Humiliation in Chechnya Under siege: Surrounded by rebels, 7,000 Russian troops are victims of Kremlin splits.

August 13, 1996

THE CHECHEN rebel capture of Grozny coincided with the inauguration of President Boris N. Yeltsin and was meant to embarrass him. In encircling 7,000 Russian soldiers in the regional capital, the smaller rebel force demonstrated the disintegration of one of the world's biggest armies.

The devastating loss of life in this battle has shocked Russia. Like Vietnam-era Americans a generation ago, Russians have watched the carnage every night on television. Though actual battle footage has been scarce, the commentary has conveyed an alarming picture of the nation's army in disarray.

Mr. Yeltsin bears responsibility for the crisis. During his re-election campaign, the Kremlin leader had a chance to bring the unpopular 20-month war to a negotiated end. A cease-fire was declared, talks were held. But as soon as Mr. Yeltsin beat his communist challenger, he resumed the war.

The Russians have so repeatedly demonstrated their duplicity in Chechnya that it is difficult to see how peace will be brought to that mountainous area. Yet it is a hopeful sign that efforts are being made to end the bloodletting.

The non-negotiable Kremlin position has been that Chechnya must remain a part of Russia. This newspaper, not wanting to see a loose-cannon enclave established in that strategic area, has supported that position. But we have argued for a self-rule just short of independence for Chechnya. This solution is still possible. However, it requires from the Kremlin a will to deal with Chechen demands with a degree of honesty that so far has been lacking.

A turning point may have been reached. Mr. Yeltsin's national security chief, retired Gen. Alexander Lebed, admitted yesterday with unprecedented frankness how seriously wrong the Russian operation had gone. General Lebed personifies the splits inside the Kremlin. An early critic of the war, he switched to a hard line on Chechnya after Mr. Yeltsin's re-election. His re-emergence as a soft-line critic of the war may signal that those wanting to end the hostilities through negotiations are gaining the upper hand. It is about time.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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