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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trapped in A Chechnya Dilemma

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Last week, the Kremlin spin machine worked overtime to celebrate the latest glorious victory from Chechnya. The death of Chechen rebel commander Arbi Barayev was touted as the latest proof of the success of the campaign. Of course, military experts know perfectly well that in a war like the one going on in Chechnya, the death of a single field commander not only does not mean anything but it may make the situation more complicated.

The rebels seem to have no problem recruiting, and a new leader will pop up to take Barayev's place — most likely one who is less predictable, more radical and more hostile.

Click here to read our special report on the Conflict in Chechnya.

I found it interesting that society barely reacted to the news about Barayev. The authorities have been promising to kill the Chechen leaders for at least two years now, so if it had come 18 months ago or even a year ago, people might well have taken it as a sign of progress. But achieving this kind of psychological effect this late in the game is already impossible. It's just too late and too many Russian soldiers have died. Too many people have come to understand what is happening in the republic. Society is tired of the war and so is the army.

In short, too many people realize that the government has reached a strategic deadend in Chechnya, and so naturally they understand that the death of one rebel commander is not proof that any politico-military strategy is bearing fruit.

Propaganda is not all-powerful. People get used to it, develop immunity. By now, the people are only going to believe in victory when it actually comes — i.e., when the soldiers come home. No matter what they leave behind them in Chechnya.

A tectonic shift is occurring in society now, as an anti-military mood is not only becoming widespread, but actually predominant. This mood is already, in my estimation, stronger now than it was at the end of the first Chechen war.

The second war began by burning all bridges. Both the authorities and most of the "opposition" politicians came out strongly in support of this senseless and unwinnable war. So strongly, in fact, that they can't change their minds now.

The rules of politics are pretty simple. Starting two hopeless and senseless wars isn't a problem. Even losing two such wars isn't necessarily fatal. But concluding two pathetic and shameful peace settlements just cannot be done without risking a serious political crisis. Anyone doing so may well end up saving his country and its army, but he'll do so at the price of sacrificing his political career. The Kremlin understands this, and no one is rushing to put his or her head on the block.

The problem is that by putting a decision off, the Kremlin merely compounds the difficulty, and the ensuing crisis will be that much more profound.

The recent state attacks on the press have been largely motivated by its military failures. Not able to achieve results on the battlefield, the Kremlin can only double and redouble its propaganda efforts. And that demands constant and increased control over the media. This means opening a second front — at home, against journalists. As a result, many in society who were not initially ideologically opposed to the authorities have since become so.

Opposition to the war is also creating an ideological background that makes criticism of the government's social policies seem all the louder and more forceful. It is even stimulating serious doubts about the fairness of the new economic system.

The Kremlin's only escape from this situation is the introduction of open and total censorship. But the administration is not yet ready for such a step.

So, the Kremlin is pressuring the press, but cannot control it. The situation on the second front is the same as on the first in Chechnya. The state is just multiplying its enemies and accumulating unresolved problems. The real political battle has not yet begun.

Sooner or later, some settlement will have to be reached in Chechnya and, now, some settlement will have to be reached with the press.

Most likely, though, both these painful decisions will be made too late to really solve the problems.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.