The presidential elections the Russians organized in Chechnya last weekend constitute an effort on their part to wriggle off a painful political hook. It's unlikely that the elections were sufficiently representative or democratic to have any useful impact on the grim situation there.
The official U.S. approach to the Chechnya situation is basically to pay lip service to President Vladimir V. Putin's position that Chechnya is an internal Russian affair, and that violent Chechen resistance to the Russian presence and actions in the republic is an example of terrorism. The Chechens do commit what are clearly terrorist acts in seeking to advance their cause. The attack they carried out at a Moscow musical theater presentation last year is a good case in point.
At the same time, the Chechens' situation and actions raise clearly the classical question of who is a terrorist and who's a freedom fighter. The Russians have 80,000 troops in Chechnya, involved in a war against Chechen separatists, now four years long and the second round since 1990.
Fighting has claimed tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties. Chechnya produces oil, Russia's top export. The Chechen capital Grozny has been virtually leveled and 200,000 of its normal 400,000 population have fled the city. Last Sunday's presidential elections were a travesty of the term. Chechen separatist candidates were prohibited from running. All credible opponents to the Russian choice for the job, Akhmad Kadyrov, were forced out of the race.
With the war continuing, it is difficult to imagine that Russia could withdraw its troops and stop the hemorrhaging of casualties. Russia can't walk away from Chechnya and doesn't want to. It wants the oil and it doesn't want to set a precedent for the other 21 potentially separatist republics which might seek independence.
America can't do much. Even an offer of a peacemaking effort in Chechnya is a bridge way too far, particularly for a Bush Administration with the major thorns of Iraq and Afghanistan embedded in its side. The United States continues to seek good relations with Mr. Putin's Russia and at least Russian acquiescence, if not help, in the continued American occupation of Iraq. No U.S. validation of the Chechnya elections should be provided. This is a case where silence and finger-crossing are probably the only viable U.S. options at this point.