Russia's forceful bid to 'resolve' the Chechen problem seemed certain to attract criticism from the very start of the military operation in Chechnya. The Kremlin's ability to ignore those critics may not be as strong as the army's.


Russia's forceful bid to 'resolve' the Chechen problem seemed certain to attract criticism from the very start of the military operation in Chechnya. The Kremlin's ability to ignore those critics may not be as strong as the army's.

>From the first days, when the bombing of Russian apartment blocks was attributed to 'Chechen terrorists' and a military response was approved, the Kremlin stayed deliberately vague about how far the Army would go to settle its score with the breakaway province.

Initially Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talked about the simple creation of an army-enforced cordon sanitaire along the borders of Chechnya and the region between it and the rest of Russia.

The idea was widely supported by many Russian politicians and also by the general public when troops crossed the border into Chechnya. But talk of limited operations and cordons of any kind were soon replaced by new and aggressive politicians' talk of "liberating Chechen territory".

The notion that it would be impossible for Russia's leadership to conduct negotiations with Chechen authorities became entrenched, despite their pleas for talks. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov made another such plea Thursday in which he urged Russian president Boris Yeltsin "that we stop (the war) before major battles and heavy losses," but which apparently has again fallen on deaf ears.

In fact only hours later Russian troops were claiming the capture the city of Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest. For now the military operation is in full swing, and its as yet unachieved main aim is clear - to crush the armed rebel militias who hold positions in the mountainous regions of the republic and to confront regular Chechen fighters - at any price.

Back at the Kremlin, in marked difference to earlier Russian wars in Chechnya, the government is slowly being forced to respond to the catastrophic conditions of the Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia. The Chechens say more than 4,100 people had been killed and 8,500 wounded in the ten-week conflict. International pressure is building.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) November 18-19 Istanbul Summit draws near and Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov has been forced to pay special attention to the concerns of the regional body.

On Friday Ivanov met Knut Vollebaek, foreign minister of Norway and OSCE head, to discuss - and reject again - the regional body's request to send an OSCE mission to the conflict zone. The OSCE alone among international agencies was allowed to play a key mediating role in the last conflict and the scheduled attendance of both Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton has raised the summit's stakes.

Russian officials suspect "anti-Russian circles" in the West may severely criticise Russia and its government at the Istanbul meeting. United States officials have accused Russia's military in Chechnya of violating the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, a charge firmly rebuffed by Putin.

And Russian defence minister Igor Sergeyev went as far as to accuse the United States of stirring up the Chechen conflict, telling Russian TV that it was "in the national interests of the United States that a guided, armed conflict smoulder constantly on the territory of the North Caucasus."

But the Kremlin apparently feels that some gestures are necessary. Hence the decision to Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu to the northern Caucasus to inspect the refugees situation this week and his initially conciliatory words.

More than 200,000 Chechens and Russian civilians have left Chechnya, the majority now living in desperate conditions in Ingushetia. The Ingush republic president Ruslan Aushev strongly condemns the scale of the military assault on Chechnya and constantly underlines the inability of his impoverished republic to help the refugees.

Shoigu's visit was followed by the announcement that the Russian government is willing to engage in the refugee "problem." Shoigu and Ivanov also met a group of ambassadors from the Group of Seven most industrialised countries to explain the situation in Chechnya.

The Kremlin and the government are much less concerned with Russia's domestic public opinion. The leader of the moderate Yabloko party, Grigory Yavlinsky, this week urged Russian authorities to stop the bombing of Chechen villages and towns and to create conditions for talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Support for the war is still strong at home, but is not expected to last. Analysts close to Yavlinsky, including the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Strategic studies, Andrei Piontkovsky, say that the political parties that make the an early call for an end to military operations could benefit in the long run.

Yavlinsky, a respected economist whose party counts on a steady electorate of about 11 percent of Russia's voters, is also a presidential candidate in the June 2000 presidential election.

This shift would also echo the mood of the liberal political community in the last Chechen conflict, who came out against the war as the failure of the military to defeat the rebels and the scale of the accompanying humanitarian crisis became clear.

However, there is no reason to expect a serious reduction in Russian military operations, let alone a halt, any time soon.

Russian military commanders have been playing an increasingly important political role lately and some top Defence Ministry officers have been particularly outspoken, saying that they don't want politicians to prevent them to continue the military operation until they reach a "complete victory."

Putin is not seen in Moscow as the politician to take on the military. Only Yeltsin could try that, but he will only do if he decides that the continuance of the war will damage his own political prospects. He may be able to judge that better after Istanbul.

Vitali Portnikov is a Moscow military analyst.

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