Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya: Pressure, but Don't Invade

From Chechnya, deep in the Russian underbelly, come rumblings that can only be described as medieval, with the news that three Russian agents have been beheaded in the tiny Caucasus republic.

It is a gruesome story, made to measure for the propaganda purposes both of the authorities in Moscow and Grozny (which translates as "terrible"), the capital of Chechnya. The Russians like to portray the Chechens as savages and the fiercely nationalistic Chechen government is happy to be seen that way.

In this sense, reports on the beheadings from President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, were indicative. Not only did he say several people had been beheaded, but also that the Chechen government displayed the heads in central Grozny.

That the heads were displayed appears to be untrue. It is also uncertain who the victims were. But somehow the Russian Interior Ministry obtained a photograph of the bodiless heads and displayed it at a press conference Monday, mixing horrendous fact with propaganda in a style reminiscent of the prelude to the war in Yugoslavia.

So is the Russian public being prepared now for an armed incursion into Chechnya?

If it is, then the reflex response is that Russian troops rolling anywhere should be condemned. But the rights and wrongs of the Chechen situation are complex.

First, the Chechen Republic declared its independence two years ago, but the rest of the world considers it still a part of Russia.

Second, Chechnya is hemorrhaging money out of the Russian economy. The tiny republic effectively has set itself up as a distribution center for smuggling into the mainland, playing on Moscow's reluctance to encourage Chechen separation by sealing it off from the rest of the country.

Third, the human rights record of Chechnya may be less documented than that of Haiti's military junta, but it is hardly more admirable. Opposition politicians have been jailed -- and perhaps even beheaded -- for their opinions. Finally, nobody who has met President Dzhokhar Dudayev ever came away with the impression that he was a balanced or peaceful man.

In fact, Russia has any number of justifications for invading Chechnya. But until now the Kremlin has been reluctant to act because it was uncertain of support from a public that remembers Afghanistan. Russian leaders also know that to subdue the fierce mountain people of Chechnya would be no easy feat. It would be an appallingly bloody and drawn-out guerrilla war.

Probably, the new Russian propaganda drive against Chechnya aims to put pressure on Dudayev and dislodge him, rather than to prepare an invasion. This would be much the wisest course.