U.S. Slams Russia Over Chechnya

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U.S. criticism of Moscow's tactics in Chechnya may be missing the point: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was the undisputed winner of last weekend's Russian parliamentary election precisely because of his get-tough act in Chechnya — and because he stuck his jaw out in the face of Western criticism. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on Thursday chided Moscow for failing to observe international human rights standards, and there was certainly no lack of evidence to back his claim: Russian forces continued their relentless pounding of Grozny despite the presence of thousands of civilians in the city, and the Russian military opened a criminal investigation into an alleged massacre of 41 civilians last week at a village near Grozny after initially denying it.

Domestic political concerns, rather than U.S. criticism, may yet restrain Moscow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's comments on Thursday that the end of the Chechnya campaign was "close" suggest that the political logic that pushed Moscow into this war may now prompt it to prematurely declare victory. "The primary political objective of this war is to get Putin elected president next year," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "And Putin's handlers recognize that as fast as he's risen on the success of Chechyna thus far, he could fall just as fast if the public begins to perceive that the war is going badly." The onset of winter makes a quick victory against guerrilla forces in the mountains extremely unlikely, and even Grozny is proving far more resilient — and costly in terms of Russian casualties — than Russian military boasts allowed for. Even if they risk the heavy losses of an all-out assault on the Chechen capital, its capture would be primarily a symbolic victory — the bulk of the Chechen forces have retreated into the mountains to fight another day.

"There's a fierce debate raging right now in the Russian leadership over how to proceed in Chechnya," says Meier. "Putin needs to slow things down, drag them out so that the war's still an issue next spring, but the generals have boasted that Grozny will fall within days." And for Putin, planting Russia's flag in Grozny and declaring the operation over may be a way of getting out while the going's good.