Russian shift in Chechnya

New approach: Command change puts President Putin in charge of war against Islamic separatists.

January 29, 2001

RUSSIA'S 16-month-old war in Chechnya has been a bust. That's why President Vladimir Putin took its leadership away from the generals. From now on, counter-insurgency operations will be directed by Mr. Putin, along with his former KGB colleagues in the security police.

By shifting command, Mr. Putin has craftily circumvented Russia's constitution. He has introduced direct presidential rule over the breakaway republic without declaring a state of emergency, an act that would have opened his administration to fierce criticism at home and abroad.

As a security police matter, the war in Chechnya now can be closed to outsiders. Already skimpy news reporting can be curtailed further; troublesome foreign human rights investigators can be banned.

Mr. Putin is also expected to create a new administrative structure for Chechnya. The Kremlin would be in control, its local allies serving as figureheads.

Russia's military strength in Chechnya -- estimated at 80,000 troops -- will be trimmed to a permanent force of some 22,000. The security agencies' special units will assume a more prominent role in anti-insurgency operations.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see a Russian version of "Crowbar" introduced in Chechnya. The original "Crowbar" consisted of feared special "hit squads" that South Africa's apartheid regime used in Namibia in the 1980s in conjunction with the regular army.

South African security policemen, who formed the core of "Crowbar," recruited paid helpers from among the local population. Also included in the units were captured guerrillas who were given a simple choice: Cooperate or die.

In the field, "Crowbar" became a greedy bounty hunt. Every kill brought a reward. Remuneration also was offered for captured weapons, from automatic rifles to land mines.

In the end, "Crowbar" made no difference -- despite some notable successes. South Africa lost Namibia anyway.

In Chechnya, Russians are confronted with the same probability. Mr. Putin may be able to produce more lethal killers. But they are unlikely to defeat determined guerrillas who have the support of a defiant population.

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