"If Russia tries to settle the Chechen problem by force, there will be a war in the Caucasus that will eclipse Afghanistan."
Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who used to pilot nuclear bombers, issued this warning before 40,000 Russian troops, aided by tanks and airplanes, moved to quell that Islamic mountain republic's rebellion. "A million and a half mujahadeen [holy warriors] will come to the Caucasus ready to become martyrs," he predicted.
For months, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin tried to avoid open intervention in this pocket near Georgia and Azerbaijan, each of which have experienced bloody strife since gaining independence.
As recently as August, Mr. Yeltsin ruled out using force in Chechnya. "If we violate this principle in relation to Chechnya, the Caucasus will rise. It will bring such a tumult and so much blood that they will never forgive us," he said.
Yet by early this month, Mr. Yeltsin had come to the realization that the rebellion was threatening Russia's security and had to be stamped out.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow allowed 14 republics to go their own way. This caused considerable consternation among Russian nationalists, who felt the empire forged by rulers from Peter the Great and Catherine the Great to Stalin was being unwisely dismantled. Moreover, within Russia itself, a number of federative republics and autonomous areas declared independence. But only Chechnya, under Mr. Dudayev, a self-acknowledged bully, tried to make it a reality.
When Russians grabbed Chechnya away from the disintegrating Ottoman empire in 1859, they had to fight for 25 years. They named the area's capital Grozny ("Terrible"), just as they named a neighboring strategic town Vladikavkaz ("Lord of the Caucasus"). Thus, any loose-cannon breakaway republic is seen by most Russians as an unacceptable source of destabilization and a vacuum that might strengthen the influence of Islamic fundamentalism -- and nearby Turkey and Iran.
Mr. Yeltsin has come under heavy criticism at home because many reformers fear a possibly disastrous war will lead to a heightened role for the military and to more authoritarian emergency policies. Such fears seem exaggerated, but could be real, if the Chechnya operation turns into a quagmire. Mr. Yeltsin cannot afford to lose his gamble.
The Chechens have suffered much under Russian rule. Stalin, accusing them of disloyalty during World War II, forcibly removed tens of thousands to Siberia. Today, Chechens have a reputation, earned or unearned, for being among the kingpins of organized crime in Russia.
These mountain people of ancient stock ought to be guaranteed an inviolable cultural autonomy. But they must remain part of Russia.