Yeltsin's Surgical Attack Fails

January 05, 1995

If Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had managed to crush the Muslim rebellion in the Caucasus Mountain enclave of Chechnya with dispatch, he would be hailed today for the success and decisiveness of his brutal action.

But more than three weeks after blitzing into that region, Russian troops still seem hopelessly bogged down. Despite heavy, indiscriminate aerial bombing and artillery barrage, a ragtag army of descendants of ancient mountain people is making a mockery of the Russian Army, the top military brass and President Yeltsin himself.

Never since Mr. Yeltsin came to power have as many questions been asked about his judgment and command. There is speculation he is in failing health and has lost the battle with the bottle. There are whispers he has become little more than a figurehead, who is being manipulated by a coterie of shadowy behind-the-scenes operators.

Whatever the truth, Russia is at a crossroads.

It has few options other than to press on in Chechnya or face the possibility of a total disintegration of the Russian state. Yet the longer the stalemate continues, the more tempting will it become for the Kremlin to insist on censorship and internal emergency measures. That, in turn, could spell an end to Russia's fragile democracy.

"If Russia accepts the secession of Chechnya, it would have to accept the breakup of Russia itself," observes Georgian President Edward A. Shevardnadze (and former Soviet foreign minister), who has been trying to suppress a rebellion in his own country. "I cannot act as a defender of the Russian government, but they have no other way out. I know no way of solving this problem other than through military action."

The biggest casualty of the ill-prepared and fateful Chechnya operation appears to be President Yeltsin himself. His popularity is quickly eroding. So is his credibility. Night after night, courageous Russian television journalists have proven the government's propaganda claims false in vivid reports that have shocked the Russian nation. Chechnya may not be Russia's Vietnam, but television is having a similar impact.

The Chechnya debacle has shown Russia's once-vaunted army to be ill-prepared and demoralized. Field commanders have openly disobeyed presidential orders -- and have not been punished. This bodes ill for the future.

Under Soviet rule, the Red Army never challenged the Communist Party's primacy. But the more erratic and weak President Yeltsin becomes, the likelier grows the possibility that some ambitious military commander will decide that enough is enough and that the Motherland must be saved from further shame and chaos. Mr. Yeltsin's "cold peace" with America could then become chillier.

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