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13 December 1999

Behind the Chechen crisis

by Tracey Brown

On Monday 13 December, the Russian army moved into Grozny in Chechnya, following its demands that all inhabitants leave the city or 'face the consequences'. Many of the villages outside Grozny have been completely flattened as part of Russia's 'scorched earth' tactics, and the destruction of Grozny now seems inevitable.

The war over Chechnya started in 1994. The respite of the past few years followed a cynically negotiated 'ceasefire' in April 1996, during which artillery bombardment of the Chechens continued. This tentative settlement was an attempt by the Yeltsin administration to distance itself from the disastrous and drawn-out campaign in the run-up to the presidential election in June 1996. It followed 16 months of humiliating attempts to suppress Chechen forces, during which an estimated 30,000 people died, over 3000 of them conscripted Russian soldiers. The campaign exposed the Russian military as bankrupt, poorly equipped and poorly directed - with stories of Russian soldiers handing over artillery equipment to the Chechens in exchange for vodka.

The number of Russians killed in the conflict up to 1996 reinforced a broader public cynicism about the war. As Russians became increasingly hostile to their government's failing forces, so demoralisation in the military intensified and produced a stalemate. When Communist presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov argued for the resurrection of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin was given an opportunity to rise above the suppression of the Chechen revolt and don the mantle of peacemaker. And with Northern Ireland and Israel never out of the news, 'peacemaking' carried the added attraction of allowing the ridiculous Yeltsin to stand alongside other world leaders who presided over peace processes.

The current campaign has been resurrected in different circumstances. Russia was recently humiliated over its attempts to stop the bombardment of Belgrade by NATO forces. Yeltsin's efforts to save face by sending Russian troops into Kosovo to oversee the humanitarian invasion descended into farce as it became obvious that the Russian military was badly equipped and easily sidelined. But Yeltsin was able to galvanise a degree of popular support for renewed military action in Chechnya, following the bomb explosions earlier this year in Moscow which he attributed to Chechen terrorists.

Yeltsin's hardline response to the Moscow bombs drew on the moral authority of those who wage war against terrorist forces. World leaders frequently claim moral credibility on the international stage with their agenda of 'wiping out terrorism'. Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy has always extended to supporting Russia in combating the terrorist tactics of the Chechen forces. Yeltsin is trying to overcome stagnation, disaffection and ridicule at home in exactly the same way that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair do: asserting his authority by standing up to 'evil forces'.

But while Yeltsin's actions have won the support of the Russian media, there has been condemnation from the 'international community'. Western leaders and international bodies like the IMF have pointed to the humanitarian disaster caused by the bombardment and have closed ranks against Yeltsin. At the risk of destabilising international relations, they have come out against the destruction of Grozny and are now embroiled in a diplomatic standoff. Yeltsin thought he was taking the moral highground and confounding international ridicule by showing off Russia's ability to stamp out its own 'forces of evil' in Chechnya. What he did not bank on was that the moral agenda of 'humanitarian intervention' which is now well-established as the modus operandi of international politics means that nobody can be left to sort out their own affairs. At the very mention of a humanitarian crisis, Western leaders drop everything to get involved because nothing gives them mileage like an international moral crusade. Prestige now rests on 'doing something' about others' conflicts and crises.

The consequences of getting involved in such conflicts can be lethal. The result is that local conflicts like Chechnya can quickly spin out of control. The international condemnation of Russia has nothing to do with what is happening on the ground in Chechnya - the West has shown little concern about Russia's actions in the past. Rather, it is an attempt by Western leaders and institutions to assert their own authority in the international arena, even if that means standing up to 'one of their own'.

As world leaders jostle for their space on the moral highground of the international stage, the stakes are being upped all the time. In the space of just one week, the moral crusaders have taken us from a bloody local conflict in Chechnya to the possible destabilisation of international relations.

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