THE WORLD : RUSSIA : Chechnya: A Fitting Reply to Fragmentation?

<i> Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and a teacher at Georgetown University, was on the staff of the National Security Council for the first year of the Clinton Administration</i>

Grisly pictures from Grozny confirm that Russia is indeed using excessive force in breakaway Chechnya. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling are taking a high civilian toll. As casualties mount, U.S. politicians and pundits call for an end to Russia’s honeymoon with the West. Russia, they argue, is returning to its old imperialist ways.

But these doomsayers mistake Russia’s methods with its mission. Although the pummeling of civilians and repeated human-rights violations are indefensible, Russia is behaving as a normal power, not a malign one. It is using force to keep the country together, not to subjugate peoples beyond its borders.

President Bill Clinton should do what he can to urge Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to moderate the violence and seek a diplomatic settlement. But Clinton is right to stand by the reformist government and to keep America’s cooperative hand fully extended to Russia.

The war in Chechnya must be seen in a broader perspective. It is the first time post-Soviet Russia has resorted to the full-scale use of force. Moscow watched as its East European satellites left the fold and the Soviet Union disintegrated. No empire has ever fallen apart so suddenly and bloodlessly.


Russia is now governed in a quasi-democratic fashion. The opposition, journalists and ordinary citizens are free to express themselves without fear of retribution. Yeltsin continues to defend these democratic freedoms even though his opponents and the press are using Chechnya to wage an assault on his rule.

Moscow has used its military forces in several former republics (Georgia, Tajikistan, Moldova), arguably to retain a measure of control in these regions, not just to keep the peace. It has not, however, resorted to military intimidation to compel its neighbors back into a political union. Russia does have a sphere of influence that comprises most of its former republics. But Moscow wields this influence because Russia is a big, powerful country--not because it is in the process of reconstituting an empire.

Russia is by no means over the hump. Years, if not decades, of turmoil lie ahead. It is precisely such turmoil that has undermined other fledgling democracies and spawned authoritarian, militaristic regimes. But just as the community of democratic states embraced Germany after World War II (a country with a track record as sobering as Russia’s), it should treat Russia as a country on the path to becoming a benign, democratic power--at least until Moscow proves otherwise.

The war in Chechnya does not provide such proof. The Chechens have been part of Russia for more than 100 years. Numerous other ethnic minorities may seek to exit the Russian Federation if the Chechens succeed. Should Yeltsin allow his country to fragment, he would face a vicious backlash from conservative nationalists. Russia would likely find itself embroiled in a widespread civil war. Control over the country’s 25,000 nuclear warheads would be jeopardized. It is hard to imagine that the current leadership, still basically pro-Western and pro-reform, could survive.


Even if Yeltsin’s regime could bear the weight of limited fragmentation of the federation, it is not clear Yeltsin has a political or moral obligation to let Chechnya go. Which established democracy, with the possible exception of Canada, is prepared to grant independence to whatever region desires it? How would the U.S. government react if one or more of the 50 states decided to secede?

For better or worse, international law and common diplomatic practice strongly favor existing states and borders. Statesmen are fond of genuflecting before principles of self-determination, but rarely does the international community approve of the breakup of countries against their will. The Russian army may well be bungling operations in Grozny, but it is carrying out a mission within the accepted standards of international behavior.

Furthermore, the performance of the Russian army in Chechnya should be cause for complacency, not concern, in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Russia’s neighbors carry heavy historical baggage and are right to be wary of Moscow’s intentions. But Russia’s army, including its elite units, are having trouble defeating a rag-tag band of Chechen rebels. At least for the foreseeable future, Ukraine and Poland need not worry about a Russian invasion.

There is, however, one legitimate concern about developments in Chechnya. Whether Yeltsin subdues the rebels or backs off, he will continue to take fire from political opponents looking to speed his demise. So, too, an embarrassed and disgruntled military poses a potential threat to the current government.


The outside world cannot save Yeltsin if his opponents get the upper hand. But the United States and its European partners should offer their good services to help resolve the conflict. And putting undue pressure on Yeltsin or withdrawing outside economic and political support would only worsen the regime’s plight.

Apocalyptic pronouncements that the war in Chechnya represents the end of America’s post-communist rapprochement with Russia come from two camps. One group contends that Russia is congenitally incapable of behaving itself and it is only a matter of time before its imperialistic bent returns with a vengeance. For these Russophobes, it is not worth trying to build a cooperative relationship with Moscow. The other group claims the war in Chechnya may be a turning point and that a U.S. policy of neo-containment is needed to hedge bets and prod Russia in the right direction.

The Russophobes misread, or perhaps ignore, European history. Virtually all Europe’s major states have, at one time or another, challenged the status quo and sought to establish continental hegemony. As democracy and market have spread, however, these states have been domesticated, one by one, and turned into benign powers that contribute to European stability. Since this wave of domestication has generally spread from west to east, there is no reason to believe Russia is not next in line.

It is more complicated to counter the case for neo-containment, in large part because of a glaring omission in America’s Russia policy: the absence of explicit standards by which to judge Russian behavior. Without such standards, the debate over Russia proceeds without terms of reference--what some see as Russia’s stabilizing role in the East, others call imperialistic behavior. As a result, the Administration consistently finds itself on the defensive, having to justify to critics on the left and right why it intends to stay the course with Russia.


If nothing else, the war in Chechnya should force the Clinton Administration to think through and make explicit what Russian actions it considers provocative enough to warrant a sharp response. These actions might include: unilateral Russian withdrawal from arms-control agreements; the use of military threats or force to wrest sovereignty from neighboring states; the reabsorption of former republics into the Russian Federation, and the foundering of democratic institutions due to either political collapse or military coup.

Washington should be equally explicit in identifying what is constructive and desirable Russian behavior, and make clear that adherence to such standards will be rewarded with increased economic aid and Russia’s further integration into international markets and institutions. Such standards might include: adherence to recognized human-rights accords; willingness to subject Russian military operations in the former republics to international standards; appropriate compromise on resolving the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh; prompt withdrawal from Moldova, and a diplomatic settlement of the conflict in Chechnya.

These standards will help guide not only U.S. policy, but Russia’s as well. And they will enable the Clinton Administration to silence critics who are exaggerating the importance of the conflict in Chechnya and attempting to break America’s cooperative embrace of Russia--an embrace that is America’s best hope for European stability.*