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Second Chechen War

Whatever the case, Putin saw and seized the day. This was his opportunity to capitalize on the Russian public's endemic fear of Islam and its lingering sense of humiliation over failure in the First Chechen War.

On the night of September 23, 1999, even as newly installed Prime Minister Putin was praising the residents of Ryazan for their watchfulness, Russian warplanes were striking Grozny. A week later, the Russian armored battalions that had been amassed on the border for months crossed into Chechnya. The Second Chechen War was on.

This time around, following a scorched-earth strategy, Russian forces turned their weapons on civilian targets. To avoid repeating the heavy Russian casualties of the First Chechen War, they advanced slowly and in force, using artillery and air power to soften Chechen defenses. Nearly 300,000 of Chechnya's 800,000 civilians fled from the Russian advance and sought refuge in neighboring Russian republics.

The Russian army took no chances with the Chechen populace. They set up so-called filtration camps in northern Chechnya for detaining suspected members of bandformirovaniya militant groups (literally: bandit formations). Once again they flattened the capital of Grozny, which was under the control of anti-Russian rebels.

Observers likened the scene to Dresden or Hiroshima. But few details leaked to the outside world, as human-rights groups and journalists were barred from the war zone. Not for the last time, Putin kept blinders on the media.

Success with Chechnya positioned Putin perfectly for the stunner that came next: On December 31, Boris Yeltsin—whose approval rating had fallen to single digits—abruptly resigned. As provided in the Russian constitution, Prime Minister Putin succeeded Yeltsin and became acting president.

Putin had jumped from an appointment as head of the FSB in July 1998 to an appointment as prime minister barely a year later, and then to acting president less than five months after that. It was an astonishing rise, unprecedented in Russian politics.

Had Putin expected to move so far so fast? Was it all planned? Of course we can't know. But whether it happened mostly by design or mostly by chance, we do know that he played carpe diem masterfully.

He knew the kind of leader Russians had been pining for, so he gave priority to advancing his persona as the fearless tough guy. Rather than sit in the president's office, he flew into the war zone to express his support of, and solidarity with, the troops. That was something his predecessor never would have done. The Russian people notice shows of strength.

After a winter siege beginning at the end of 1999, the Russian military took control of Grozny on February 2 of the following year. This time, the war had been brief.

Though Putin was able to claim victory, the end of the full-scale offensive didn't mean peace. Chechen militants throughout the North Caucasus went on killing Russians in large numbers. Their challenge to Russian political control of Chechnya continued for several more years.

Between 2002 and 2004, Chechens and Chechen-led militants carried out a campaign of terror against civilians in Russia. About 200 Russians were killed in bombings. Two large-scale hostage takings added to the headlines. The 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis (916 hostages) and the 2004 Beslan school siege (1,120 hostages) ended in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. In the Moscow standoff, FSB Spetsnaz forces stormed the buildings on the third day with lethal chemical agents.

Nevertheless, Putin acted as if the revolt were over. He established direct rule of Chechnya in May 2000 and the following month appointed Akhmad Kadyrov president of the Chechen Republic. On March 23, 2003, a constitution—keeping the republic tethered to Moscow while allowing it a significant degree of autonomy—was adopted by referendum in Chechnya.

The referendum had been promoted by the Russian government, rejected by separatists, and boycotted by many citizens. Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated by bomb the following year. His son Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the pro-Moscow militia known as kadyrovtsy, became Chechnya's de facto ruler. In February 2007, with support from Putin, the younger Kadyrov was installed as president, where he remains despite several attempts on his life.

Questions about the alleged Chechen terrorist bombings of September 1999 linger. Although the Chechens certainly had motive, means, and opportunity, some Putin skeptics continue to ask: Did the FSB conspire to elevate one of their own, Putin, to the presidency? Were the bombings a false-flag operation?

No, say the Russian courts. A criminal investigation into the bombings was completed in 2002. That investigation and the court that reviewed it concluded that the bombings were the work of Islamic militants retaliating for Russia's counteroffensive against their incursion into Dagestan. Six suspects were convicted.

Putin Installed

Whatever the truth of the bombings' origins, the offensive in Chechnya—begun by Yeltsin but largely managed by Putin—served to move a very dark horse to the front of the Russian political pack, where President Putin used the bombings to leverage his prominence.

In an August 1999 poll, Putin had garnered less than 2 percent support as a presidential candidate despite (or perhaps because of) Yeltsin's backing. By the time Election Day arrived, his situation had changed entirely.

Putin faced a lot of opposition. But the candidates had been preparing for the regularly scheduled presidential election, which would have occurred in June 2000 had Yeltsin not resigned. Instead, Yeltsin's resignation pulled the balloting up to March. At that point, Putin's total-war policy in Chechnya was still fresh in people's minds, and he was riding a wave of popularity. His opponents were sandbagged by events. Putin took 53 percent of the vote and became president.

The reign of Vladimir Putin had begun. Like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admired, he vowed to restore his country as a power of consequence. He knew that it wasn't going to happen easily. But he believed he had been endowed with all the right qualities to bring it off: physical stamina, a keen intellect, a deep understanding of the ways of politics in the real world (and the role that energy plays), and an unwavering boldness of vision.

It was time to tighten his hold on power by dealing with his enemies.

Next in Putin's sights: the oligarchs.

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