(CNSNews.com) - The rise of a former KGB operative to Russia's presidency has raised eyebrows in Western political circles for seeming to contradict the notion that men with ties to the most repressive aspects of the former Soviet Union have no place in the new democracy.
But as outgoing Russian President Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, 47, has gained widespread public support for ordering the military campaign against Chechen rebels. With his popular appeal, Putin's election to the presidency in the March elections is believed to be virtually assured. Putin ordered the campaign against the rebels to end terrorist bombings in Moscow and throughout parts of Russia.
By making one of his first moves as acting president a visit with Russian troops in Chechnya, Putin is signaling to Russians and the world where his priorities lie. Up to now, Putin's prime accomplishment has been the engineering of the war in Chechnya, but he lists as his priorities completing the transition to a free market economy and building a stronger state.
Popular support for Putin in Russia seems evident say many experts but his success in transitioning to a market economy and winning respect in international circles for Russia's tattered reputation will depend to a large degree on his ability to inspire confidence in Western business and political leaders, analysts say. This will be his toughest challenge, according to experts.
"A prosperous Russia and a Russia with a strong role in foreign affairs ultimately can be seen as a stable Russia, which is fundamental to American interests. So I don't see Putin's ambitions being a complication for American policy," said Frank Burd, president of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs and an expert on U.S.-Russian relations, in an interview with CNSNews.com.
In the short term, the United States disagrees with the Chechnyan campaign, and that will cause frictions in the relationship, analysts say. For its part, Russia believes what it is doing in Chechnya is similar to what the United States and NATO did in Kosovo, except Russia is doing it within what it considers to be its sovereign territory.
Putin and other policymakers in Russia believe, with some justification, that Russian behavior in the Caucuses is consistent with traditional international nation state behavior, whereas NATO's was not.
"I don't think we have convincing moral leverage in the short run on that particular issue," Burd said, "and therefore I don't expect that to be anything but a continued short-term friction. But it pales relative to the larger question of Russia's reassertion as a world power and getting her feet on the ground economically."
Russian analysts cautioned that a former top official in the KGB might not be the most trustworthy negotiating partner.
"Putin was part of the problem rather than part of the solution," said John Lenczowski, director of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"He was one of these people who were involved in a variety of different elements of KGB activity, including being their chief liaison with the Staasi in East Germany. This is not something that should commend him to a free and democratic imagination," Lenczowski said.
To the extent Putin may be a clever opportunist who managed to find himself in a position of decisive influence rather than someone who is running according to the kind of totalitarian imagination that animated the Soviet system is something Washington can try to make optimistic speculations about, Lenczowski said.
"The fact of the matter is he has decided to join with the other power ministries in Russia in a suppression of the Chechen desires for independence and autonomy. Rather than trying to pursue some kind of a political settlement, he has chosen the route of brutal suppression. Again this is not something which inspires confidence," Lenczowski said.
Much of Putin's acceptance within Russia could hinge on whether he will be successful in defeating the Chechen rebels quickly.
His popularity has grown commensurately with the relative success of this intervention in the Caucuses. While it seems clear the Russians have learned a lot about how to conduct war against the Chechen rebels, it is not yet clear that suppression is going to solve the problem in the long term.
The degree to which Putin and his people may try to initiate certain kinds of reforms that will diminish the need for their dependence on the West remains to be seen, Lenczowski said.
"You can write reforms all you want but so long as everybody continues to be dishonest - and there is effectively no rule of law or protection of property and so on - the Russian economy will continue to stagnate. This is a cultural problem we're dealing with," he said.
U.S. snubs of Russia with respect to NATO expansion, Bosnia and the larger question of Yugoslavia and Kosovo - and Russian endeavors to establish leverage in Kosovo via the Security Council - have soured U.S.-Russian relations, Burd said.
"American power, diplomatic and military, has been utilized in such a way as to disregard what the Russians have pretty strongly put forward as their desires. I think that increases the possibility of the Russians in general and Putin specifically of inclining more toward the Europeans than to the United States in realizing its long-term foreign policy goals," Burd said.