Why Putin Boils Over: Chechnya Is His Personal War
By MICHAEL WINES
New York Times, 13 Nov, MOSCOW — In certain diplomatic circles outside Russia today, not to mention entire whorls of political gossip within the country, there was but one question about President Vladimir V. Putin's stop on Monday in Brussels: did he really say that?
Indeed he did. Nor, despite foot-shuffling and hurried excuses from Kremlin aides, was there much evidence that he would take it back.
Mr. Putin, whose usually inscrutable demeanor befits his old career as a Soviet intelligence agent, blew his customary cool Monday over the one issue that seems to have taken residence under his skin: Chechnya.
It came at a news conference after a Brussels summit meeting with European Union leaders, when a reporter for Le Monde asked whether the Russian military's use of land mines in Chechnya was killing innocent civilians as well as Islamic terrorists. Bristling, Mr. Putin replied that Islamic radicals wanted to wrest Chechnya from Russia as part of a worldwide plan to kill Americans and their allies.
"If you are a Christian, you are in danger," Mr. Putin said. "If you decide to become a Muslim, this won't save you either, because they think that traditional Islam is also hostile to their goals."
Then he said this: "If you are determined to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are multi-confessional. We have experts in this sphere as well. I will recommend to conduct the operation so that nothing on you will grow again."
In the long silence that followed, even translators were at a loss for words. The last crucial sentence of his remarks was never rendered outside the original Russian for the diplomats and journalists in attendance. Notably, it did not appear today on the Kremlin's official Web site, which carried an otherwise complete text of the news conference.
Kremlin aides later explained that Mr. Putin was both exhausted and, as one put it, "sick and tired of Chechnya." He has good reason: three years after starting a war there to crush Islamic radicals' invasion of a neighboring Russian republic, not only have hopes for a quick military triumph evaporated, but atrocities appear on the rise.
Chechnya has long been a transforming topic for Mr. Putin. It is the one issue that has repeatedly turned him from the articulate and persuasive Euro-Russian who is welcome at any table of global leaders into something closer to Nikita Khrushchev — another forward-thinking leader for his time, but one who made a famous point with his shoe.
It was Mr. Putin who, after still-unsolved bombings of Moscow apartment houses in September 1999, drove home his enmity toward Chechen guerrillas with the blunt threat: "If we catch them in the toilet, we will rub them out in the outhouse." Many saw his use of crude slang for the word "outhouse" then as inspired political positioning, the creation of a tough-guy image for a nebbish with his eye on a presidential campaign.
Mr. Putin later startled Westerners by shrugging after his own army handed over a Radio Liberty journalist to Chechen guerrillas, ostensibly in exchange for captured Russian soldiers. Mr. Putin called the journalist, who had questioned Russian policy in the Caucasus, a traitor.
Mr. Putin raised eyebrows again in mid-2001 when a London journalist's question about the Russian army's human rights record in Chechnya produced a visibly angry lecture about human rights abuses by guerrillas that he suggested the foreign press had ignored.
The Russian president has had so many such moments, both publicly and in private sessions with both Russian and American officials, that Chechnya's impact on him has become an article of faith among Putin-watchers, both friendly and critical.
Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and now the leader of a liberal faction in Russia's lower house of Parliament, has discussed Chechnya many times in the Kremlin. "This is not news for me," he said today of Mr. Putin's blunt remarks in Brussels.
Mr. Nemtsov suggested that Mr. Putin was engaged in a show of bravado — speaking baldly and angrily about Chechnya because his military strategy is failing and his options are running out.
"He's obsessed with Chechnya. He has been from the beginning," said Alexander Rahr, a leading German foreign-policy scholar and Putin acquaintance. Why is a mystery, he said, but judging from conversations, Mr. Putin's bleak memories of the successive collapses of East Germany, the Soviet Union and the K.G.B. he long served have left him deeply committed to preventing any further disintegration of Russia.
Mr. Rahr says he believes Mr. Putin is struggling for a way to reach a just peace in the region, but that he sees any power-sharing agreement with separatist forces as the road to just such disintegration. "It's put him in such a state of alert that he behaves like we see him now," Mr. Rahr said. "This is an aspect where he will never make any compromise."
Whatever the reason, the contrast between the livid, salty Mr. Putin and the Western-style statesman was never so evident as on Monday, when both personalities were on view at a meeting expressly aimed at drawing Russia more closely into the European fold.
European human rights monitors have been the most persistent critics of Russia's conduct of the war in Chechnya, and European leaders have been among those who have urged Mr. Putin most strongly to rein in his army's excesses and seek a peaceful settlement.