Restraint, Best Choice In Chechnya

For the last three years, Russia has held back from trying to impose a military solution on Chechnya. Irritating a thorn as Dzhokhar Dudayev has undoubtedly been in the president's side, Boris Yeltsin has held back from invading the Chechen fiefdom, instead providing opposition forces with support in the hope that they would do the job for him.

That hope has so far proved forlorn, primarily due to the incompetence of the opposition forces. But it was, and remains, a preferable course to invasion. The risks of embarking on a military adventure in the North Caucasus are vast. Even if invasion achieved the initial objective of toppling Dudayev, it almost certainly would involve terrible bloodshed and plunge Russia into a long and nasty guerrilla war that would likely spread throughout the North Caucasus.

All this for the sake of a small patch of land that very few Russians care enough about to die for. Yeltsin would be putting his political future at risk, for little reward.

This balance of self-interest was unsettled, however, when Dudayev recently threatened to execute up to 70 Russian soldiers captured during last weekend's fighting. By doing so he left Yeltsin little alternative but to issue an ultimatum, for the president could hardly be seen to stand by while a warlord on Russian territory calmly executed Russian hostages. Hence the Yeltsin demand that all sides lay down their arms within 48 hours or face direct Russian intervention.

It would be hard to argue that Moscow lacks the right to intervene. Chechnya is a part of Russia and the Dudayev regime has no legitimate basis. On the contrary, it is a gangster statelet that no other country has recognized and whose sole achievement has been to blacken further the region's reputation for violence and lawlessness.

Recognizing his mistake, Dudayev has now reconsidered and has lifted the threat of execution. The next move -- given that Moscow controls the opposition forces -- is up to Yeltsin. He can either ensure that fighting is still going on when his ultimatum expires and invade, or he can call a temporary halt and let the conflict subside again.

Yeltsin should let it slide. In the three years since he declared independence, Dudayev has failed to unite all Chechens behind him against the perceived common enemy of Russia. That would change overnight if Russian tanks were to roll openly across the border, and ensure a long-term problem for Moscow far outweighing the satisfaction of stamping out Dudayev.

True, restraint would bring Yeltsin neither glory nor an immediate solution to the Chechnya problem. It would, however, save a great many lives and reduce the risk of spreading instability throughout the North Caucasus region.