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Chechnya War a Deepening Trap for Putin

"We need to admit that we did not fully understand the complexity and the dangers of the processes at work in our own country and in the world," he said. "In any case, we proved unable to react adequately. We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten."

Chechnya has defied and bewildered Russian leaders going back to the 19th-century czars who struggled to pacify the rugged, mountainous, largely Muslim region. In 1944, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and deported the entire population to Kazakhstan. Their return in 1957 did not settle the matter, and in 1994, then-President Boris Yeltsin launched a two-year war to prevent Chechnya from peeling off from the new post-Soviet Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Chechnya war is the fault of "weak leaders" in the 1990s. (ITAR-Tass via Reuters)

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As prime minister, Putin renewed the war in 1999 after rebel leader Shamil Basayev led an invasion of neighboring Dagestan and several apartment buildings were blown up in terrorist attacks blamed on Chechens. From the beginning, Putin chose power over finesse, bombarding the capital of Grozny with more ordnance than any European city had taken since World War II, leaving it in ruins.

As early as the fall of that year, Yavlinsky of the Yabloko party and others urged Putin to seek negotiations to avoid all-out war, but Putin would talk only with Chechens loyal to him. "I had this conversation with him many, many times," Yavlinsky recalled. "He would say that he has his own strategy. He would say, 'We are for negotiations.' I was saying, 'It's necessary to negotiate with the people who are your enemies, not your own puppets.' "

In February 2000, just after Yeltsin resigned and Putin became acting president, he went to see leading Chechnya specialists at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Sergei Arutyunov, a scholar who was present, recalled talking for more than an hour about the region and advising the new leader to soften his rhetoric about Islam and consider granting Chechnya significant autonomy within Russia.

"Putin was quite attentive," Arutyunov said. "It seemed that in March and April he followed some of our recommendations. But then everything returned to its normal circles."

Another potential turning point came after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Putin took advantage of the moment to demand that Chechens lay down their arms and cut any ties to al Qaeda. At the same time, he quietly opened the door to negotiations with leaders of the separatist government of Aslan Maskhadov.

Within weeks, Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, flew to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and met in with Putin's representative, Gen. Viktor Kazantsev.

"In three hours I didn't hear a single proposal to end the war," Zakayev recalled. "We made our own proposal" to restore Maskhadov's government in exchange for an end of hostilities. Kazantsev said they would talk more and Zakayev flew out. He never heard back from the Russians.

A Unilateral Settlement

By October 2002, Putin's army had won the war militarily in Chechnya, through tactics that included the destruction of entire villages and mass round-ups of people suspected of separatist sentiments. But the enemy took the war to a new battlefield. In the heart of Moscow, a band of guerrillas seized a theater full of ordinary Russians. The standoff ended when Russian commandos pumped a mystery gas into the air ducts that killed 129 hostages.

Putin offered a defiant response. He blamed the attack on Basayev, the rebel leader, and categorically ruled out peace talks with any separatists. He linked the theater seizure to international terrorism and threatened military strikes against countries harboring terrorists.

Then, as now, the president was furious. A few weeks after the siege, a French journalist asked about his refusal to hold peace talks. Putin responded by inviting the reporter to Moscow for a circumcision. "I will recommend that they carry out the operation in such a way that nothing grows back," he snapped.

Not long after, Chechen politicians presented the Kremlin with a plan to introduce self-governance to the region. Local representatives would be elected in villages and towns, then gather to write a new constitution. The plan, its authors said, would deprive the Maskhadov resistance of legitimacy and bring about enough autonomy to satisfy the population.

"They listened to me very well. Then they took our materials from us," recalled Shamil Beno, one of the Chechens.

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