Chechen Fiasco

TINY Chechnya has turned into a fiasco for Boris Yeltsin. If the United States and the European Union do not devise a serious damage-control strategy, it could turn into a fiasco for them as well.

Clearly the Russian president thought he could win a splendid little war in two or three days' time, and restore Russian pride and his own approval ratings to boot. Chechnya was to be a kind of Russian Grenada - a lesson for the provinces. If Mr. Yeltsin had any notion the Caucasus campaign would go so badly, he would not have attempted it. As of this writing it appears the Chechens will begin commando operations out of the mountains, turning the tables on Russian forces occupying Grozny. At a certain point, and that point may have passed, ethnic fighters defending their homeland in a campaign as brutal as Moscow has waged no longer care whether they die. They become more dangerous. Defense Minister Grachev, do you remember Kabul?

Moscow, and thus the West, face the possibility that the longer the war goes on, the more a silent, submerged hard-line element in Russia will want to push its way into power. Russian liberals and democrats are outraged at Yeltsin's fiasco and talk bravely on Western TV news programs. Yet it is important that Chechnya not be an opportunity for representatives of isolationist-nationalist Russia to come to the fore. We aren't even talking about Vladimir Zhirinovsky. There are others who would like to return to the 19th century.

President Clinton's policy on Russia has been centered on Yeltsin the democrat.

The US never criticized Yeltsin or confronted Russian forays into Georgia and Moldova and elsewhere. In our own sphere, Mr. Clinton early agreed to bring Russia into the Bosnia crisis. Ironically, the carte blanche to Yeltsin in the UN Security Council may have encouraged him.

Both the Europeans and the Americans must move more vigorously behind the scenes to urge a stop to this war. The West can help bring about face-saving negotiations. But it must do so with resolve.

Clinton's dispatching of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Brussels Jan. 9 to talk with Russian officials is not exactly the right signal. Mr. Talbott is the architect of the ``Yeltsin first'' US policy. A different signal would be given by sending Vice President Al Gore Jr., or even Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. It would say to Moscow: You were wrong, and we were wrong not to say so. Let's salvage a civil approach.

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