America must prevent Russia's next blunder


TO ANYONE who observed Russia's brutal war in Chechnya earlier this decade, its headlong rush into another tangle with Muslim mountain warriors appears mad.

It is a true "wag the dog" scenario: Russian politicians, with an eye to coming parliamentary and presidential elections, are trying to distract voters from corruption scandals and economic woes.

Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops on the Chechen border, and is bombing an already pulverized republic back beyond the Stone Age, supposedly to crush Islamic militants. Russian commanders -- months after Moscow decried NATO's bombing of Belgrade -- now brag that they are copying NATO's bombing tactics.

Russian bombs hit the Grozny airport (destroying its one and only plane), smashed the oil refinery and the TV station and caused untold civilian casualties because Russia has no pinpoint weapons.

But Chechnya isn't Yugoslavia.

"There is no Milosevic," writes defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in the Moscow Times, "no central [Chechen] political figure that can be compelled by force to submit. The official Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, does not control the [Islamist] warlords who have provoked the present war."

The air war will only provoke more Chechens to join the guerrillas, inspire more terrorist attacks inside Russia and possibly touch off a Caucusus-wide war. If Russian ground forces enter Chechnya, they will be chewed up again. So why are Russian leaders marching toward the cliff?

Right now, all Russian politics is domestic. Russian officials are playing to the public's yearning to redress the national humiliations of the past decade -- including the defeat of Russia's army in 1994-96 by Chechen guerrillas seeking independence from the Russian federation.

Terrorist threat

Chechnya's future status remains undetermined. But Chechnya-based Islamic militants invaded neighboring Dagestan in August with the goal of establishing an Islamic state, and they are suspected of killing hundreds of Russians in recent terrorist bombings.

The Russian public is understandably outraged at the carnage wreaked by terror bombs. The leader of the Dagestan incursion, Shamil Basayev, is especially loathed. In 1995, he held thousands of Russians hostage in a hospital in Budennovsk in southern Russia, where 123 were killed, some by Basayev's men, others in a botched Russian rescue.

But Russians aren't eager to send their boys into another vicious ground war. They remember Brecht-like scenes of mothers trudging from all across Russia to gather at the gates of Russian miliary camps in Chechnya and beg for news of missing sons.

When the Russian air war fails, or leads to a quagmire, the politicians who endorsed it will face total repudiation. They include Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, along with liberal "reformers" such as Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Nemstov and Anatoly Chubais. (Interestingly, Russian Communist Party Chairman Gennady Zyuganov says there is "no military solution.")

There is a possible exit from this trap, as suggested by President Ruslan Aushev from Ingushetia, the neighboring republic to which 60,000 Chechen refugees have fled. Moscow should co-opt the forces in Chechnya that also seek to fight terrorism. Mr. Maskhadov is one, but he cannot publicly repudiate Mr. Basayev, who is admired as an independence fighter.

Danger to neighbors

Moscow should stop refusing to negotiate with Mr. Maskhadov. And -- if Russian leaders want to halt terror, not play politics -- they should also work more closely with Dagestani leaders who want to isolate Mr. Basayev. In multiethnic Dagestan, there is no desire to be dominated by neighboring Chechens.

If Russian leaders want to stop Mr. Basayev, not play political games, there are ways to isolate him. This is the message the Clinton administration, and European leaders, should be communicating firmly: Continued bombing of Chechnya only risks another Russian defeat.

And any further wounds to an already deeply wounded nation risk making Russia an even more unreliable international actor. That is dangerous for us all.

Trudy Rubin is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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