All countries have the right to defend their people from terrorists. Russia is no exception. The Russian military campaign in Chechnya, however, has moved well beyond the earlier limited objective of combating terrorism. The new strategy and the means being deployed to execute it suggest a new ulterior motive—Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presidential election campaign.
If the original motivations and objectives of the Russian counteroffensive were defensible, the means now being deployed are not. The Russian military should have kept its focus on the Chechen commanders who invaded Dagestan. Instead, the Russian forces currently occupying northern Chechnya seem poised to seize the Chechen capital. If anything is to be learned from the failed Russian intervention in 1994–96, however, it is that a Russian occupation of Grozny will only strengthen the Chechen guerrillas’ resolve, not defeat them. This new Russian offensive is also likely to provoke more terrorist attacks in Russia, not deter them.
The Russian military’s conduct in this offensive has been appalling. Lobbing missiles into markets is a crime against humanity. What is even more appalling is that Putin has denied responsibility for these deaths, suggesting absurdly that the slaughter of innocents in Grozny resulted from gunfights among rival Chechen gangs. The prime minister—who months ago appeared to be the first Russian leader in a long time ready to take responsibility for his actions—is now running from that responsibility.
The real objective of the current campaign is Putin’s presidential bid. If fighting terrorism were the real aim, Putin would have met with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov long ago to devise a plan to arrest terrorist groups based in Chechnya. Instead, Putin is spearheading this large-scale offensive as a means to thrust himself into the national political spotlight. So far the strategy has succeeded, as he is now the most popular political figure in Russia.
Killing innocent people to win an election is reprehensible. Ironically, the politicians and entrepreneurs who are backing Putin are Russia’s market reformers. They believe that Putin is the one politician loyal to their economic interests who can defeat former prime minister Primakov or Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov in the June 2000 presidential election. In 1994, Russian market reformers could blame the disastrous decision to invade Chechnya on sinister characters in the Kremlin—such as presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov—over whom they had no sway. This time around, however, it is one of their own—Putin—who is in charge.
As a competitive presidential candidate, Putin may serve the interests of Russian market reformers in the short-run. In the long run, however, this former KGB agent could be even more dangerous to markets and democracy than Primakov or the Communist Party. A decade ago, Russia’s reformers took a chance and tied their fate to another figure with authoritarian proclivities from the Soviet old guard, Boris Yeltsin. Given the mixed success of this last gambit, those who support Russian reforms—whether in Moscow or Washington—should hesitate before jumping on the Putin bandwagon.