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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Announce Victory, and Then Talk

The Russian flag is apparently flying over the blackened hulk of President Dzhokhar Dudayev's palace, the main symbol of Chechen resistance. It took five weeks and a huge toll in lives and resources, but to all intents and purposes, the battle of Grozny is over. The fighting goes on, of course, but Dudayev has lost his citadel.

At this moment, with the stamp of Russian authority about to be reimposed in the Chechen capital, a new opportunity presents itself that must not be allowed to slip past. In a few days, Russia may be able to claim victory, set up an emergency regime in the smoking ruins of central Grozny and think of the future.

If that future involves trying to mop up and stamp out every pocket of resistance in Chechnya, it is a long and bloody road with unpredictable political consequences in Moscow, which will have to answer for every Russian boy sent home in a body bag over months or years. And as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics.

Alternatively, Moscow could declare victory and magnanimously offer talks, without conditions, and an immediate cease-fire to its citizens down in Chechnya.

The best move would be for President Boris Yeltsin to propose direct talks with Dudayev. The Chechen leader has suggested such a meeting himself in the past and could scarcely turn it down now. The fact that Yeltsin has hitherto ruled out such talks should not deter him; the circumstances have altered and the president too can change his mind.

But Dudayev is not even essential. Despite the war, he is by no means universally popular in Chechnya -- most Chechens are not fighting for him. With the offer of an unconditional cease-fire, other interlocutors might be found. What is crucial is that the Kremlin recognize the possible long-term cost of carrying on with this war, and the tiny reward for pursuing it to the end.

Just as they did in Afghanistan, with Babrak Karmal and then Najibullah, the Russians could install a puppet government in Grozny while they "mop up" resistance in the mountains. Devotedly loyal to Moscow, this administration would preside over an empty city and little else, surviving only as long as the Russian Army believed the losses it sustained were worth it.

For a brief moment, Yeltsin now has the chance to talk about winning a victory. How that was achieved and to what purpose is another matter entirely. But the seizure of the Presidential Palace looks a lot more victorious than when the defeated Soviet Army pulled out of Afghanistan. The catch is that Yeltsin must capitalize on his fleeting success quickly, at the negotiating table, or his victory will be a Pyrrhic one.