Putin lands in Grozny to lift image

As polls showed an erosion in his popularity with less than a week to go to polling day acting President Vladimir Putin switched…

As polls showed an erosion in his popularity with less than a week to go to polling day acting President Vladimir Putin switched the focus of publicity to the war in Chechnya, the issue which has gained him most support.

He did so in most dramatic fashion by flying from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi directly to Grozny in a jet fighter.

The whole operation was designed to remind voters of the tough guy image that has been hammered home repeatedly in the course of the campaign. He flew into what remains of the Chechen capital in a SU-27 war plane piloted by one of Russia's most decorated airmen "Honoured Pilot of Russia" Gen Alexander Kharchevsky, arriving at Grozny's Severny airport with a full fighter escort. Once on the ground Mr Putin's military image was sustained. Declaring that this was Chechnya's final war he warned however against a hasty Russian withdrawal. This would, he said, bring about the "enslavement of the Chechen people". A bridgehead for attacks on Russia would under these circumstances also be set up. "Russia cannot allow that to happen and will not. It is absolutely ruled out," he told the Russian news agency Interfax.

"We have the choice of either finishing off the bandits here, where everything has started, or to leave and to wait for them on other Russian lands. We'd better do it here," he said. The Chechen theme began to be played up again on Sunday after reports that Mr Putin's rating had fallen to 48 per cent. He needs to poll more than 50 per cent of the vote on March 26th to avoid a second-round contest against the candidate who get the second-biggest number of votes.

On ORT, the largest state-sponsored TV station, Mr Nikolai Patrushev, who succeeded Mr Putin as director of the FSB (former KGB) warned that Chechens might be planning a dramatic coup de force in or around election day. They might, he said, try to spring the notorious maverick field commander Salman Raduyev from Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

There were also serious threats against Mr Putin. An attack had been planned during his campaign tour of St Petersburg with the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, but was foiled by the security services, he said. An extremist website - www.jikhad.org - has claimed that a fatwah has been issued against Mr Putin and has offered a reward of $2m to anyone who kills him. The website announced yesterday that it was temporarily off the air.

In an interview with the popular Radio Mayak, Mr Putin described the peace deal which ended the last Chechen war as a "major mistake" which allowed the Chechens to build up strength for attacks on Russia.

Using fierce language, he spoke of "the beast Salman Raduyev" adding: "There are still many animals of this kind running around. They may gather into packs, snarl, attack and inflict some damage on us. This is true. However, there will be no longer any organised resistance there. This is also true."

The return of Chechnya to centre stage has naturally given Mr Putin much more publicity than his opponents.