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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Has Already Lost In Chechnya

The breakdown of the talks between Russian and Chechen officials Wednesday represented the formal severance of the last threads of hope for a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Now, the only course open appears to be confrontation and bloodshed. It is a dreadful prospect.

Even before the talks collapsed, Russia was ruling out any chance of compromise. As Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov put it, "only the capitulation of Dzhokhar Dudayev's forces would stop bloodshed." Recent experience of statements from Moscow suggest Yegorov could be saying the opposite tomorrow, but capitulation appears to be the last thing on Dudayev's mind. Declaring that Russia has left his people with no other choice, he has told them to fight to the death.

The consequences for Chechnya are likely to be tragic; for Russia, dire. Moscow will have to deal with the propaganda implications, both inside and outside Russia, of bombing civilians. As Dudayev is well aware, the transformation of Grozny into another Sarajevo would provoke a wave of sympathy for the Chechen cause.

Dudayev, whose well-earned image as a madman gangster Russia has been painstakingly cultivating over the last three years, now gains a new respectability as a martyr and an underdog, the leader of an oppressed people. This is quite an achievement on the part of the Kremlin.

President Boris Yeltsin is already also losing the remainder of his political support. Even diehard loyalists such as Yegor Gaidar of Russia's Choice have turned against him over his Chechnya policy. His hardline opponents among the communists and extremist nationalists have been having a field day, baying for blood and Yeltsin's head at the same time.

Yeltsin's response so far has been to revert to Soviet practices learned long ago: retreat behind the walls of the Kremlin, ignoring political and public consensus in the country. As the tanks rolled in, the president took to his hospital bed for surgery on his nose. Instead of directly addressing the people who elected him to office and drumming up support for his action, he issued an impersonal statement laden with the verbiage of the former era. Instead of lobbying for support among the country's politicians, he cut off the phones of his former supporters.

Doubtless the Russian Army is capable of storming Grozny, but this will only be the start of a problem far greater than Dudayev's gangster government. A guerrilla and terrorist war could well go on for years, if not decades -- as Moscow learned to its cost in Afghanistan -- and would likely spread right across the volatile north Caucasus. How Yeltsin's bequest of democracy to Russia would weather such a storm is hard to fathom.