their presidential candidate faces. Having taken on Chechnya, Putin's long-term military ambitions remain unclear.


While an all-out assault on Grozny now appears imminent - with latest bets pointing to either a December 25th or Millennium attack - the city may continue to elude the Russian generals. Also a pro-Russian administration has yet to be established in the rebel republic and the war-weary population shows few signs of supporting Kremlin pawns such as Bislan Gantamirov, the former mayor of Grozny, or Akhmed Kadyrov, a staunch opponent of the Islamic militants.


Invading Chechnya to sort out the rebels was a good piece of short-term electioneering. But with the desired results secured, the Kremlin needs a new strategy. Just as the Red Army's generals in Afghanistan were criticised for failing to learn anything from Vietnam or the British defeats in Kabul a hundred years previously, so it seems the mistake of taking on a guerilla war is destined to be repeated once more.


Even if Grozny was to fall, it is unlikely to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion. As predicted, Moscow is already trying to sweep behind the city, clear the plains and take the war into the mountains where 15,000 to 25,000 combat-hardened fighters are in no mood for surrender.


A protracted military campaign across this inhospitable terrain will inevitably result in heavy casualties on the Russian side. There is more than an even chance then that Putin's image as a decisive conqueror may be irreparably tarnished before the one vote that really counts for him.


It is quite possible that, in time, Chechnya will turn into a vote loser. The Russian public soon tires of war and growing casualty lists will inevitably serve as a call to arms for the ever-vigilant Soldiers' Mothers' Committees.


Ironically, this may provide one way out. If the fighting bogs down around Grozny and in the mountains, there is a chance that both sides will be forced to the negotiating table.


The latest reports on the fighting in the mountains and the shelling of a Georgian border town suggests that it may ultimately be difficult to prevent the conflict from spreading south. Yet there is an enduring hope within the international community that Moscow will adopt a humane approach towards Chechnya's civilian population - at least those now under its control.


While the present signs are bad, it is possible that initial feelers towards working out some kind of deal could go out as early as January or February. That said, any plans for peace talks pose a number of problems for the Russian leadership - not least, the lack of a credible representative for the Chechen people.


President Aslan Maskhadov remains the only realistic candidate - Shamil Basaev and Khatab - the Saudi-born Afghan veteran are considered political loose cannons while Gantamirov's recent release from Moscow's Lefortovo Prison throws his credibility into serious doubt.


And it remains unclear how the dogs of war - Russia's generals - who have been given a largely free hand in Chechnya so far, will react to any suggestion of peace talks with the Chechen high command. Fired by their recent successes, they will probably insist on continued hard-line tactics and on fulfilling Putin's famous pledge to "smash the rebels, even in the toilet".


The problem for candidate Putin, even if he concluded peace to be the most pragmatic option, has to be seen offering it from a towering position of strength or not at all. And offering it to who?


Caught now with a war on his hands and the real election looming, it remains to be seen then just how unassailable the candidate will remain in the weeks and months to come.


Alexey Malashenko is an analyst at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow and Alan Davis is IWPR's Director of Programmes.


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