How to end the war in Chechnya with dignity

August 19, 1996|By Michael O'Hanlon and Andrew Solomon

TO REACH A durable cease-fire with rebels in Chechnya, Russia should end offensive operations and pull its troops out of that constituent republic of the Russian Federation.

Then, it should attempt to negotiate a permanent end to the war by offering autonomy to the Chechens.

If those efforts should fail, Russia would retain the recourse of instituting a blockade to punish and pressure the rebels for as long as necessary -- without having to bomb the region back into the Stone Age in the process.

Throughout this two-year-old war, the United States has been at a loss as to what to do.

Officially, it advocates a negotiated solution. But many U.S. policymakers seem to accept the war out of fear that Russia, with its 30,000 nuclear weapons, could otherwise begin to fall apart through a secessionist domino effect.

In reality, there is no such Hobson's choice in Chechnya. Moscow has already achieved its chief aim: to prevent a domino-effect of independence movements that could tear the country apart.

That fear seemed very real earlier this decade but is no longer acute. Now, without having to change its position that Chechnya is an organic part of Russia, Kremlin decision makers can assure that nation's territorial integrity through a more patient and far less bloody approach.

Withdrawal, truce

Russia should withdraw its troops from Chechnya as part of a truce arrangement and then try to reach a power-sharing agreement with the rebels and Grozny government.

It appeared to be on its way to doing so with the May 27 Chernomyrdin-Yandarbiyev cease-fire agreement, followed by disarmament accords signed in Nazran on June 10. But then Russia chose to resume full-scale warfare.

Chechen rebels have since upped the ante even further with their inauguration present to Boris Yeltsin, a massive assault in the last two weeks on Russian forces in the republic's capital city of Grozny.

With the broad powers to resolve the war just granted him by Mr. Yeltsin, longtime war critic and new national security chief Aleksandr Lebed is now well positioned to rekindle the peacemaking efforts.

If negotiations fail, Russia should impose a blockade on all of Chechnya and prevent normal commerce along major roadways and rail lines until the Chechens relent -- similar to what the international community is doing to Iraq.

Although this strategy would hurt innocent civilians, too, it would be far less calamitous than a war that may have already killed one in 10 Chechens to date and shows little sign of abating.

Russia could permit humanitarian relief to enter the country if necessary.

It could also provide technical and financial assistance to police and other authorities in Chechnya without basing national military or internal security forces there.

Maintaining a blockade along several hundred kilometers of border would be somewhat demanding militarily.

But it could probably be done with 10,000 to 20,000 troops, fewer than the number that have been fighting in Chechnya -- and with far less loss of life to those troops, several thousand of whom have died in the war.

Undertaking this effort would not infringe on any other state's sovereign rights; it could be undertaken from Chechen and other Russian territory.

Russia's current approach -- aggressive counterinsurgency warfare -- is difficult for the best of armies. The United States learned that lesson in Vietnam and relearned it in Somalia, despite employing some of the best units of the finest military in the world.

And many Russians learned that lesson in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, moreover, Soviet armed forces were in a considerably better shape than today's Russian troops, whom Mr. Lebed disparaged as "lice-ridden weaklings" during his emergency visit to Chechnya earlier this month.

Heavy violence

Not surprisingly, Russia is violating most major precepts of counterinsurgency warfare in Chechnya. It is using heavy and indiscriminate violence that has the effect of legitimizing the guerrillas' cause and fostering resentment against the intervening forces in the general Chechen population.

But in general the Russian military has failed: in addition to violating the principles of just war and the Geneva Convention, it has not devised sensible alternative strategies.

The commander of Russian defense ministry troops in Chechnya recently claimed that his forces would drive the Chechen resistance, partially confined now in the Caucasus Mountains, above the tree line and then bomb it into submission. But this is a foolish strategy: operations in the mountains will deny Russian troops most of the advantages they have on other terrain.

If Russia really needed to win this war now, perhaps one would feel obliged to accept its strategy. But it does not.

Unlike the situation in 1991 and 1992, there is no imminent risk of the country's collapse. Nor are Chechens building nuclear weapons or sitting atop critical national resources. They can threaten a key oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea -- but that pipeline could probably be rerouted at less cost than the war can be fought.

The U.S. was correct in harshly criticizing Saddam Hussein for crushing Kurds and Shiites, and Chinese leaders for the atrocities at Tiananmen and in Tibet. Mr. Yeltsin deserves a dose of the same treatment, perhaps quietly at first.

As the Yeltsin team looks for a new approach to begin its second term, the time for the advice is now.

Michael O'Hanlon and Andrew Solomon are analysts at the Brookings Institution.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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