President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia would avoid scoring "victory at any cost" in Chechnya and hinted the separatist province may secure some form of independence after all armed rebels had been wiped out.
The remarks by Putin, the architect of the 13-month war, were among his most cautious to date and, in a speech to Russia's top military commanders, suggested that army morale was slipping because of mounting casualties.
Some 2,600 hundred Russian soldiers have been killed in the offensive, said Putin before lashing out at senior generals for infighting.
"We cannot afford even the slightest crack to appear between the military branches," said Putin. "We do not need a victory at any cost.
"Today, Chechnya's formal status is not that important. What is important is that this territory should never again be used as a springboard for future attacks against Russia."
He said that Chechnya's status would only be resolved "through political means" and stressed that Russian generals had to make sure that federal casualties were limited in the future.
And touching on ongoing Russian army reforms, Putin declared that the number of current senior military commanders who have had any previous battle-field experience "could be counted on the finger of one hand."
Yet Putin added: "Our most important goal is to completely eliminate the (Chechen) rebel units and their bases. The counter-terrorist operation must be carried out until the end."
The Kremlin had over the summer announced it would exercise direct rule over the whole republic for the next two to three years.
Indeed, Putin's comments Monday were some of his most measured since he launched the second Chechen war, which has so far commanded steady public support.
In the past, the Russian leader has repeatedly vowed to rein in the breakaway republic, on one occasion even threatening -- in criminal underworld slang -- to "wipe out (the rebels) in the outhouse" if need be.
But while Putin's speech appeared to suggest the military was growing anxious about how or when the war might end, Moscow's top administrator in Chechnya accused separatist President Aslan Maskhadov of sponsoring terrorism.
In a local television address aired late Sunday, Akhmad Kadyrov said that "according to the laws of blood revenge, all the grievances must be addressed to him (Maskhadov)," ITAR-TASS reported.
"He remains the chief organizer of terrorist acts, and all responsibility for terrorism lies on him," Kadyrov said.
Meanwhile the military denied Monday's media reports that Kadyrov himself had narrowly escaped injury when his entourage came under fire from an unidentified source.
Both Russian troops and separatist Chechen rebels -- who refuse to recognize the Moscow-appointed government and have put a price on Kadyrov's head -- have been known to attack the chief administrator.
With guerrilla warfare spreading across the North Caucasus republic ever since Russian troops stormed into Chechnya on October 1, 1999, Moscow-appointed officials have become one of the separatist rebels' prime targets.
However mistrust between these officials, many of them ethnic Chechens, and the Russian troops have highlighted the difficulties faced by Moscow in stamping its authority on the republic.
Russian officers have in private repeatedly accused the nominally pro-Moscow mayor of the Chechen capital Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, of supporting the rebel campaign -- MOSCOW (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)