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Russia Steps Up Measures Against Chechen Separatists - 2002-10-31

Now that the armed Chechen siege of a Moscow theatre, many people in Russia and elsewhere are asking what happens next. Russia's second military campaign in Chechnya continues, and the nearly decade-old war-zone seems to have been expanded once again to the streets of Moscow. The prospect of any peace process seems remote.

Less than a week after the theatre crisis ended, and while the funerals of the 119 victims were still being held, Russian leaders made clear they were in no mood to make concessions to Chechen demands.

The day after troops stormed the theater, President Vladimir Putin said Russia will not make any deals with terrorists and will not give in to blackmail. If somebody tries to use such means, he said, Russia would answer with measures adequate to the threat.

One day later, Russian forces reportedly launched a vast security crackdown in Chechnya. And Russia's interior minister said "unprecedented measures" were being taken to uncover what he called a terrorist network in the Moscow region.

President Putin rode to power on a tough pledge to halt the Chechen campaign for independence and firmly ensure Russian rule in the republic. In the wake of the theater siege, he said Russia will respond to threats in all places where terrorists and their financiers may operate, "no matter where they are."

Those are chilling words for independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who worries that the Chechen conflict is spreading.

"The war can only continue and get more vicious, south into Georgia and, of course, the Chechens are also preparing to follow-up their hostage-taking attack in Moscow with other attacks inside Russia proper," he said. "So the North is going to spread North and South and East and West. At least North and South for sure."

The Russians and Chechens have been locked in bitter combat since 1994. Last week's hostage crisis sparked renewed calls from Chechen leaders for negotiations. But Russian leaders refused, calling the Chechen officials "terrorists".

The Chechen leadership, under Aslan Maskhadov, has denied any connection to the theater siege, and the hostage-takers themselves disavowed any connection to his organization. But Russian officials say that is all lies.

Analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says there is virtually no chance for a negotiated settlement of the Chechnya conflict.

"Of course not. Zero possibility," he said. "Obviously, Putin believes Russians in Chechnya are fighting for Russia's very existence and that if Chechens are allowed to go, others will follow. There can be no negotiations, there can only be military victory."

The Deputy Director of Moscow's U.S.A.-Canada Institute says there is more bloodshed ahead. Vicktor Kremnyeuk says the pressure on President Putin to produce a definitive end to the war is growing.

"There is a sense of deja vu. One thing is, we've heard he will be tough, that he will fight, that he will put an end to the guerrillas," he said. "But three years later, we still have the resistance, we don't have the impression that the political leadership of the Chechens has changed, or has lost its' political will. I think this has to be taken into consideration. It would be strange and ridiculous if the leaders pretend that nothing has changed."

Mr. Kremnyeuk says what has changed since the Moscow theatre siege is that Chechen fighters have become even more popular among ordinary Chechens. He says the large-scale operation in the heart of Moscow demonstrated for many Chechens that their struggle for independence is not only real, but might even succeed.

But some experts say the opposite may be true that attacks like the theater siege will only hurt the Chechen cause.

The U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, says the war in Chechnya is a separatist struggle at its core, and as such might be a subject for negotiations. But he says that struggle has been exploited by international terrorist groups.

Ambassador Vershbow says by accepting a tactical alliance with international terrorists, the Chechens have sullied their cause.

"They have crossed the line and are carrying out acts that we can only condemn," he said. "So, there is a separatist agenda there, which is where the need for a political solution comes in. But part of getting to that solution is for the Chechens to sever those links with the international networks and to rethink their tactics on the ground."

At the same time, U.S. officials have expressed concerns about some of the tactics being used by Russian forces in Chechnya. U.S. officials say they have consistently urged the Russian government to exercise proper discipline over its forces and to keep them operating according to proper international standards.

U.S. officials say what is really needed is for the two sides to find their way toward a cease-fire, so that more favorable conditions are created in which a political process could be launched.

The analysts agree this is a delicate moment for President Putin. They say he needs to deliver on his promise of victory in Chechnya without causing permanent damage to his commitment to expand democracy and respect for human rights throughout Russia.