As US President George W. Bush holds summit talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Russian and foreign experts say the Chechen war serves as a potential obstacle to rapprochement between the erstwhile enemies. However, there is a growing realization in Russian policy-making circles that the Kremlin's policies in the north Caucasus must change. Some Russian policy analysts now argue that a political as opposed to military approach on Chechnya would do more to enhance Russian security.
Semyon Novoprudskii, a political analyst for the Izvestiya newspaper, has stated Russia's current approach towards Chechnya "doesn't differ much from the imperial behavior during the Caucasus wars of the first half of the 19th century." Several influential policy experts have argued that continued reliance on a purely military strategy works against both Russia's foreign and domestic policy goals. There are indications that Putin agrees on the need for a policy shift.
In the foreign policy sphere since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Putin has pursued closer relations with the United States. However, the conduct of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, featuring massive human rights abuses [for background see the Eurasia Insight archives], has raised question about Russia's credibility. "When the Western countries look at what is going on inside Russia, they simply don't believe that our current [pro-Western] foreign policy is indeed Russia's true strategic course," said Alexsei Arbatov, the Deputy Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee. He was referring, among other things, to the situation in Chechnya.
The stubborn attempt to resolve the Chechen conflict by force also has undermined Russia's principal internal policy objective the stabilization of the entire Caucasus region. Not only does the Chechen conflict erode security throughout southern Russia, it also destabilizes Russia's neighbors in the Caucasus especially Georgia and Azerbaijan, some analysts say. Recent incidents the deadly blast in the town of Kaspiisk in Dagestan on May 9, the terrorist act in the Ingush capital Nazran, the timely defusing of the second bomb in Kaspiisk and the explosion on the Mozdok-Kazamagomed gas pipeline appear to support Putin's bitter remark: "We have Chechnya almost everywhere."
"[Russia's] rear areas are turning into the front-line regions," added the influential military expert Pavel Felgenhauer in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly.
According to some political observers, Russia may be looking for US help, especially financial aid, in the search for a Chechen solution. According to the regional analyst Sanobar Shermatova, the Bush administration is ready to discuss with the Kremlin a special aid program designed to stabilize "hot spots" in the Caucasus. The program would specifically target Chechnya, Dagestan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia.
There is awareness in Moscow that, in return for US stabilization assistance, Washington would surely demand that Moscow begin the "restoration of democratic procedures in Chechnya," according to a commentary in the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper. At the same time, Russian leaders realize that American financial aid could play a critical role in any potential Chechen settlement. In a recent speech in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, Putin forcefully argued that the economic recovery of Chechnya is the key to the stabilization of southern Russia.
Putin has taken several recent moves to reassure Washington that he is serious about a political settlement for Chechnya. A recent presidential decree, for example, significantly broadened the administrative authority of the head of the pro-Russian Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov. Under the decree, Kadyrov can now make government appointments without prior consultation with the head of the Southern Federal District, based in Rostov.
Some commentators noted that Putin's decree does not substantially change the situation on the ground in Chechnya, pointing out that even before the Kremlin decided to strengthen Kadyrov's position, he often made appointments on his own without any discussions with his superiors in Rostov.
What is significant though is the timing of the presidential decree, which was made public on the eve of the Bush-Putin summit. Also, the "underlying reason" of the Kremlin's move, writes Ilya Maksakov in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily, is "to create an appearance that a certain political settlement of the Chechen crisis has been achieved." Besides, it will be possible now to make the "Chechens themselves" responsible for their own future and, if need be, "to blame the Chechens for all future mistakes," adds Maksakov.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995, and a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York, 2000. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.