Tough Stance on Chechnya Will Stem Russian Collapse

Article excerpt

The Clinton administration thus has failed to adequately assess the importance of the Russian military operation in the Caucasus. Despite the fact that the hostilities erupted two months ago, it has been painfully slow to get the word out to Russian President Boris Yeltsin: Stop the bloodshed in Chechnya and start negotiating a solution. Continued failure to do so may lead to the collapse the Yeltsin regime, a military takeover in Moscow and the Russian nuclear deterrent spinning out of control.

Russia is fast becoming more anti-Western and authoritarian. Even if Yeltsin survives, Russia will not be the same, and neither should U.S. policy toward it be. As the Russian regime has changed for the worse, the time has come for a serious reevaluation of U.S. relations with Yeltsin.

The victims of the Chechen disaster are not only the innocent civilians and Russian troops. The bombs falling upon Grozny also have dealt a devastating blow to the prospects for Russian democracy, free-market development and links to the West.

The war is going badly, and nationalism is being whipped up. Xenophobia and paranoia have assumed their prominent position on the Russian scene. Recently, so-called "insidious" Western organizations -- the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, the Rand Corp., the Carnegie Endowment and the Heritage Foundation -- active in Russia were attacked in some major Russian newspapers by the Federal Counter-intelligence Service, a KGB successor.

The costs of the military operation already have topped $1 billion. The rebuilding of Chechnya -- especially its oil industry -- will cost another couple of billion dollars. This is more than three times the total amount of annual Western aid to Russia. The chances of bringing Russia's mushrooming budget and rampant inflation under control are becoming dimmer daily. To stop the waste of lives and resources, reinstate stability and salvage the possibility of "normal" economic development in Russia, the United States must take concerted action, both unilaterally and with our European allies. It is unthinkable but true that Estonia, Hungary and even the semi-crippled Ukraine have protested the Chechen tragedy more vigorously than "the only remaining superpower" led by Clinton.

The Russian misadventure in Chechnya began with a number of top-level aides and advisers, including Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Secret Police Chief Sergei Stepashin and Interior Minister Gen. Victor Yerin pushing Yeltsin toward a military move. The powerful chief of the Kremlin guard, Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, also reportedly urged Yeltsin to "win a little victorious war" to set the stage for early presidential elections in 1995.

In 1991, Yeltsin misled the Chechens by calling upon all non-Russians "to take as much sovereignty as they can" -- only to renege on his own declaration in 1994. Yeltsin then proceeded with a series of attempts to undermine and destabilize the regime of Chechen president Jokhar Dudayev, who won the 1991 election in his Sunni Muslim republic by running against an old Communist boss on a pro-independence platform. During 1994 Moscow bankrolled and armed a number of competing leadership factions in Chechnya and launched a series of covert operations -- including assassination attempts -- against Dudayev. When subversion failed, the troops were sent in.

The brutal Chechen operation spells disaster for the Russian military, for Yeltsin himself and for the weak Russian democracy. The soldiers sent to Chechnya primarily were inexperienced young recruits, according to the newspaper Izvestia. There is no unified command, and the military has consistently failed to execute presidential orders. According to Duma Defense Committee Chairman Sergei Yushenkov, Grachev was seen ordering troops into an offensive while intoxicated. On two occasions Yeltsin publicly called a halt to the bombardment of the Chechen capital; his orders went unheeded.

Senior officials, such as Deputy Defense Minister Boris Gromov and Gen. …

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