Will Chechnya Be Yeltsin’s Waterloo? : War holds political danger for Russian leader
What would be the consequences of a military coup in Moscow? The failed Russian invasion of breakaway Chechnya has alienated Russian liberals and conservatives alike: liberals because of the reckless violence of the invasion, conservatives because of its abject failure. Most ominous of all, the Russian military must be outraged at the heavy casualties sustained in an operation that has clearly been a military as well as a political disaster.
Will President Boris N. Yeltsin be succeeded by Lt. Gen. Alexander I. Lebed or some now unidentified military savior? Four years ago, Yeltsin was dismissed as a buffoon, a virtually inconceivable successor to the suave Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Today, the West gathers around Yeltsin’s political sickbed hoping for recovery just as it gathered around Gorbachev’s.
Many on the Russian right are said to long for a “Russian Pinochet,” a military dictator who like Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet would restore order, pride and the economy and who would suppress dissent with old-fashioned ruthlessness. Given Chile’s long democratic tradition, it came as no surprise that Pinochet was eventually forced from power. Given Russia’s longer autocratic tradition, a Russian Pinochet might hold power for life, ending the brief, unhappy interlude of Russian democracy.
In the short run, if a neo-autocratic Russia turned expansionist, it would most likely expand back into its lost Muslim domains in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Muslim Chechnya, an autonomous region in the Caucasus, would be the first to be brought to heel. A westward expansion, back into the Baltic states or Eastern Europe, would come only later.
But come it could, and the Clinton Administration should support in whatever way it can the hesitant French and German efforts to use the Organization for Security and Cooper- ation in Europe, of which Russia is a member, to bring about a Chechnyan cease-fire and de-escalation. Neither Europe nor the Clinton Administration need support Chechen independence in urging Yeltsin to save himself and Russian democracy at once by seeking an alternative to all-out Russian war against Chechnya.
There may be little, directly, for any of the Western powers to do in this crisis. But silence and serene indifference send a message to an increasingly chaotic Russia, and surely it is the wrong kind of message.
Pakistan has called for a worldwide Muslim mobilization against Russia. Turkey is more than distressed over another war in its region. Another violent clash between Muslims and Christians has negative implications for several simmering conflicts.
Stability will not emerge from this kind of volatility without diplomatic help. The United States can do no less than offer.