BY sending troops into the rebel republic of Chechnya, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has made a fateful decision, for his own and Russia's political future.
In key aspects, Mr. Yeltsin's situation is reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's in January 1991, when he approved a military attempt to crush the drive for independence in the Baltic republics. Like Mr. Gorbachev, Yeltsin evidently believes that he is acting to preserve Russia's unity and integrity. But the attempt to use force - as in the Baltics - may only stiffen the will of those seeking separation from Russia and impel it to break up. And like Gorbachev, Yeltsin has taken the ill-conceived advice of forces in the military and security services who promise a quick and easy victory. The Russian leader has thereby driven a wedge between himself and his democratic supporters, threatening his own reformist goals.
Last weekend, reformist political leaders Grigory Yavlinsky and Yegor Gaidar warned of these consequences. ``We are on the brink of the Second Caucasian War, which will last for decades,'' Mr. Yavlinsky said, raising the specter of armed uprisings against Russian rule spreading throughout the North Caucasus. ``War means bigger military spending, a state of emergency across Russia and, finally, the introduction of a police state,'' Mr. Gaidar told a rally on Sunday in Moscow.
Ironically, it was Yeltsin who emerged as the hero of the Russian democratic movement when he rose to oppose the attacks in the Baltics. And it was Yeltsin who broke with Gorbachev shortly after, warning that he had become a captive of the hard-liners in the Communist Party and the security forces.
What makes the Chechen situation tragic is that it was avoidable. Russian officials depict Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev's government as an ``illegal'' regime that represents criminal groups and protects terrorists. In fact, Mr. Dudayev is a former Soviet Air Force bomber commander. According to experts who know him, he actively sympathized with the Baltic independence movement. In October 1991, he was overwhelmingly elected president and moved quickly to declare independence for his tiny mountain republic.
No country recognized Chechnya's independence, and Russia's response, spearheaded by former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, was to send in paratroopers. After a show of resistance, they backed off. After that, Russia made no serious attempt to engage in political negotiations. This contrasts with the prolonged and ultimately successful negotiation of a special autonomy relationship for Tatarstan, the other ethnic republic that refused to remain in the Russian Federation after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The difference, in part, is a legacy of hostility that goes back to the Chechens' 40-year 19th-century war of resistance against Russian rule. Stalin's decision to deport much of the Chechen population as punishment for their alleged pro-German leanings during World War II hardened that stance.
To its credit, the Yeltsin government has avoided force for much of the last three years and instead cut economic and other links, hoping it would cause the rebels to heel. The Chechens engaged in their share of provocations, including providing shelter for other Caucasian separatists. Russian restraint prevailed until last summer, when Moscow embarked on a covert operation to topple the Dudayev government. The campaign, organized by the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, was bungled. Assassination attempts failed. Russian backing, which included arms, supplies, and ultimately soldiers for an ersatz opposition ``Provisional Council,'' was ineffective.
The dispatch of troops is the last stage of this operation. The offer of political negotiations now hardly compensates for Moscow's disinterest in talks up to this point. Even if Russian troops take Grozny, most experts say the fighting will shift to the mountains, where Chechen guerrillas can entrench themselves. The battle is spreading to the North Caucasian republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. There is a danger this conflict could spread south to the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The United States has declared that Chechnya is Russia's ``internal affair.'' But the intervention's threat to Russian democracy is of vital concern to the US. Washington has two instruments that enable it to influence Moscow's behavior in the Caucasus while respecting Russian sovereignty.
The first is Russia's agreement at the recent meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe to the formation of a multinational peacekeeping force to end the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow had sought to install a purely Russian force, part of a broader aim to reinstall its military presence in this former Soviet republic. Russia can still block this plan, so Washington should now press hard and fast to implement it. The force will act as both a precedent for multinational conflict resolution in the former Soviet Union and a bar to Russian military expansionism in the Caucasus.
There also is the 1991 treaty to limit conventional forces in Europe. Russia, claiming conditions are now changed, wants to alter the treaty to allow it to station more troops in the Caucasus. Washington has opposed any formal alteration of the treaty but has been willing to discuss some ways to accommodate Russia's security needs. Any move in that direction should be linked implicitly, if not directly, to Russian policy in the region. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.