. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's War Is No Grenada

You've got to feel sorry for Boris Yeltsin. First he gets told by his generals that any campaign against Chechnya that he launches will be a walkover, a doddle: over in a couple of weeks, "tops we promise." And then he gets told (by the same lot of generals, presumably) that rescuing the hostages taken in Dagestan will be in the bag in a matter of hours.

You can hear them now: "Listen, Boris, tell you what. We'll do it daylight, prime-time, live. Real surgical. No problem. It'll be a great show. We've got way-so-much firepower: We've got artillery, we've got gunships, we've got spetznaz, we've got" -- pause for effect -- "Alpha. And you know what happened when the White House was taken over by those turkeys back in 1993. All that had to happen in the end was for some guy to wander in at the back of the Parliament building and say 'Alpha'll be along in half an hour,' and they were out of there, with their hands up, just as fast as you could say Ivan Grozny.

"It'll be great, Boris. I'm tellin' ya. It'll show the world that Russia's still got moxie. And it'll show the electorate that when it comes to, you know, making the difficult decision and upholding the honor and the integrity of ah ... well, get your guys to write the speech. Anyway, the upshot'll be, 'Man, that Boris Yeltsin is second to none.' The June elections, a pushover. What do those other guys in the ring have in any case? By the time this is over, just egg on their faces."

Well, it must have seemed like a great idea at the time. It used to work for Ronald Reagan, after all. Every time the polls dipped on him and the world's attention strayed, there was always someone to arrange a little military adventure overseas, to remind everybody that America was still a great power and that the Alzheimer's One was still very much in charge.

Never mind that the awesome technology of American weaponry was always turned against some miserable little place like Grenada. It was symbolic, after all -- for television only, and nobody got hurt (except the other side, of course). I mean, if Reagan had really wanted to attack an island where American lives were at risk -- as he said they were in Grenada -- then why on earth didn't he attack Manhattan?

Still, never mind. It worked. It sold. The rest of the world has always been a pretty hazy place for Americans at the best of times -- it's just over there, out there: a sort of generalized, untrustworthy, dishcloth-headed abroad. And if "our guys" showed exactly who was who, well, all well and good. That'll teach 'em, as they say, to disturb the Pax Americana, the great undisturbed snooze of the American Midwest.

Trouble is, of course, that Boris Yeltsin doesn't have an "out there" like Reagan had, an abroad to excoriate and then invade with the home audience applauding, but not really noticing. What he has is a continuous, contiguous empire falling apart in pieces -- just round the corner -- and giving him the mother of all hangovers in the process. He also doesn't have -- what with one thing and another -- much sense of the lessons of history. For if he did, then he'd know that the last time Russia launched military operations against Chechnya, well, the Chechens fought back. They started up an expensive and nasty Holy War which lasted 30 years.

He also might have considered a few other things along the way, of course, like what privatization et al., for example, has done to the Russian army. I mean, no soldier in his right mind would actually want to go to a god-awful place like Chechnya (where they know how to fight); and so the only ones who actually had to go were conscripts who didn't know a shotgun from Shostakovich. And when the big boys were finally forced to join their scared and muddled younger brothers, well, there was more to be made from looting, pillaging and selling off weapons than there was from any serious fighting, except perhaps at long distance.

So, there we are: Boris Yeltsin ought to have known better. He broke all the rules of modern, show-off wars. He should have chosen some island with few inhabitants: Novaya Zemlya, for instance; or somewhere where the people don't know which end of a gun is which. If he absolutely had to deal with Chechnya, then he should have gotten all the native Russians out of it and then cut it off from all the imported goods and banking services and Ferrari suppliers that seem to have made it tick. Easy to say, of course: There was the oil pipeline to consider. And Reagan didn't have that problem with Grenada either.