WIN or lose in Chechnya, President Boris Yeltsin loses. He becomes the prisoner of the Russian military command, which saved him from being deposed in the parliamentary coup of 1993. It is now pursuing its own strategic goals, as well as trying to divert attention from its upper-echelon corruption scandal.
Richard Nixon, in a famous quasi-private memorandum three years ago warning that President Bush was missing the boat on Russia, urged stronger support for Mr. Yeltsin. If Yeltsin failed, he said, Russia could return to a dictatorship and to its ``expansionist tradition.'' What Mr. Nixon did not foresee is what could happen with an irresolute, ailing, and reportedly alcoholic Yeltsin still officially in office.
The assault in Chechnya, which dismays his friends and exhilarates his enemies, makes no sense except as an expression of the ancient Russian territorial imperative.
We have seen Russia's reach-for-the-gun reflex in the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, in threatened invasions of Poland and the Baltic states. In the unruly Caucasus region, Russia resorts to force to maintain its shaky hold.
Embarrassed by the wanton bloodshed, the outside world, starting with the United States, has maintained support for Yeltsin, fearful of the alternative. ``An internal matter,'' statesmen mumble about Chechnya. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake is reduced to the sophistry of saying that the issue is how they use force, rather than whether they use force. But what else is there to say when you are backing Yeltsin while the American public is looking at the horror of Grozny on television?
THE policy of condoning this much, but not too much brutality is not likely to survive examination by a Republican-controlled Congress, many of whose leaders have never been fully persuaded that Russia is safely democratic.
Two years ago Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev shocked the European Conference in Stockholm with a speech stressing Russia's right to intervene militarily in its surrounding ``post-imperial space.'' Then he said his speech was a joke to dramatize the views of Yeltsin's opponents. But it turns out that Mr. Kozyrev wasn't kidding, and it didn't take the ouster of Yeltsin for Russia to start using the mailed fist again. 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.