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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How Chechnya Happened

It has been three years since the self-proclaimed republic of Chechnya-Ichkeriya unilaterally declared its independence, so one would expect the authorities in Moscow might have had ample time to figure out a coherent policy in this strategically important region. However, they have not.

The Yeltsin administration was too preoccupied fighting the Supreme Soviet and, since legislative support for any military action in Chechnya was not forthcoming, the situation was more or less left to simmer on its own in the hope it would somehow resolve itself.

It did not. Instead, Chechnya developed into a strange buccaneer republic, a source of illicit arms and drug trafficking into Russia and a safe haven for any common criminal. The only railroad linking Russia with the Transcaucasus, which is of great strategic and economic importance, passes through Chechnya and has been virtually blocked for about a year. In addition, several important oil and natural gas pipelines run through the republic. Since many Russian businessmen and bankers are interested in developing economic ties with Azerbaijan, they have been pressing the government to restore order in Chechnya and reopen the railroad.

In short, the situation has been becoming increasingly intolerable. With the administration unable to decide what to do, several high-ranking officials seized the initiative and, like Oliver North, undertook a covert operation to resolve the problem once and for all.

Originally, the idea to use the Chechen opposition to overthrow President Dzhokhar Dudayev came from Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai. General Alexander Kotenkov, deputy nationalities minister and a senior member of Shakhrai's political faction, took on the task of supplying money and weapons to the opposition.

Obviously Shakhrai and Kotenkov had been given the go-ahead by President Boris Yeltsin. They proceeded to supply the "united Chechen opposition" with considerable quantities of arms and cash. Later, Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters began flying close-support combat sorties to help the opposition. Even this failed to bring results: Two attempts to blockade and storm the Chechen capital, Grozny, at the end of August and again in October, ended in failure. The ragtag Chechen opposition never had any serious intention of risking their lives for Moscow's interests.

In October, Shakhrai lost control of the secret operation in Chechnya. A new attack on Grozny was planned and organized by the Federal Counterintelligence Service, and overall control passed to Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov. The Chechen opposition was provided not only with Russian tanks, but with active Russian officers and soldiers as well.

However, during the November attack on Grozny, opposition fighters again fled, and the Russian tanks, without infantry support on the streets of the capital, were forced to surrender. After that, Yeltsin was left with no choice but to send the regular army into Chechnya.

Russian officials did not attempt to protect Yeltsin or give him "plausible deniability." Only a full-scale operation could prevent an investigation of the previous missions. And apparently the administration has already achieved this goal. On Dec. 13, the Duma passed a resolution granting amnesty to all participants in the events in the Caucasus -- apparently including even the highest levels of the administration and Yeltsin himself.

The administration has now gone too far to back down. If the army is forced to leave Chechnya, it will likely also have to abandon the rest of the North Caucasus. Moscow's authority will be seriously undermined. Moreover, the army is hardly likely to put up with another humiliation; Yeltsin would not be able to count on its support in the future.

This week, the Russian army has moved to blockade Grozny and the mountainous regions where support for Chechen independence is strongest. Units faithful to Dudayev are resisting the Russian onslaught, but they do not have any safe places to hide or any reliable supply of equipment.

To the extent Chechnya is overrun by Russian troops, organized resistance will melt away. Dudayev's supporters in Grozny will either have to surrender or transform the city into another Stalingrad and die fighting in its ruins. In the meantime, as Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets has already announced, Russia's next order of business is to reopen the Transcaucasian railroad.

Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security editor for Segodnya.