Nine days of Russian bombing has forced 80,000 refugees to flee Chechnya, and Putin ordered thousands of troops and armored vehicles into a three-pronged invasion of the territory Friday after declaring that Moscow no longer recognizes the legitimacy of President Aslan Mashkadov's Chechen government. Of course, as Moscow has learned at some expense in the past, fighting a war in Chechnya may demand a high cost in men and materiel, as well as in the already depleted confidence of the West’s financial and investor communities (the European Union Thursday warned Russia against restarting the disastrous 1994-96 conflict that killed 80,000 people.) At this stage, however, the embattled Russian leadership has little left to lose.
War can be very convenient for troubled politicians. And so while the stated intention of Russia’s mini-invasion of Chechnya is to eliminate Islamic guerrillas involved in incursions into neighboring Dagestan, it will not hurt if a successful outcome burnishes the reputation of the recently installed prime minister Vladimir Putin. Or that a debacle may give Putin’s patron, President Boris Yeltsin, an excuse to postpone elections scheduled for next year.