Confident that he is on the brink of military success in Chechnya, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is moving quickly to repair the diplomatic damage done by the Russian army's savage campaign there. He hopes this will help win U.S. support for his bid to succeed Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin.
The army's harsh tactics leave smoldering wreckage and destroyed lives in Chechnya that will haunt reconstruction efforts. And Putin's political tactics are likely to leave Russian politics and diplomacy stranded in a wasteland from which there can be no easy exit.
While the army continues smashing the Islamic guerrillas and those unlucky enough to live in their vicinity in Grozny, Russian voters will on Dec. 19 elect a new national parliament. Polls suggest that Putin's allies will do well while his potential rivals for the presidency will suffer major defeats.
Those results would re-create the current fragmented Duma: An obstructionist Communist Party would have the largest bloc with 20 percent to 25 percent of the chamber's 450 deputies, while the coalition of pro-Western liberals who have not been war hawks in Chechnya may lose seats to Putin's centrists.
The Duma in place has stymied arms control accords, serious economic reform at home and broader cooperation with the West. The result of the new Duma's being just like (or worse than) the old Duma may be more lasting on U.S.-Russian relations than the effect of the war in Chechnya.
The return of an obstructionist, partly corrupt Duma would in large part be a result of electioneering tactics pursued by Putin's camp, which has concentrated its fire on his presidential rivals and ignored or aided the Communists and fringe nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
While American politicians stump New Hampshire and Iowa, Putin has been building his name recognition in the devastated wilds of Chechnya. Artillery shells and air raids have been to his campaign what focus groups and fund-raisers are to those of Al Gore or George W. Bush.
For insecure and traumatized Russian voters today, war is not politics by other means. War is the very essence of politics for them. In a nearly bankrupt country where there can be no realistic discussion of health care plans or campaign finance reform, how quickly and thoroughly the always troublesome Chechens can be subdued is satisfying debate material.
Putin's strong support for the army has revived national pride in troubled times. While the military aspects are wildly dissimilar, the political effect of Chechnya is not unlike that experienced in the United States in 1983, when the invasion of Grenada eclipsed discussion of U.S. losses in Lebanon.
The Kremlin has even turned foreign criticism of the campaign to domestic political advantage, decrying the "hypocrisy" of NATO countries that allegedly did the same thing to Serbia that the Russians are doing to Chechnya. This is not surprising. What is more interesting is the bad cop, good cop routine Yeltsin and Putin are following in dealing with the outside world.
Responding to sharp criticism from European governments, Yeltsin cancelled a scheduled Dec. 21 summit with French and German leaders. Milder comments by President Clinton brought an angry rattling of rockets by Yeltsin, on a visit to Beijing last week, at his one-time good friend Bill.
But Putin, looking forward to the post-Chechnya world and next June's presidential election in Russia, rattles soft soap instead. He told the Financial Times this week that "it is our responsibility to respect the opinion of our Western partners. We should come to some sort of conclusion, hearing what is said in the West."
More substantively, there have been feelers to the administration about Putin meeting with Vice President Al Gore to resume the high-level joint commission that Gore co-chaired with Putin's predecessors. The feelers have been put on hold at the White House. A campaigining Gore does not seem eager to embrace Russian politicians and policy right now, but a spokesman told me the vice president will resume commission work when there are suitable projects to be considered.
Yeltsin and Putin adviser Valentin Yumashev did meet in Washington this month with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in what one source portrayed as an effort to keep channels open for the future. Yumashev played a key role in the slashing campaign for the Duma aimed at weakening anyone who challenged Putin or the war in Chechnya.
The Clinton administration and its successor should be in no rush to embrace Putin if he does succeed in his twin campaigns. He first has enormous damage to repair, in Chechnya and in Russia.