Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared today that Russia had reached a "fundamental" turning point in the war in Chechnya as troops took control of the second-largest city in the breakaway southern region and Russian warplanes unleashed their biggest single-day bombardment of the eight-week offensive.
In remarks at the opening of a Kremlin Security Council meeting devoted to the conflict, Putin claimed that the city of Gudermes was taken "without a shot." He added that "since yesterday, the Chechen people, together with the armed forces, are liberating [Chechnya] from international bandits and terrorists."
His claim was an apparent reference to some Chechen town and village leaders who have joined the Russian forces as they have moved southward. The taking of Gudermes, after a bombing campaign, came without resistance, but tens of thousands of Chechen civilians elsewhere were huddled in basements trying to survive Russia's massive assault, news agencies reported from the region.
Moscow launched its offensive in late September after rebels based in Chechnya made incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan and declared their desire to establish an independent Islamic state. Putin and other Russian officials have labeled all the Chechen fighters "bandits and terrorists," but Western countries have expressed concern about Moscow's use of force against civilians.
Today's unusual Security Council meeting was devoted to planning the next steps in the war. President Boris Yeltsin was absent. The Interfax news agency quoted sources as saying the council did not consider halting the war but rather "the next stage of the military operations," and also discussed "plans to draw the Chechen population into hostilities on Russia's side." There was no elaboration; the meeting was closed.
But Putin, whose political popularity has soared during the conflict, boasted to journalists that the tide had turned. "The population of Gudermes took up arms and made attempts to clear the city's territory of international bandits," he said.
In fact, the Russian advance in recent weeks has met with only light resistance, in part because Russia has blanketed hostile areas such as the capital, Grozny, with heavy shelling and bombing. In the case of Gudermes, Chechen fighters appear to have retreated southward.
Today, Russian warplanes and helicopters flew 180 sorties, the military said, a one-day record. The firepower was directed at the village of Bamut in southwestern Chechnya, long a stronghold of the Chechen fighters and location of a former Soviet missile base, and at Samashki, another Chechen rebel bastion west of Grozny that was the scene of bloody fighting during the first Chechen war of 1994-96.
On Friday, Russian officials had brushed off overtures of help from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the United Nations, saying the Chechen conflict was strictly an internal affair. Putin, who has become adept at quick pirouettes, did another about-face today.
At a photo opportunity at the opening of the Security Council meeting, he told reporters that Russia is "absolutely open for the world public" and "does not reject cooperation and help from international organizations." His comments appeared to be an effort to soften some of the criticism from the West on the eve of this week's OSCE summit in Turkey.