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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Ultimatum May Be Stalled

The ultimatum issued by Russian generals to the defenders of Grozny has been universally condemned in the West. Russian authorities seem to have been taken aback by the severity of Western criticism and almost immediately began to backpedal, announcing that this was not an actually an "ultimatum," but only a "warning" to remaining civilians in Grozny to get out.

It is, of course, good to know that the present Russian regime, at least officially, does not brand civilians as combatants, thus making them fair prey for heavy bombers. But the treatment of Chechen combatants by Russian authorities is still appalling.

The armed rebels have, in fact, been given an ultimatum that says that those who surrender before Dec. 11 will be treated as POWs - given food, shelter and medical treatment - while those who continue to resist in Grozny will be considered "terrorists," that "all will be destroyed" and that "there will be no more negotiations."

This ultimatum is, of course, a gross violation of international law. The second Geneva protocol of 1977, which specifically deals with internal armed conflicts between a government and rebels, says that all combatants should be treated humanely as soon as they lay down arms and that orders like "kill all" are forbidden. Since the threat to destroy "all" rebels in Grozny after the coming weekend has been signed by the Russian military command in the Caucasus and publicly supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the ultimatum can be considered an official order to take no prisoners - which is a war crime in itself. Putin's support of the Grozny ultimatum is proof that the Russian generals are not "out of the control" of political authority. Since the beginning of the latest Chechen war, Russian forces have been constantly committing war crimes, and today the highest Russian civilian authorities doubtless endorse the military's actions.

Many Russian observers and defense analysts believe that Russian generals are today under political pressure to produce some token victory and "take" Grozny before the State Duma elections on Dec. 19. However, it is obvious that a swift, decisive success is totally beyond the reach of the Russian soldiers dug in around Grozny and that, anyway, a premature victory would be in effect politically counterproductive for Putin and the Kremlin.

If a military miracle happens - the Chechen resistance suddenly collapses and Russian troops triumphantly march into Grozny next week - it would hardly alter the election results. The new Duma will still surely be controlled by anti-Kremlin forces whether Grozny is captured or not. The next decisive political showdown in Russia will, in fact, not come on Dec. 19, but in the second half of January, when Putin will need a vote of confidence from the new chamber to continue in office and run for president next June as prime minister, not as a private citizen.

In Russia, as in many other countries, being in office is a great boost to popularity. Sergei Stepashin became a popular presidential hopeful when he was prime minister last summer, but his ratings plummeted after President Boris Yeltsin replaced him with Putin. It is paramount for Putin to stay in office and run for president as a semi-incumbent.

Also, a freshly elected Duma could attempt to impose on the Kremlin a prime minister Yeltsin would not like.

To avoid such mishaps it is important for Putin to address the newly elected chamber in January immediately after a glorious victory in Chechnya so that the Communists and nationalists in the Duma could only give him a hero's welcome and a vote of confidence. If Grozny is actually captured in December, the glory may fade by the end of January, since it will be fully obvious that a bloody antiguerrilla campaign is only beginning in Chechnya.

After the Russian deadline expires this coming weekend, all hell will hardly break lose in Grozny. The escalation of attacks will most likely be gradual. It is also highly probable that, in response to Western pleas, the Russian authorities will extend the deadline for civilians to leave Grozny. There are indications that such humanitarian "concessions" have already been planned.

However, hell will eventually break loose in Grozny. Putin needs a victory in Chechnya in January and a decisive V-day in May to "take" the Kremlin. Chechen and Russian solders lives will not mean much. In the fight for succession in the Kremlin, no quarter is given up.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent Moscow-based defense analyst.