Moscow's Sovietspeak

THE Russian government's recent moves in arms control and in its war in Chechnya show how deeply its military is mired in old ways of thinking.

After a recent meeting in which American negotiators proposed changes to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a Russian deputy defense minister huffed that Moscow has more than enough warheads to overwhelm any missile defense the US might build. And if needed, Russia will build more, he boasted - never mind that it can neither maintain nor afford the arsenal it has now.

Well, of course Russia can overwhelm a limited missile defense. That's the whole point. The limited defense the Clinton administration is talking about is meant to defend against one or two missiles launched by a rogue state like North Korea or Iraq, not the kind of massive attack Moscow could launch.

The best way for Russia to fend off the larger US missile defense it fears might evolve from a limited one? Update the ABM treaty for the realities of the post-cold-war era, with its proliferation of missiles. Don't stay frozen in the thinking of a decade ago.

By the same token, it's disappointing to hear that Russian forces, which cannot feed their troops, are still running military exercises aimed at beating back a NATO attack.

NATO is not going to attack Russia. It isn't 1812 and it isn't 1939: The real threats to Russia's security are the chaos resulting from a lack of economic reform; the rise of Islamist fundamentalism on its southern flank; and the rampant nationalism in non-Russian ethnic areas still within the Russian federation.

Which brings us to Chechnya. Russian military action there grows more ham-handed by the day.

Russia's got a clear case that it must go after guerrillas and bandits who've stirred up all kinds of trouble in Chechnya and neighboring areas. But civilians, clearly identified Red Cross convoys, and refugees are attacked indiscriminately by air and artillery. Moscow will win no hearts and minds this way if it wants to resume full control of this breakaway republic.

Western attempts to point out to Moscow the fruitlessness of this strategy bring a Soviet-style rejoinder: Don't mess in our internal affairs. But the world should hold Russia to its international promises to respect human rights.

And Russia's friends must help the Kremlin leadership understand that it should avoid creating an ongoing guerrilla warfare with no victory in sight for either side.

That possible scenerio could threatens Russia's infant democracy and mortgages its economic future.

It's time to back off the bombing in Chechnya and seek a political settlement.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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