Russian Roulette

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

Russian President Boris Yeltsin predicted it would be a "quick little war." But as the invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya (pop. 1.2 million) enters its second month, it has turned instead into a major military debacle and raised questions about the stability and future of the Russian Federation. "The Russian attack on Chechnya has brought into play political forces in Moscow which could turn Russia back into a very anti-Western, nondemocratic country, "says Paul Goble, 46, a former CIA analyst and State Department adviser on minority groups in Russia who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Goble discussed the potentially far-reaching consequences of the war in Chechnya with correspondent Sandra McElwaine.

Who are the Chechens?

The Chechens are a Muslim people who have lived in the Caucasus Mountains for more than a millennium. It took Czarist Russia 30 years to overcome fierce resistance and conquer them in 1864. After the 1917 revolution, the Soviets needed seven years to regain control of the area. The Chechens revolted against Stalin twice. They have been fighting the expansion of Russia for nearly 200 years. So when the Soviet Union fell apart three years ago, it was not a surprise that the Chechens, led by their president, Dzhokhar M. Dudayev, declared independence.

What was the Russian response?

For two years the Russians left the Chechens alone. Still, many in Moscow felt an independent Chechnya represented a threat to their control of the oil pipelines that flow through Chechnya and neighboring republics. There was also a feeling that Moscow needed to reestablish its authority in the Russian Federation—they had been collecting only 20 percent of the taxes owed, and few regions had been complying with the draft—by making an example of Chechnya. Last summer the secret police set things in motion by trying to overthrow Dudayev by arming his opponents, but they failed. Then the secret police convinced Yeltsin that the army should be brought in.

Why did Yeltsin go along?

Yeltsin has been losing political support and has become increasingly disillusioned with democracy as a solution to his problems. The economy has not turned around. The Americans have not come to his aid. By invading Chechnya, he thought he would get a quick victory and regain some of his earlier popularity. Now he has lost control of the situation. He twice issued orders to stop the bombing of Grozny, the Chechen capital, but the army and secret police ignored him. They were intent on continuing the bombing because they did not want to launch a mass frontal assault and risk thousands of casualties and the public wrath that would ensue.

If the army is not listening to Yeltsin, then who is in charge?

Yeltsin still has overall authority, but he is not prepared to enforce it. He might be able to end the war tomorrow by firing some of his generals, but that doesn't mean they would go. And if they stay, their solution may be to remove him.

Will Chechnya be the Russians' Vietnam?

I would say it's their Afghanistan in the media age. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there was strict government control of all news outlets. But now the Russians see television reports every night about Chechnya, and they are horrified by what their government is doing. Polls suggest that 75 percent of the Russian people are opposed to the invasion.

Has Yeltsin taken this opposition to heart?

If he were a true supporter of democracy, he would fire his immediate entourage, call for parliamentary elections and offer to negotiate with the Chechens. But that is not likely to happen. I expect he will stick with the secret police and stand by as Grozny is destroyed. But the Russians will then discover you can't decapitate the Chechens. Their country is mountainous, and they can resist for a very long time. Lots of Russian boys will be coming home in body bags or, as they call them, overcoats of lead.

How has the invasion of Chechnya affected relations between the U.S. and Russia?

So far the Clinton Administration has done nothing except express concern about whether Yeltsin will survive or not. That's the wrong tack. It is a mistake to focus on Yeltsin as if he were an unchanging beacon of light. The question is, how do we react as Russian policy changes? Yeltsin today is not the one of a year ago. He has moved to the right. Our failure to criticize him removes one of the most important constraints on his behavior and undermines any belief in our moral authority around the world.

What constructive action should the U.S. be taking?

We need to make very clear that we want to cooperate with Russia but only if it lives up to international law and agreements. How can we cooperate with a government that has leveled an all-out assault on its own people?

How do you think the war in Chechnya will play out?

The real problem is going to begin after Grozny falls. Terrorism will follow, and it may expand into a guerrilla war, spreading across neighboring republics. This will send fault lines across Russia and could tear Russian society apart.

Do you think there will be a return to communism?

No. What we are seeing now is a move toward authoritarianism, toward a much tougher, less democratic regime in Moscow. War has so divided Russian society and isolated Yeltsin that the ultimate outcome could range from dictatorship to chaos. It's anyone's guess who will come out on top—the secret police, the army or, with any luck, the reformers. This is going to take a long time to sort out, and it is going to be very messy. In the meantime, it could put any possibility for continued cooperation between the U.S. and Russia at risk.

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