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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Prepares to 'Punish' Chechnya

GROZNY -- In language reminiscent of the run-up to the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, the Russian interior minister has threatened to punish the breakaway region unless one of his top deputies is immediately released from the captivity of kidnappers there.

In a statement issued Sunday evening, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin warned that "Russia has exhausted its tolerance" for the wave of crime and kidnapping that has plagued the war-ravaged republic ever since Moscow called a truce in 1996.

"On Chechen territory there are openly functioning centers for the training of terrorists, and persons who are criminals under both Russian and international law feel safe," Stepashin said. "In effect, several thousand armed scoundrels dictate their will to Chechen society, driving it into medievalism and obscurantism."

Even as Stepashin was lashing out angrily, troops from his ministry moved to seal the borders with Chechnya, and Russian government representatives withdrew en masse. Sunday evening, a convoy of trucks and cars carried Russia's official representatives out of Grozny.

Stepashin was a hawk who supported the war in Chechnya. In his statement and in television interviews Sunday, he hinted that renewed military action could be in the works to rescue Major General Gennady Shpigun, who was kidnapped by masked gunmen Friday from a plane as it was taxiing for takeoff from Grozny airport.

In a reference to the bungled two-year war effort f which saw Russia handed a humiliating stalemate of a defeat, and Chechnya devastated by indiscriminate aerial bombings that left thousands of civilians dead and Grozny in ruins f Stepashin added that this time around, "It won't be tanks, it won't be 18-year-old boys. It will be adequate measures."

Among those adequate measures, Stepashin held out the possibility that "the bases and concentration points of criminal formations will be destroyed." The use of the otherwise-opaque term "criminal formations" was startling, because it was what the Kremlin labeled followers of rebellious Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev when justifying its war effort.

Stepashin also called for cutting off energy supplies to the republic, halting all economic and financial cooperation and giving "necessary material assistance" to anyone who might want to immediately leave Chechnya. He said that he had reported twice over the weekend to President Boris Yeltsin about Shpigun's kidnapping and the situation in Chechnya, and Tuesday would put a plan to punish Chechnya before the Security Council.

The Security Council is a Kremlin body that brings together top security and military officials with top government and presidential administration officials. It was at a Security Council meeting in 1994 where Yeltsin formally decided to open military action in Chechnya.

Chechen officials said Stepashin's rhetoric and the unusually swift and complete pullout of government officials suggested Russia might be contemplating air strikes against Chechnya, the first in three years.

Russia has reasonably good relations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and horrible relations with Maskhadov's most serious rival for power in the region, Shamil Basayev f well-known as the mastermind of the 1995 terrorist attack on the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk.

Stepashin attacked both Maskhadov and Basayev, however f accusing Basayev of helping organize the kidnapping, and Maskhadov of doing too little to stop a constant rise in such crime. Complaining that the security of Major General Shpigun had been "guaranteed by the Chechen leadership," Stepashin suggested the kidnapping was official Grozny's failure.

"Obtaining the release of General Shpigun is the last chance for the Chechen leadership to prove to Russia and the entire world that it is in control," Stepashin said.

Basayev and Maskhadov retorted angrily to such criticism.

At a news conference in Grozny on Monday, Maskhadov promised to find and release Shpigun within three days.

But he also told Stepashin that he didn't like his tone, which Maskhadov seemed to believe included veiled hints of coming Russian airstrikes.

"Ultimatums and attempts to intimidate [us] with airplanes and weapons are a delusion on the part of short-sighted politicians. I state with all responsibility that it is impossible to intimidate us with airplanes or missiles," he said, in remarks reported by Interfax.

Maskhadov added that Moscow could start by blaming itself for the mess in Chechnya. He singled out financier Boris Berezovsky, who in past has played a visible but unclear role in negotiating the release of some Chechen kidnap victims, as among those to blame for the rise in Chechen organized crime.

"Today's situation in Chechnya is the product of overtures by Russian politicians, primarily Boris Berezovsky, to traitors and criminals who are struggling for power, which they have been unable to obtain in a lawful way," Maskhadov said at the news conference. "I have repeatedly said to the Russian leadership that there is a lawfully elected president in Chechnya. Their response was more funding for criminals in the guise of paying ransom for hostages."

Basayev, in turn, said the idea that he had helped kidnap Shpigun was "a figment of [Stepashin's] inflamed imagination," adding, "I would never have concealed the truth about any action I have undertaken. I have always acted openly."

Basayev suggested Stepashin seek the kidnappers back in Russia, among disgruntled or freelancing security service agents. Stepashin, meanwhile, seemed to agree the trail would lead back to Moscow. He promised that "operative" measures to punish criminals would be carried out not only in Chechnya but also in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities where the kidnappers might have financial backers.

Shpigun was the highest-ranking official to be kidnapped in Chechnya since President Yeltsin's personal envoy, Valentin Vlasov, was captured in May. Vlasov spent six months in captivity before he was released in a secret operation carried out by Russian special forces.

It was not clear Monday who had seized Shpigun or why. Some Russian media reported he had been seized by Salman Raduyev, an independent Chechen warlord, in hopes of using him as a bargaining chip to free two Chechen women who have been jailed for bombing a train station in Pyatigorsk, in souther Russia.