Russian roulette

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 October, 1999, 12:00am

Conspiracy theorists are having a field day with Russia's war against Chechnya. Cynics allege the bomb attacks blamed on Chechen Muslims may, in fact, be the work of agents of Boris Yeltsin's regime anxious to stir up popular feeling and rally Russians behind their ailing President.

Certainly, launching a war against an ethnic or religious group is a time-honoured tactic of regimes in the kind of trouble engulfing Mr Yeltsin and his cronies.

The erratic nature of both the President's health and his behaviour make it easy to overlook how serious the situation in Russia is both politically and economically in the run-up to next year's presidential election. War in Chechnya adds a further element of instability in a country which, for all its recent decline, still has a large nuclear arsenal.

So far, the Russians have been able to fight on their own terms, making maximum use of air power. But, to achieve their aim of driving the Chechens back and stopping guerilla infiltration of Dagestan, Russian forces will have to engage more closely on the ground, opening up the possibility of fighting in winter terrain that favours the defenders. As the election approaches, disengagement will become more difficult. Reports of civilian casualties are piling up, but Russia has rejected mediation by the European Union as an 'incomprehensible' idea. For their part, Chechen groups appear to have made common cause against Russia with one warlord saying how grateful he is to Moscow for creating a new sense of unity among his people.

The danger for Moscow is of becoming bogged down in a bitter war that will draw in other countries in the region and extremist groups aided by familiar bogeymen of international terrorism such as Osama bin Laden. To seal off Chechnya could also mean Russian troops moving into Georgia, which would be none too happy at the implied threat to its independence.

Such prospects would be grave enough at any time. But at the twilight of the Yeltsin regime, with the President apparently only capable of sudden erratic power plays, they are doubly alarming.

The best thing would be for Russia to find a quick way out of the war, and for a viable alternative to the President to emerge before the year is out.