Struggle over oil fuels war in Chechnya

Quagmire: Casualties soar as rebels persist

Russians stymied in effort to find reliable local allies.

June 01, 2000

CHECHNYA'S BRUTAL war is not going well for President Vladimir Putin. His troops are taking heavy casualties. But the bad news does not end there. Russians have been unable to find reliable Chechen allies to galvanize the local population against separatist insurgents.

Early this week, Moscow was forced to dump a former mayor of Grozny, a convicted embezzler, as head of the pro-Russian militia. Of his 353 militiamen, 295 had gone AWOL. And yesterday, the capital's deputy mayor and a top Russian administrator were killed by a rebel landmine.

This would be a good time for Mr. Putin to end the war in the Caucasus mountain republic. That is unlikely to happen, though.

Much more drives Mr. Putin than his desire to safeguard the sanctity of Russia's historic borders. The war in Chechnya is also about control over oil -- and Moscow's traditional supremacy around the Caspian Sea basin, where the borders of Iran and several former Soviet republics meet.

The collapse of communism weakened that primacy. An independent Chechnya eroded it further, particularly after its leaders wanted to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian that would bypass Russia. This increased Kremlin fears about a loss of control and a power vacuum that might be filled by the United States, Turkey and a constellation of Caucasus republics led by Georgia.

In the past year, Russia has rushed to complete a new rival pipeline skirting Chechnya. That, too, is under guerrilla threat.

Chechnya is bound to be on the agenda when President Clinton visits Moscow. Mr. Putin will not welcome any advice from the American, even though the Russians' position has greatly deteriorated in the past few days.

The Kremlin is right to insist that Chechnya is part of Russia. But a lasting peace can be achieved only by addressing the longstanding grievances of the strong-willed Chechens and granting them a far-reaching governmental autonomy. An essential part of that self-rule must involve sharing control of the oil.

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