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Is Putin Fighting Wars on Too Many Fronts?

Whilst waging a bitter campaign in Chechnya, President Vladimir Putin is fighting rearguard actions against the Russian oligarchs and the regional governors. Perhaps he has bitten off more than he can chew.
By Mikhail Ivanov

Just days after the wave of rebel suicide attacks on Russian bases in Chechnya, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Bokovikov was appointed deputy head of the Southern Federal District -- one of Russia's seven newly-created administrative blocks. Observers have noted that this move is hardly fortuitous. Bokovikov was Aslan Maskhadov's superior officer in 1981 when they served together in the Soviet Army. He also held talks with the Chechen leader back in 1995.


At the same time, Maskhadov has once again been rattling his sabre. Last week, he issued yet another video-address promising "a final and decisive offensive by the forces of Islam against the Russian army". Military sources give the threat little credence (Maskhadov failed to keep his promise to seize Gudermes in early July), but his fighting talk has unnerved many Chechen civilians, unleashing a fresh wave of refugees heading for the Ingushetian border.


So is Russia once again losing the upper hand? Or are Maskhadov's threats - just like the recent kamikaze bombings -- merely a sign of growing desperation? Should we believe claims by the Russian military observer, Alexander Golts, that "the organisers of the anti-terrorist operations are back where they started"?


In reality, such sweeping pronouncements have little foundation in fact. Rebel resistance in the lowlands has effectively been quashed with all the major cities -- including the symbolic Grozny - now firmly in Russian hands.


It is clear that the operation has entered a new phase. Now locked in a guerrilla war, the rebels are resorting to new tactics and the suicide bombings, borrowed from their Middle East "colleagues", form a part of this strategy. We should note, incidentally, that the Israeli armed forces have consistently refused to be intimidated by similarly horrific attacks.


There is a Russian proverb which holds, "The devil is not as terrible as he is painted." Akhmad Kadyrov, the Moscow-appointed head of the civilian administration, is still convinced that Maskhadov would be best advised to "beg forgiveness", then say "salaam aleykum to his fellow Chechens and join his son in Malaysia".


And, in this scenario, the presence of Bokovikov, Maskhadov's former CO, could well provide extra leverage - especially as he can speak to the Chechen president from a far stronger position than in 1995.


There is further evidence that Maskhadov is still searching for a way to bring the hostilities to an end. On Thursday, his right-hand man, Turpal Atgeriev, appealed to Akhmad Kadyrov to secure an amnesty for his 200 fighters who are apparently ready to surrender.


Atgeriev's sincerity is still in doubt (and, unsurprisingly, Kadyrov has rejected the offer for the time being) but it is possible that Maskhadov is attempting to open up a negotiating channel with Kadyrov - Atgeriev, who comes from the same part of the republic as the mufti, is the obvious choice for emissary.


Meanwhile, Kadyrov is gradually recruiting his own ruling cabal in the Chechen lowlands. Already, his supporters include Shamil Beno, formerly a member of Dzhokhar Dudaev's government, and Beslan Gantamirov, the dismissed head of the pro-Russian militia, who has been named Kadyrov's first deputy.


The new civilian administration has been swift to show results. Last week, Gantamirov played an active role in rounding up nine Chechen Wahhabis suspecting of planting the car bomb which wounded Grozny mayor Supyan Makhchaev.


It took Gantamirov just two days to bring in the suspects, proving that the code of "blood vengeance" works far more efficiently in Chechnya than warrants issued by the Russian prosecutor's office.


Rumours of the panic caused in Russian and pro-Russian ranks by the recent suicide attacks appear to have been vastly exaggerated. As Alexander Golts rightly points out, terrorist tactics can effectively be frustrated by building an extensive intelligence network and infiltrating agents into separatist units - methods that were, incidentally, highlighted by the former head of Israel's Mossad during an interview on Russian TV.


However, the fact remains that the Russian military commanders in Chechnya have become "giddy with success" - and consequently earned themselves severe rebukes from President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the terrorist bombings.


Putin remains determined to destroy the beast in its den: in Friday's sensational interview with the liberal daily Izvestia, Putin said that Russia must exorcise her Chechen demons here and now. "If we waver again, we will face the same problems," he commented, "but the number of victims will be many times higher."


The fact that Putin is prepared to admit Russia's military blunders in Chechnya is also revealing. In the Izvestia interview, the president quoted the Russian proverb: "Haste is only of the essence when you're catching flies," stressing that it was vital "to be patient when solving the problems of the North Caucasus".


Putin also highlighted the need to combine the military actions with "social rehabilitation and effective political solutions". To this end, he has ordered federal funds to be released for payment of pensions and social benefits in Chechnya. And the purse strings have been handed over to Akhmad Kadyrov - a move which will no doubt raise the mufti's standing in the eyes of people who have not been paid pensions for years.


In total, Kadyrov can expect to receive 3.5 billion roubles of which one billion will be used to pay pensions and 2.5 billion will be spent on rebuilding schools, hospitals and other vital buildings destroyed by the fighting.


However, despite such positive developments, Putin's approach to Russia's manifold problems does give some cause for concern. He is clearly attempting to wage too many wars on too many fronts.


Not only is the new president fighting a bitter campaign in Chechnya, he has also launched a new offensive against the oligarchs (the raid on Gusinsky's Most Media has been followed by attacks on the owners of Norilsk Nickel, Lukoil, Gaprom, Avtovaz, and now the Unified Energy System headed by Anatoly Chubais).


Then there is the ongoing war against the governors sitting on the Federation Council (which he wants to dissolve in its present form) and the battle with the State Duma over his new tax reforms. Some might say that Putin has lit too many fires at once - and a single defeat on any of these fronts could prove fatal for his presidency as a whole.


Even Putin's namesake and predecessor, Vladimir Lenin, realised it was impossible to win a war on all fronts and signed a humiliating peace treaty with the Germans after the Revolution of 1917.


Putin's choices are equally invidious - to sign a truce with the oligarchs, the Federation Council or the Chechen rebels. Certainly, he cannot afford to surrender his main trump card -- the resolute stance on Chechnya which secured his election victory in March this year.


According to the opinion polls, Putin's still enjoys the approval of 54 % of the population, and frankly, the fate of Russia's jaded oligarchs and notoriously venal governors is of little importance to the electorate at large. However, another setback in Chechnya would deliver a resounding blow not just to Putin's political standing but also to the integrity of the Russian Federation as a whole.


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.


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