Politicking while Grozny burns

War in Chechnya becomes hostage to Russia's leadership struggle

Published August 23, 1996 12:32PM (EDT)

Another day, another cease-fire in Chechnya. Whether the incredibly destructive war which began in December 1994 is finally coming to an end is very unclear. Adding to the uncertainty is what appears to be near anarchy in Moscow ruling circles. As Alexander Lebed, the country's putative national security chief, was putting together the cease-fire, President Yeltsin, in one of his few and frail pronouncements, berated Lebed for his actions on Chechnya. There also are numerous splits both among and between the political command in Moscow and the military command on the ground in Chechnya.

We talked with John Dunlop, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of "The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Union" (Princeton University Press, 1995). He is working on a new book on the Chechnya conflict, tentatively titled "Yeltsin's War."

Are we any closer to ending the war now?

Potentially, yes. But who knows? Lebed appears to have quite a bit of decision-making latitude. He's a general, which gives him legitimacy among Russian forces, and he also seems to have established a good rapport with the leaders of the Chechen forces.

What could stop him?

Yeltsin. He could throw a monkey wrench into it right away. He's been a hawk consistently. He has moderated that image only out of political necessity -- for example at the time of the election. As soon as he was elected, the savage military campaign began again.

Even as Lebed was patching together an agreement, Yeltsin said he was dissatisfied with Lebed's performance. But what is he dissatisfied about? Is it possible he didn't even know about the agreement?

It's quite possible he didn't know. I think Lebed's opponents just wanted to wheel the president out and have him make that statement to undercut Lebed's power. There has been this savage power struggle ever since Yeltsin set up this triad of competing players at the top -- Lebed, (prime minister Victor) Chernomyrdin and (chief of staff Anatoly) Chubais. It intensifies as Yeltsin's health gets worse.

Are they hardliners on Chechnya?

I don't think so. But I think they are so determined to keep Lebed from accumulating more power that they are willing to take extreme political risks, including, at one point, the leveling of Grozny -- although there isn't much left to level. They were willing to unleash that kind of apocalyptic horror just out of political considerations. Chubais is supposed to be some kind of liberal democrat, but it seems the political infighting is more important to him than ending the war. It's distressing to see someone of his reputation behave like that.

And with Lebed possibly making a deal, those stakes get even higher.

If Lebed brings the war to an end, that will boost his political prospects immensely. In Chechnya, he'll become a cult figure; there have already been some demonstrations there on his behalf. He'll be a cult figure in Russia, too. This is an extremely unpopular war. It would certainly help him become the next president. And everybody realizes this, of course.

Did the recent whipping of Russian forces in Grozny strengthen Lebed's hand?

Yes. It ratcheted up people's dissatisfaction with the war. It even made them contemplate taking to the streets again, which they haven't done since '91. The editors of liberal newspapers were talking about getting together and forming a united front. Plus, in the west, dissatisfaction has been going up, particularly in the Germany. Thought not in the U.S.

Why has the U.S. been so quiet?

The Clinton administration all along has regarded this war as an "internal affair" of Russia, and they have been loath to criticize Yeltsin. My view on that is it's sort of like saying Dachau is an internal affair of Nazi Germany. Without sounding like a shrill human rights maniac, the point is that what countries do inside their borders is relevant to international affairs. Just the fact that Chechnya just happened to fall inside the borders of the Russian Federation in 1991 doesn't mean we don't give a damn what happens there. The official figures bruited about put the death count at around 30,000. I would say 70,000 is much more likely -- at least. It's clear there's been mass murder of civilians, plus grotesque mistreatment and torture of prisoners. The most widespread crime has been the shelling and bombing of civilian dwellings.

The fact that the Clinton administration is not interested in this is appalling to me.

Hasn't it been equally appalling to Russian commanders at the front?

The military has been split. Some are still determined on "total victory." One would think the impossibility of that would be apparent by now. But there are elements in the leadership who seem willing to take almost any number of casualties, and to inflict any number of casualties. That's been especially true of the MVD (interior police) who have borne the brunt of the fighting.

There are also stories about breakdowns of command and control, with individual commanders deciding whether to advance or retreat, regardless of orders from Moscow, or even their own superiors.

It's been an extremely sloppy war. On the other hand, one has to remember that the Chechens are an unusually gifted fighting force. I believe they would give the American army fits. They're a great guerrilla army and they're highly motivated. They're certainly at least as good, if not much better, than the Vietnamese were.

What makes them so good?

They're traditionally a martial people. They fought the Russians from 1817 to 1859 in the first Caucasus war. Then, of course, they suffered genocide in 1944 when they lost 20-25 percent of their population under Stalin, who deported them. So they have endless motivation.

And they have oil.

Oil is essential, not because Chechnya has a great deal of it anymore, but that Russian oil pipelines run through Chechyna. It's a crucially located region with highways and railways. It's a main link between Russia and the Caucasus.

But the price for hanging on appears too high for Russia to pay.

I think it's more destabilizing than is generally believed. First of all, it pushes the whole politics of the country in an authoritarian, anti-democratic direction. This kind of slaughter would be equivalent to Clinton seeking to annihilate the Navajo nation, or perhaps John Major trying to do away with the Scots. It really does tend to corrupt the country spiritually. It also economically wounds the country. This war has cost billions of dollars which Russia can ill afford. Not to speak of what it will cost to rebuild what's been destroyed, thoug I don't think people are even talking about that any more. Chechnya is nothing but rubble.

What might a settlement look like, if we ever get one?

First, you pull out the Russian military. Then a Chechen leadership has to emerge that will take the economy seriously. The whole country's been destroyed. Plus it's surrounded by Russia and Georgia. The Georgians hate the Chechens because the Chechens sided with the Abkhazians against Georgia. It's not an enviable situation for them.

But if there isn't a settlement soon, there will be this to and fro, where the Chechens do these daring raids, kill a lot of people and the Russians respond by bombing. At some point, the really scary thing is, I believe the Chechens are quite capable of doing some terrorists acts that they claim they could. They've talked about disabling a nuclear reactor -- doing another Chernobyl -- particularly if they felt it was an act of desperation.

Quote of the day

Lesbian squares

"Every straight woman I know is trying desperately to arrange a lesbian affair. It's absolutely retro to be straight if you are a female."

-- "A female friend" of syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith on "Hollywood's new not-so-dirty secret that women with women is now all the rage." (Reprinted in today's S.F. Chronicle)

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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