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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Can't Hide From Chechnya

President Boris Yeltsin may be holed up in a sanatorium for a long holiday, but it will be hard for him to hide from responsibility for the war in Chechnya.


That responsibility now rests more squarely and more heavily on his shoulders than at any other time since the start of the war.


For one thing, Yeltsin is now almost the only major political force that could stop the peace process. The "party of war," led by the likes of Pavel Grachev, Nikolai Yegorov and Alexander Korzhakov, has left the scene. Now no other serious figures in the cabinet will play "bad cop" in the "good-cop, bad-cop" routine the Kremlin has used so many times before.


Yeltsin however, whether out of physical infirmity or political uncertainty, has spent the last few days avoiding the responsibility raised by national security chief Alexander Lebed's peace initiative. And one explanation for this is that he is setting Lebed up for a fall.


The president has found a variety of implausible pretexts to avoid meeting with Lebed to discuss the details of the plan. But now that a basic document outlining the peace plan is sitting on his desk, it will take a lot of obfuscation to avoid dealing with it.


And unfortunately for Yeltsin, the situation on the ground now substantially limits his field of maneuver. The fact is that the strategic situation in Chechnya has changed irrevocably. Whereas before, Yeltsin could present his decision to continue the war as a matter of finishing off the job, now it is matter of starting all over again.


Having spent two months capturing Grozny at the start of the war, the Russian Army would have to do it again if the current peace agreement were allowed to fail. And after the humiliation and high casualties of the last month, that would take some powerful persuasion.First, Yeltsin would have to convince his demoralized troops to restart a war that during his election campaign he declared he was intent on ending. It is hard to imagine Russian troops now launching themselves back into Grozny to capture it house by house.


Yeltsin's only military option might then be to wipe Grozny off the face of the earth with bombers and heavy artillery. The political costs of such genocide would be high, but Yeltsin may calculate that undermining the peace process will also win him political support, because many Russians resent Lebed's concessions to Chechen rebels, whom they regard as bandits.


Yet that would be a short-sighted, as well as repugnant, view. History will not judge Yeltsin by the way he handled Alexander Lebed, but by whether he had the courage to end the war he began in Chechnya.