Russia Threatens a Splinter State

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin threatened Nov. 29 to send troops to put down fighting in the rebellious southern region of Chechnya, saying Moscow's ``vital interests and national security'' were in peril.

Mr. Yeltsin told warring Chechens to lay down their arms by the morning of Dec. 1 or he would order Russian troops to enforce a state of emergency. ``The situation is becoming extremely dangerous for stability and peace in our society,'' he said.

But intervention in the breakaway Muslim province would more likely bring wider conflict than a cease-fire. ``Violence gives birth only to more violence,'' said Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the Duma's (parliament's) Defense Committee.

That warning seemed born out Nov. 29 when jets - apparently piloted by Russian airmen - bombed Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. The airstrike came after a weekend of fierce fighting between troops loyal to Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev and opposition forces backed by Moscow.

Mr. Dudayev's men captured some 70 Russian prisoners as they repelled an assault on Grozny. Claiming the men were serving officers from the Russian Army, Chechen officials threatened on Nov. 28 to execute them as mercenaries.

Dudayev unilaterally declared independence in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya in 1991, as the Soviet Union broke up, and has thumbed his nose at Moscow ever since. Ethnic minorities in other outlying areas of Russia have followed Chechnya's fortunes as a measure of their own scope for action.

The oil-rich republic, lying on Russia's strategically important southern flank, has been in turmoil, as Russian-backed irregulars have waged a war to topple the government. But despite coming close on several occasions they have always been forced to retreat.

Moscow has so far been unwilling to get directly involved in the fighting, fearing that its troops could get bogged down in an Afghanistan-style war.

Defense Minister Pavel Grachev has warned more than once - responding to nationalist calls for decisive action to put down the Chechen rebellion - that it would take 10 minutes to plan an intervention, 10 hours to carry it out, but 10 years to withdraw.

But Russia's allies have proved unable to seize victory, despite clandestine assistance from Russian forces. A number of the POWs captured Nov. 26 were members of the Russian Army, Mr. Yushenkov said, but their status was unclear.

``They seem to be men who are on leave or in the process of being demobilized,'' he said Nov. 29. ``Whether they acted on orders from the Russian command or volunteered as mercenaries remains to be clarified.''

However they got there, the sight of Russian prisoners being paraded before the television cameras was apparently too much for Yeltsin. ``Boasting about Russian victims does not go down well in Moscow,'' pointed out Alexei Pushkov, political analyst and editor of the weekly Moscow News.

``I think we may have reached the point where Yeltsin's domestic image is more important to him than the risks of intervention'' in Chechnya, Mr. Pushkov suggested.

The presidential announcement gave both Dudayev and his rivals in the rag-tag opposition militias 48 hours ``to declare a cease-fire, lay down their arms, disband all armed groups, and release all citizens who have been captured and are being forcibly detained.''

But Dudayev loyalists sneered at the warning and said it meant nothing. ``I think he was drunk when he made the ultimatum,'' Chechnya Foreign Minister Yousef Shamsedin joked.

``It will inevitably make those who have blindly been following the opposition leave it,'' predicted Musa Merzhuyev, Dudayev's top official at Chechen military headquarters.

The risk that a Russian intervention might rally Chechens behind their self-declared president out of nationalist pride, is only one of the problems with Moscow's threats, analysts say.

``The essence of the case is that Russian politicians ... have no clear idea of the goals they are going to achieve in Chechnya,'' said Mikhail Leontyev, a political analyst with the daily Sevodnya.

``It is impossible to solve anything in Chechnya by force alone,'' added Alexander Golz, a columnist with the Russian Army newspaper Red Star.

Rejecting charges that Russian troops were directly involved in the Nov. 26 assault on Grozny, General Grachev said that if his men had been there, ``one airborne regiment would be enough to solve all the questions in two hours.''

But Russian troops could get stuck in Chechnya. ``We can judge [how long Russian forces might stay] by the example in the neighboring area to Chechnya - Ingushetia and Ossetia,'' said Yushenkov. Russia sent troops into North Ossetia to impose a state of emergency two years ago and have been there since.

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