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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Too Late To Avoid War In Chechnya

When some 1,000 Russian Interior Ministry troops marched on Grozny in November 1991, they were met on the road by tens of thousands of ordinary Chechens determined to defend their newly proclaimed independence. Rather than cause a bloodbath, the Russian soldiers turned around and went home.

For the three years since, President Boris Yeltsin has accepted the clear logic of that rather humiliating incident: Chechnya may be part of Russia, but to prove the point would be far too costly in terms of lives lost and stability in the north Caucasus region.

On Sunday, Yeltsin apparently changed his mind. Some 10,000 Russian troops are making their way toward the Chechen capital, and they will not so easily be made to turn around and go home.

The Kremlin's plan seems to be that the troops form a tight cordon around the city, forcing the Chechen leadership to realize its position is hopeless and concede at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield. This is not an unusual tactic in the world of power politics. It is called negotiating from strength, and the Americans did it in Haiti.

The problem is that the rather motley army Moscow has assembled for the task does not look all that strong. Once again, when faced with angry villagers on the road to Grozny, several dozen armed-to-the-teeth Russian soldiers surrendered. Their hearts, and those of the Russian public, are not in this fight. The people of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia are committed heart and soul.

Against this background, the pressure on Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev to admit defeat and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Chechnya is lessened, making it all the more likely that negotiations will fail, and Russian special troops will eventually be sent in to take the city. After all, having sent the mighty Russian army in to invade Chechnya, can Yeltsin really afford for them to climb down again as the Interior Ministry troops did three years ago? That he is in hospital having an operation on his nose while all this takes place would not save him from the humiliation.

How many casualties Yeltsin's adventure in Chechnya has caused so far is not clear. But any attempt to storm Grozny would be bloody and its aftermath more so. It is still not too late to avert this utter disaster, provided Russian negotiators offer Chechnya a real way out of the impasse.

What made Yeltsin change his mind on the value of invading this tiny north Caucasus republic, which historically has proved a painful stumbling block for the armies of Russia, is not clear at all. Some have said it is an attempt to retrieve his hopes for reelection in 1996, others that he wants an excuse to clamp down at home. In either case, he would be horribly misguided.