Russian defeat brings hope for peace in Chechnya

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Russian defeat brings hope for peace in Chechnya

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — August 1996 seems destined to be remembered as the point when Russians came to accept that their armed forces had lost the war in Chechnya, and when the regime of Boris Yeltsin took a big lurch toward paralysis.

Obviously sick, and probably trying to avoid being branded with responsibility for the Chechnya debacle, Yeltsin spent much of August out of sight of the press and public. Throughout several critical days, aides were unable to provide a credible account of the president's whereabouts. Serious doubts were voiced as to whether Yeltsin even knew about important decrees issued in his name.

Against this murky background, one fact stood out: for Moscow to pursue the conflict in Chechnya as it had done since December 1994 was now impossible. On August 6, military leaders of the Chechen resistance unleashed an assault on their republic's capital, Grozny. In little more than half an hour, the force of some 2000 fighters penetrated to the city's central neighbourhoods. In savage fighting over the days that followed, Russian units were left cut off in a few isolated strongpoints.

None of the Kremlin's military options offered much hope. Bombing and shelling continued, but were achieving little except to kill civilians and, in the words of one western journalist, to "make the rubble bounce". The only way the city could be recaptured would be through a concerted ground assault. But this would cost the Russian armed forces thousands of dead, and there was no guarantee of success.

"A storming of Grozny calls for a six-fold superiority in personnel", a writer for the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets noted later. "And I very much doubt that in the million-strong Russian military there are 30,000 combat-ready soldiers.

"The battle of Grozny is over. We have lost."

Yeltsin sick

The collapse of Moscow's military campaign has added to the crisis of power in the Kremlin. Yeltsin had tactical reasons for staying out of sight during the rout in Grozny, allowing others to take the blame. Observers have also seen his recent lethargy as an after-effect of the June-July elections; Yeltsin has often sunk into torpor after overcoming major political challenges. But above all, there is broad agreement that the president is in bad health.

Writing in the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Yeltsin's former press secretary Pavel Voshchanov stated that the president suffered from a chronic inflammation of the inner ear, cirrhosis, inadequate kidney function and rapidly progressing angina pectoris, the effects of which included insomnia. After two heart attacks in 1995, Yeltsin is rumoured to need bypass surgery.

Decision-making power has flowed in three main directions: to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; to head of the presidential administration Anatoly Chubais; and to former General Alexander Lebed, who after taking third place in the elections on June 16 was named by Yeltsin as chief of the presidential Security Council. In the intense rivalries of the Kremlin, Lebed is regarded by more established actors as a dangerously ambitious interloper.

With the defeat in Grozny, Lebed's antagonists appear to have sensed a chance to clip his wings. On August 10 Yeltsin appointed Lebed as the Kremlin's plenipotentiary envoy to Chechnya. In a statement to journalists soon afterwards, Lebed indicated that he believed the job had been given to him by his enemies in the hope that he would "break his neck" over it.

Lebed's only chance was to come up with a lasting settlement, something that would be enormously popular among the war-weary Russian population. His Kremlin rivals appear to have dismissed this as an impossibility.

But past peace plans have been doomed only when they concealed a continuing attempt by the Russian state to secure military victory. There is no essential reason why a peace plan cannot succeed if it is based on an acceptance of Russian military defeat.

Negotiations

By mid-August, this defeat was being acknowledged freely in the Russian press. To save his skin and deliver a major blow to his antagonists, Lebed had merely to recognise and respond to reality.

The security chief would have to reject the unwritten sub-plot of almost all present Russian political activity: observance of the taboos and fetishes of Russian chauvinism. A workable peace plan would have to violate the "integrity of the Russian state", providing for the withdrawal of Russian forces and setting out a process through which the Chechen people could hope to gain meaningful sovereignty.

Here, Lebed was shrewd and resolute enough to step outside convention. The leaders of the Chechen resistance responded favourably, and the Russian public looked on with relief and hope. Over some 10 days, Lebed's Kremlin opponents — including, it seems, an intermittently re-energised Yeltsin — manoeuvred to try to thwart Lebed's initiatives and stop his gains in prestige from becoming exorbitant.

On August 11 Lebed travelled to Chechnya and met with leaders of the resistance. On August 14 Yeltsin put his security chief in sole charge of finding a solution, and next day Lebed reached a firmer cease-fire agreement with Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov. Back in Moscow on August 16, Lebed declared that Russia could not afford the "luxury of conducting a war", and that the continued presence of Russian forces in Chechnya constituted a "moral, ethical, human, official and every other kind of crime".

Infighting escalates

From about this point, the Kremlin infighting became ruthless, and to most outsiders, bizarre. Lebed on August 16 demanded that Yeltsin sack interior minister Anatoly Kulikov, an important rival among the chiefs of the so-called "power ministries". Yeltsin rejected the demand.

On August 19 Lebed received instructions from Yeltsin's office to try to restore the situation that had existed immediately before the rebel attack on Grozny. Restoring the status quo, of course, could be achieved only through a huge and bloody military assault. A Security Council statement expressed disbelief that the orders had actually been approved by Yeltsin. Russians were left to contemplate the notion that their state was being run by unelected officials through forged decrees.

Also on August 19, the acting commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, Lieutenant-General Konstantin Pulikovsky, issued an ultimatum to all citizens to evacuate Grozny within 48 hours, after which he would launch an all-out attack. Pulikovsky claimed to be acting on authority from Moscow.

Defence minister Igor Rodionov, a Lebed ally, then told Russian television that Pulikovsky had acted "incorrectly". Lebed returned to Chechnya on August 21; cancelling the ultimatum, he denounced it as a "bad joke" and an attempt to undermine the accords with Maskhadov. Talks with the Chechen commander then resumed. On the morning of August 22, Grozny was at last quiet. Russian casualties since the assault began were reported as 420 dead and more than 1300 wounded.

As Lebed struggled to prevent the launching of new hostilities, Yeltsin resurfaced on August 22, clearly intent on stopping the prestige of his security chief from rising too far. The president claimed to be dissatisfied with Lebed's performance and, improbably, criticised him for failing to produce results in Chechnya. But the cease-fire was now taking a firm hold. Yeltsin on August 23 was forced to express grudging support for Lebed's moves.

The peace process is now going ahead on a basis quite different from the feints and subterfuges of the past. One key difference is that the Kremlin has had to recognise the legitimacy of the Chechen opposition; the Moscow-supported administration of former local Communist chief Doku Zavgayev has dropped out of sight.

The path to a political solution, however, will not be smooth. In giving his reluctant backing to Lebed, Yeltsin made the reservation that Chechnya had to remain an "inalienable" part of the Russian federation. The Chechen position calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops to be followed by an internationally supervised referendum on independence.

Whether or not a durable peace ensues, Lebed has chalked up gains in popular credibility that may allow him to secure long-term pre-eminence over figures such as Chernomyrdin and Chubais.

Lebed has stolen a march not only on rivals such as Chernomyrdin, but also on Yeltsin. The contrast between the dynamic, decisive Lebed and the sick, mostly invisible Yeltsin could scarcely have been more dramatic.

Assuming that Yeltsin remains alive and able to sign decrees, however, he is unlikely to fade from the scene. The president can be expected to continue trying, at least intermittently, to impose his authority, even if his ability to make considered decisions is gravely impaired.