MOSCOW — The prospects for a settlement in Russia's 19-month war with separatist Chechen rebels took a turn for the worse this week when the rebels launched an incursion Tuesday into central Grozny, the first such attack in five months.
The Chechen attack, which has targeted buildings of the Moscow-installed official government, follows weeks of intensive Russian bombardment of villages in the Caucasus Mountains south of Grozny, believed to shelter rebel troops.
The war has fallen into a strange pattern. Cease-fires come and go. Military gains on either side are as fleeting as political rapprochement. Russians besiege a village that becomes a rebel stronghold and eventually take it. A few month later, the rebels are back and the Russians are besieging again. Rebel maneuvers have a dramatic, taunting character. They move into Chechen cities as if to show they can do it and withdraw.
Now it appears that the weeks before the Russian presidential election represented a brief - and false - period of optimism. In late May, Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev met Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin and signed a cease-fire agreement, the highest level agreement to date.
But within days of the final round of the election, held July 3, the war was escalating, apparently through initiative on the Russian side. A Western diplomat who closely follows events in Chechnya says that the May agreement was little more than an election ploy, and that neither side was serious about pursuing it. The Chechen rebels had decided that they would rather see Yeltsin reelected than the harder-line Gennady Zyuganov, Yeltsin's opponent.
Chechnya threatens to become for Russia what Northern Ireland is to Britain, the diplomat says, an ongoing source of low-level violence that sputters on for decades.
Chechen rebels periodically seek to export violence to enemy territory in the form of terrorism. For weeks, Moscow and other Russian cities have been facing a series of anonymous bombing incidents, many of them aimed at trains. Rebel commando Salman Raduyev claims credit for these bombings, after having threatened to take the Chechen war to the railroads of Russia.
Many observers have become deeply cynical about the prospects for peace and the goodwill on either side. Tim Guldimann, head of the Grozny mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has been working steadily to bring military commanders on the two sides together. Mr. Guldimann, this time, blames the Chechen attackers for derailing diplomacy.
Some believe diplomatic solutions are still possible. "Diplomatic solutions are always possible in Chechnya," says Yevgeny Krutikov, an expert at the Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow.
The major point at issue is Chechnya's independence from Russia. But Mr. Krutikov believes that compromise could be reached on this point, and that it is not the primary obstacle to agreement now. The biggest obstacle from the Chechen viewpoint is Russian support for the Moscow-installed Chechen government, he says. Russians argue that these officials were elected in Chechnya. But the elections were so faulty that many French and British journalists openly voted in them in a test of their integrity.