Bombings and gunfire are constant features of life in Chechnya. But even by those standards, the carnage last week in the breakaway Russian republic was heavy. On Monday a truck packed with explosives rumbled into a compound of offices and homes in the northern district of Nadterechny and exploded, killing 59 people and injuring over 200. Two days later, another bomb killed 18 and injured over 100 as it ripped through a crowd of 15,000 gathered for festivities marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in a field near a religious shrine in Iliskhan-Yurt, a village 30 km east of the capital, Grozny. That afternoon in Moscow, 2,000 km north of Grozny, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell fresh from his tour of a bombed-out residential compound in Riyadh condemned the Chechen attacks. Standing beside him, Russian President Vladimir Putin found parallels among the Chechen and Saudi atrocities, saying they were all "links in the same chain of acts by international terrorists."
Although al-Qaeda has infiltrated Chechnya, there's no evidence it orchestrated last week's Chechen attacks. And if Putin was looking for parallels he might have found a better one in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like the Palestinians, the Chechens believe they are fighting an occupying power rather than carrying out an al-Qaeda-style, ideologically motivated jihad. Chechen resistance to Russian domination dates back centuries, and the population said by Russia to be more than 1 million, but estimated by human-rights groups at around half that remains largely hostile to Russian rule. The disaffection of ethnic Chechens, who are Sunni Muslims, has created openings for international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. But Putin, who faces re-election next year, was right on another point. The outcome of Russia's and the U.S.'s respective wars on terror will have a lot to do with whom each country elects as President in 2004. "The bombings effectively mark the beginning of the election campaign," says Alexei Mitrophanov, Deputy of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Putin swept to power in 1999 on a wave of public support for his tough stance against Chechen insurgents, who were alleged to have killed more than 300 people in a series of apartment-building bombings within Russia. Now, as the violence in Chechnya intensifies, Putin faces a stark political reality. "If the Chechen war made Putin President, the same war can undo him," says Yuri Shchekhochikhin, Deputy Chair of the Duma's Security Committee. Adds Salambek Maigov, the Moscow-based representative of rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov: "Putin has manacled himself to a hell-bound train and can't get off. He has made himself a hostage to the situation."
Last week's attacks mark a turning point. Monday's bombing in Znamenskoye, a town in northern Chechnya's well-fortified and traditionally pro-Moscow Nadterechny district where much of the local administration had relocated after a bomb gutted government buildings in Grozny in December, means the rebels can strike at will anywhere in the region despite Putin's assurances that the war is over and Russian soldiers are engaged only in "counterterrorist operations." The reality is that uncounted numbers of Chechens die in these operations and, on average, 10 to 15 Russian soldiers are killed every week in Chechnya. "It's blind carnage and destruction," says Shchekhochikhin. "Nobody controls the situation."
Putin is also facing domestic problems that could complicate his re-election plans. Last month his approval ratings, which in January hovered around 75%, slipped to a record low of 48%. That decline is more a reflection of Russia's general economic malaise than voters' concerns about Chechnya, but the failure to end the war is having an impact even among Russians inured to the long-running conflict. "Russians aren't all that concerned about bloodshed in Chechnya, but they are concerned about what the war is costing, while food and utility prices are getting out of hand," says Mitrophanov.