Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't

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Moscow has managed to whip up Russian public support for war against Chechnya; now it may be trying to delicately climb down from the precipice. Following six days of continuous bombing, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday authorized a meeting between Russian officials in the region and Chechen president Aslan Mashkadov. Russia insists that Mashkadov curb Islamic guerrilla groups operating in his country, although observers point out that the Chechen president himself has limited control over his own territory. And Russian opposition politicians, mindful of Moscow's 1994-96 debacle in Chechnya, are warning against escalating the conflict. But the recent apartment bombings and a videotape released by Russian intelligence showing Chechen commanders torturing and beheading Russian captives has fueled public support for retribution, and Putin now faces the delicate challenge of modulating Moscow's response to avoid an all-out war.

Vengeance against Chechens may be all Putin has to offer Russians this winter. Another disappointing harvest has forced Moscow to turn once again to the U.S. for a second massive shipment of food aid, following last year's request for $1 billion in grain and meat. Although corruption scandals have created a pall of suspicion over aid to Russia, U.S. officials report that food shipments have largely escaped corruption. One bit of good news for the Kremlin came from the IMF. Despite the suspicion that his organization's aid hasn't always escaped the web of corruption, IMF president Michel Camdessus insisted Tuesday that the international lending organization was duty bound to continue helping Russia through thick and thin. Even if that were true, though, it might be a better idea to keep them guessing.