Chechnya assault 'a long-term plan'
By Andrew Jack and John Thornhill
The Russian government's carefully crafted efforts to portray its military action in Chechnya as an "anti-terrorist" operation have come under fresh assault from an unexpected source: Sergei Stepashin, the former prime minister.
In an interview last week, Mr Stepashin firmly contradicted the official line that the campaign begun in September was a response to the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by Chechen rebels last August, and to four subsequent apartment explosions that the government also blamed on them.
When he was still interior minister in March last year, five months before the Dagestan rebel attack, Mr Stepashin says there was already a plan to create a "buffer zone" occupied by federal troops in the northern third of Chechnya, as far as the Terek river.
"It was Russian territory from time immemorial," he says. "It was a dangerous thing for Krushchev to hand it to Ingushetia-Chechnya in 1957."
He says active preparations for an invasion - and for "tough economic sanctions" against the Chechens - continued throughout his period as prime minister, from May until August, when he was sacked by former President Boris Yeltsin in favour of Vladimir Putin just as the rebels crossed the border and invaded Dagestan.
Mr Stepashin does not drift too far from the official party line. He echoes current government policy by arguing that it is impossible to negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president, whom he says no longer controls the situation in the republic. He says Mr Maskhadov's mistake was to not condemn those who do: the warlords such as Shamil Basayev who launched the incursion into Dagestan.
He dismisses as "gibberish, and I know what I'm talking about," allegations that the apartment bombings in Moscow, which killed nearly 300 people and helped mobilise Russian public opinion in favour of the current campaign, were in fact engineered by the government.
He also rejects any connection with the parliamentary elections last December, in which the pro-government parties performed strongly on the back of the military operation. Even so, the timing was convenient since under the constitution, December was the latest date by which the elections could have been held.
But his suggestion that the military operations in Chechnya had been planned so long in advance are nonetheless embarrassing for the government, which has used the justification of anti-terrorist action as the leitmotif of its repeated justifications of the campaign to Western nations and international organisations.
Mr Stepashin also concedes the "blitzkrieg" of Grozny is not the best approach, and that it will prove difficult to win back Chechen sympathy towards the Russian state for years after the conflict.
He predicts the military phase will continue until Grozny has been captured within another six to eight weeks, followed by an "anti- terrorist" phase in the mountainous south where rebels have their strongholds. The timing coincides with the build-up to presidential elections on March 26, in which Mr Putin, the man seen as masterminding the Chechen operation, is considered unbeatable.
Mr Stepashin's rejection of negotiations with Mr Maskhadov is a blow to members of his own adopted party, the liberal Yabloko, which called for a faster shift from military to political solutions in Chechnya. He openly says that Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader, has little chance of winning the presidential race.