Russia's Retreat Ends Chechnya War But Leaves a Long-Term Impact

The last defeated Russian soldiers withdrew from the rebel republic of Chechnya on Sunday, their tails between their legs. They leave behind a record of futility and carnage that has blackened Russia's reputation worldwide and raised doubts over how much has really changed in the post-Soviet Kremlin.

In Chechnya itself, which withstood 21 months of war to uphold its demand for independence from Moscow, the troops are leaving physical wreckage and political divisions that may take years to mend.

The war to bring Chechnya under the Kremlin's control "helped re-create the image of a sinister Russia, a dangerous Russia, an imperial Russia," laments Viktor Kremenyuk, a noted Moscow-based political analyst. "It in no way contributed to improving Russia's image abroad."

The full military retreat from Chechnya is the last, most humiliating condition of the peace treaty that Moscow signed with the rebels last August.

But as trainloads of equipment and convoys of trucks roll northward, their movements have attracted no attention in Russia. Instead, the public mood is the same as it was throughout the fighting - general indifference.

To be sure, the war - which devastated the Chechen capital, Grozny, and left up to 80,000 dead, most of them civilians - was unpopular among Russians from the moment tanks moved into Chechnya on Dec. 11, 1994.

But efforts by human rights activists such as Sergei Kovalyov to mount an antiwar campaign met with practically no public support. And Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has acknowledged the war in Chechnya as "the biggest tragedy" of his presidency, found that the military debacle was no obstacle to his reelection last June.

As Russian troops leave the mountainous, mainly Muslim republic that they failed to tame, few voices are being raised in Moscow to demand that never again should the government embark on such a murderous adventure.

Rather, the conclusions that government and military leaders seem to have drawn are of a more tactical nature. " 'We were too weak, so unfortunately we were humiliated' - that is the only lesson they have learned," argues Dr. Kremenyuk. "They feel only that they need more [Army] divisions and more bullets; there is not the slightest sign of any sense that we should not have done the whole thing."

That is far from encouraging for Russia's neighbors, such as the newly independent Baltic states or Central European nations such as Poland and Hungary. The way in which Moscow resorted to brute force to resolve its problems in Chechnya has added urgency to their quest for NATO membership as protection from Russia in the future.

And Moscow's intolerance of a nationalist movement that took on increasingly Islamic overtones as the war dragged out has also damaged Russia's relations with the Muslim world. At the government level, nothing much changed: Iran continued plans to construct a Russian-built nuclear power station and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought allies where he could find them and found Moscow receptive. But among the peoples of the Muslim world, among intellectuals, young people, and the clergy, Moscow has earned a hostility that could give Russia problems in the future, say Middle East experts.

AT the government level, at least in public, the United States and Europe were tolerant of the fighting in Chechnya. Even in the face of reports of monstrous human rights abuses, diplomats declared that it was an internal Russian affair on which they should not comment. Many in the West believed that Mr. Yeltsin's grip on power was essential to Russia's stability, and that such stability mattered more than anything else.

This hands-off attitude of the West may encourage Moscow to continue doing all it can to influence Chechen affairs over the next five years - an interim period during which the key question of Chechnya's status, whether or not it is an independent state, is to remain unanswered.

All the front runners in the Chechen presidential elections scheduled for Jan. 27 are strong supporters of independence, including the man expected to win the vote, Aslan Maskhadov. He was not only commander of the rebel forces during the war, but head negotiator in the peace talks. In addition, he is broadly respected both by Chechens and by Russian officials.

But crime and violence, endemic in Chechnya, have already marred the election campaign. Six Western workers with the International Red Cross were murdered in their beds last month, in an attack that might scare away international observers of the election.

In their absence, Chechnya's enemies will find it easier to raise questions about the vote. In one worrying hint that Moscow may be preparing to ignore the results, Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin complained last week about the number of armed men who are to be seen everywhere in Chechnya. "The elections must take place in conditions of demilitarization," he insisted. "Everyone knows perfectly well that it is inadmissible to vote with such an abundance of arms around the polling stations."

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