Putin puts security agency in charge of Chechen war

Russia dissatisfied with military effort

January 23, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin put his domestic security agency, known as the FSB, in charge of the stagnant war effort in Chechnya yesterday, telling the army it was time for most of its troops to pack up and start heading home.

Putin portrayed the change in command as a logical development, with the emphasis in the rebel republic shifting to special operations and fighting crime. But the Kremlin has made no secret of its dissatisfaction with a military effort that has bogged down, 16 months after the fighting began, into a murky, cynical, but still deadly struggle.

Every week, federal troops are dying in hit-and-run attacks, while Russian officers, according to Russian and Chechen critics, concentrate on organized looting and extortion.

The war has become lucrative for officers who can arrange the seizure of oil and scrap metals. So much so, critics say, that those officers have developed an interest in making sure that the war does not end.

Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, suggested last week that Kenneth Gluck, an American with the aid group Doctors Without Borders who was abducted this month in Chechnya, might have been seized by those who want the war to go on and who are eager to stir trouble to keep it from winding down.

Putin, a former KGB agent, has not been a friend of the army. Last year, he reinstalled security agents, from what is now known as the FSB, or Federal Security Service, into the army hierarchy, reversing a 1993 decision by his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin. Putin said they were being sent in to fight the corruption that has blossomed in the military since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Last week, Putin addressed senior officers from all branches at a gathering in the Alexander Hall of the Kremlin, extolling the FSB, the tax police and the border guards, but noting that progress on army reform had been disappointing.

He also announced last week that he wanted to see the army cut its forces in Chechnya. A top general, Valery Baranov, denounced the idea Friday, saying that "if we break the present balance of forces, fighting will soon flare up again and there will be new civilian and military losses."

Over the weekend, Russian news services reported heavy fighting in the Chechen city of Gudermes, apparently based on sources within the pro-Moscow Chechen government established by federal forces. Yesterday, Putin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, dismissed the reports as "absurd."

The federal forces in Chechnya, which Yastrzhembsky said number about 80,000, include regular army units, Interior Ministry troops, Chechen police loyal to Moscow, and FSB units. About half are from the army.

Chechnya, wrecked by a war from 1994 to 1996, has been devastated again since fighting resumed in September. Thousands of civilians have been killed, and there have been widespread accusations that soldiers have shot, raped and tortured unarmed residents.

The Council of Europe is hearing a report this week on human rights abuses in Chechnya and will vote on whether to suspend Russia's voting rights. Putin's decision to put the FSB in charge of the war and withdraw army units could also have been a move to try to appease international public opinion.

"This doesn't mean the counter-terrorist operation will end," he said yesterday. "It will continue no less intensively, but with the accent on different forces and means." Putin said one army division of about 15,000 troops will remain in Chechnya, but said nothing about the timing of the withdrawal of the others.

The 3,500 paratroopers in Chechnya will be gone by April, Lt. Gen. Nikolai Staskov told the Itar-Tass news agency yesterday.

The aim will be for FSB units to identify bands of Chechen fighters and, in the words of the agency's spokesman, Alexander Zdanovich, "destroy their leaders."

FSB forces will be beefed up, he said, according to Itar-Tass, and they "will intensify their activity and deliver pinpoint strikes."

When federal forces pushed into Chechnya after rebels attacked the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in late summer 1999, the move was wildly popular here, and it thrust the tough-talking Putin, just named prime minister, into the forefront of Russian politics. He easily won election as president last year.

But the fighting drags on, and the flag-waving ended a long time ago despite regular official pronouncements that the war was entering its final stage. Casualties among Russian soldiers are not so great that they have stirred public protests, but there is broad disappointment with the way the war has been fought. Putin has derived all the benefit he could from it , and now he wants to put it behind him.

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