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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War as Election Politics

I repeat, [Russian] troops have no intention of entering Chechnya," said Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov on Sept. 24, the day after Russian aircraft began bombing oil refineries, brick factories, a television center and other alleged "terrorist lairs" throughout the breakaway Moslem republic in the North Caucasus. "Such an operation would incur huge human losses."

Two weeks later, the human losses are already getting serious, with Chechen officials reporting 590 civilians killed by Russian airstrikes. That still doesn't compare with the 90,000 people, most of them civilians, who were killed during Russia's failed attempt to bring Chechnya to heel by a full-scale invasion in 1994-96, but now Russian troops have started to advance into Chechen territory again.

This time, they probably won't enter the city of Grozny, which became the Chechens' Stalingrad and the graveyard of entire Russian battalions during the last war. The plan seems to be to advance across the flat land of northern Chechnya as far as the Terek River, which passes about 15 kilometers north of Grozny, and then just hold the river line.

In conventional military terms, this is a strategy that almost makes sense. If the Russians can really control the river line, they will have sealed off about half of the 540-kilometer border across which Chechen guerrillas can infiltrate into Russia. They won't get drawn into street fighting in Grozny and other towns, or advance into the mountains to the south where their units were cut to pieces in 1994-96, so their casualties will be low. And the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, so the theory goes, will reap the credit for a firm response against Chechen terrorism in Russian cities.

Except that it is unlikely to work that way in practice, for this has never been a conventional war. What forced Moscow to sign a truce in 1996 was not Russian casualties in Chechnya, but the fact that Chechen fighters were able to stage spectacular raids deep into Russia proper. Given the long stretches of mountainous border that remain uncontrolled and uncontrollable, there is no reason to believe that this will not happen again.

This leads inevitably to the speculation that Putin - whose previous career was in the security services - has foreseen this consequence of the present offensive, and might indeed welcome a new outbreak of Chechen terrorist attacks in Russian cities. His goal, after all, is to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia in next June's elections, and he is unlikely to do it by good looks and sweet reason alone.

When Putin was appointed prime minister in August, the latest in a series of increasingly frantic maneuvers by the Yeltsin "family" to ensure that the next government does not inquire into their sudden wealth, his rating in the opinion polls was a paltry 2 percent. It has already climbed to 7 percent as a result of his aggressive response to terrorist bombs in Moscow that are universally blamed on the Chechens. That is not bad in a splintered political scene where even the most popular opposition candidate only has 20 percent support.

If the current Russian invasion of Chechen territory leads to more bombs in Russia, then Putin may have a pretext to wrap himself in the Russian flag and declare a state of emergency that would gravely hamper the opposition's ability to campaign at all. It is a dirty game - and equally dirty on the Chechen side.

Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president, has nothing to gain from this confrontation. The men who do are his rivals, the independent commanders who won fame in the last war and whose militias now control various chunks of Chechnya. They pay only lip service to the authority of Maskhadov's government in Grozny, and each imagines himself to be Maskhadov's rightful successor.

Most prominent among them is Shamil Basayev, the man who led the decisive raid on the Russian city of Budyonnovsk in 1995. This August, he launched attacks from Chechen soil against the neighboring Russian territory of Dagestan that left 282 Russian soldiers dead, and though he has denied it, he may well have been responsible for the early morning apartment-building blasts that killed almost 300 people in Moscow as they slept.

Basayev's goal, of course, is to trigger a new Russian-Chechen war that will discredit Aslan Maskhadov and make himself the undisputed leader of Chechnya. He has now found a tacit collaborator in Vladimir Putin, and is quite likely to achieve his ambition.

The Russian government is basically to blame for this ghastly situation, first for driving Chechens into the arms of radical commanders like Basayev with its savage and largely unprovoked attack in 1994 (launched mainly to bolster Yeltsin's popularity), and second for undermining the moderate Maskhadov's position by refusing to recognize Chechnya's independence even after the truce of 1996.

It is ordinary Russians, fearful of going to bed at night lest their entire building explode under them, and ordinary Chechens, 100,000 of whom have already fled the Russian bombs and shells and sought refuge in nearby Ingushetia, who will pay the price of all this. The war will settle nothing - except, perhaps, leadership disputes in the two countries - and in the end the border will probably be right back where it was last month.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent London-based journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.