Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow and Grozny Seek Calm, Talks

As Russian officials scaled back their angry rhetoric and took an extra day to decide how to react to a high-profile kidnapping in Chechnya, the president of that breakaway republic asked publicly for a personal meeting with President Boris Yeltsin to try to defuse the crisis.

Moscow, long embarrassed by the rise in crime and kidnappings in the Chechen republic, was outraged over the weekend when a top Interior Ministry general, Gennady Shpigun, was snatched off of his plane at Grozny airport by masked gunmen.

Shpigun's boss, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, in a menacingly worded response has called for economic sanctions and unspecified military action - not only to free Shpigun, but also to punish those who kidnapped him.

Aslan Maskhadov, president of Chechnya and one of Moscow's only friends in the region, on Tuesday criticized such warlike talk.

"Threats and blackmail are unacceptable," Maskhadov told The Associated Press through a spokesman. Instead, Maskhadov asked for a meeting with Yeltsin, saying, "We must start negotiations."

On Monday, Stepashin lashed out at Maskhadov's government for letting crime spin out of control in the region. But by Tuesday, Stepashin was backpedaling and reaffirming the Russian government's support for Maskhadov, and Kremlin aide Oleg Sysuyev was on national television promising there would be no return to war.

"We had such a bitter experience of mass-scale military operations in Chechnya that I don't think a single person could be found in the leadership today who would propose or support the idea of sending our boys, officers and soldiers to Chechnya," Sysuyev said, adding that the Kremlin would "do everything possible to avoid any bloodshed between Chechnya and Russia."

On Tuesday Maskhadov sent Chechen police scouring the republic for Shpigun, and offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to the kidnappers.

Stepashin was a hawk during the disastrous 1994-96 Chechen war. His angry rhetoric over the weekend included a suggestion that Russia could seek out and destroy "criminal formations," which was interpreted by some to mean airstrikes against Chechnya. And hawks in the Russian parliament picked up that same tune, with leading Communist Viktor Ilyukhin telling Itar-Tass, "It is necessary to use aviation and other efficient means to destroy the terrorist bases."

Stepashin's proposals were to be taken up at a meeting Tuesday of the Kremlin Security Council, a powerful advisory body to the president that brings together top military, security and government officials.

But that meeting was put off, in part because Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov only returned from vacation in Sochi on Tuesday evening, and in part because Security Council Secretary and Kremlin Chief of Staff Nikolai Bordyuzha suffered a heart attack. Bordyuzha, 49, was taken to the Central Clinical Hospital on Monday afternoon - the same hospital where Yeltsin has been for more than a week, still recovering from a bleeding ulcer. Stepashin also visited that hospital Monday, to brief Yeltsin.

Itar-Tass reported that Bordyuzha's health was not seriously threatened. But there was no further comment from the Kremlin.

Instead, on Wednesday Primakov's Cabinet is to take up Stepashin's proposals and the question of how to handle Chechnya. For Moscow politics watchers, the shifting of this high-profile matter from Yeltsin's Kremlin to Primakov's White House provided food for thought - Yeltsin and Primakov are engaged in a thinly-veiled struggle for power, in which each tries to one-up the other.

According to Interfax, Yeltsin ordered Primakov to come up with "urgent measures" to ensure order in regions around Chechnya.

As Yeltsin himself has never been able to do that, it could have been an intentionally thorny assignment, much like the Kremlin's 1996 order to then-Security Council chief Alexander Lebed to figure out a way to end the two-year-old Chechen war.

Lebed had just been co-opted by the Kremlin in the run-up to presidential elections, in hopes that his voters would support Yeltsin instead of Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov. So Lebed had no illusions about his popularity with the Kremlin elite and wryly noted at the time that he was being sent off to Grozny in hopes that he would figuratively "break his neck."

Instead, and much to the apparent surprise of Moscow, Lebed struck an acceptable peace deal in a matter of days with Maskhadov, who was head of the rebellious Chechen armies. Soon after, Lebed was kicked out of the Kremlin. Today he is governor of Krasnoyarsk, and on Tuesday he added his voice to those calling for the use of force to free General Shpigun.

But Lebed also criticized the federal government for "having done nothing over the past three years to establish a stable peace in the region." Instead, he said, Moscow has not lived up to its truce-era promises to Maskhadov and that has weakened him.

In Chechnya now there is "dual power, with Maskhadov governing during the day, while Basayev and Raduyev rule at night," he added.

Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev are both Chechen field commanders who were responsible for terrorist attacks against southern Russian towns. Basayev led a raid on the town of Budyonnovsk in 1995, and in the resulting fighting more than 114 civilians were killed and more were taken back to Chechnya as hostages. Raduyev led a 1996 raid on Pervomaiskoye with far fewer casualties and himself was gravely wounded.

Stepashin was the head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, in 1995, and he was sacked in the wake of the Budyonnovsk debacle.

But if Yeltsin is hoping Primakov will "break his neck" on Chechnya, Primakov, like Lebed before him, is game to tackle the problem. His Nationalities Minister, Ramazan Abdulatipov, said on Tuesday that he thought broad talks between Primakov and leading Chechen politicians, including Maskhadov, Basayev and former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, should start as early as Wednesday.

Abdulatipov poured praise on Primakov and cold water on the idea that Yeltsin would have anything to offer. "A meeting between Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Maskhadov would be more effective [than a meeting with Yeltsin]," he told Interfax. "Furthermore, they [Primakov and Maskhadov] seemed to have found a common language" at a recent meeting in October.

He added that Primakov, a former foreign minister and a Middle East specialist, "knows the East excellently, and the Caucasus in particular. Nobody can tackle all the problems better than he can."

Seeking better relations and more order in Chechnya is likely to be broadly welcomed, but does little to solve the immediate problem of securing the release of Shpigun - the most prominent Russian official to be kidnapped in Chechnya since last May, when Yeltsin's envoy, Valentin Vlasov, was abducted and held for six months.

Shpigun was dragged off an airplane just before it was to take off last Friday from Grozny, but so far no one has claimed responsibility or made any demands.

Stepashin has suggested Chechen warlord Basayev might have organized the kidnapping. Basayev says he did not and notes he has always acted openly and defiantly when attacking Moscow - which is true enough, as he did nothing to hide his participation in the attack on Budyonnovsk, which cost Stepashin his job last time around.

On Tuesday, Basayev reiterated his claim that he did not know Shpigun's whereabouts. But he said he would search for Shpigun himself - not to free him, but to put him "on trial" in Chechnya for his role in helping orchestrate the war effort.

A leading Chechen diplomat on Tuesday suggested beleaguered financier Boris Berezovsky might somehow be behind Shpigun's kidnapping. In an interview to Ekho Moskvy radio, Edelbek Ibragimov, the head of the Chechen mission in Moscow, said he would not be surprised to see Berezovsky soon sail to the rescue and broker Ibragimov's release.

In the past, Berezovsky has played a visible but unclear role in negotiating the release of Chechen kidnap victims.