A frail leader, hoping to stem the disintegration of his empire, orders his troops to crush insurgents in a mountainous Muslim republic. The world is appalled by the brutal suppression of a small nation. A Democratic US president, who has staked his reputation on constructive engagement with the Russians, is assailed by a Republican challenger for misjudging the evil nature of the Kremlin regime. Arms control and global security efforts are thrown into disarray. The cold war revives.
That was 20 years ago, after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent his forces to invade Afghanistan. That led to ruptured relations between Moscow and the West. Dozens of countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and later that year Ronald Reagan, denouncing the USSR as an "evil empire," trounced the moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter for the US presidency.
But now, things are different. Just how different we may learn later today when President Boris Yeltsin confronts Western criticism of Russia's seven-week-old war against breakaway Chechnya at the Istanbul summit of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Analysts say the West's honeymoon with post-Soviet Russia was over anyway, and the stage may now be set for a return to the more traditional stance of mutual distrust and rivalry.
"There are very striking parallels with the situation in late 1979, when the Soviet attack on Afghanistan ended the period of dtente and threw our relations with the West into crisis," says Dimitri Trenin, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "A lot of things were going wrong with the US-Soviet relationship at that time, and Afghanistan was the last straw. The present war in Chechnya could be a similar kind of trigger."
Moscow's campaign to bring its separatist region of Chechnya to heel has sent an estimated 210,000 refugees fleeing for their lives and created mayhem in the tiny mountain republic. On Monday, OSCE foreign ministers accused Russia of using "disproportionate and indiscriminate" force against civilians there.
Western governments are asking Russia to open the region to international humanitarian agencies and invite the OSCE to mediate the conflict, as it did in the previous Russia-Chechnya war in 1996.
Some critics have even called for a complete cut-off of financial aid to Russia, as long as its Army is ravaging Chechnya. Leading Republican presidential contender George W. Bush says that "If the Russian government attacks innocent women and children in Chechnya, it cannot expect IMF [International Monetary Fund] funding ."
The other Republican front-runner, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, told the AP, "I would threaten to cut off IMF funding if there is not a peaceful settlement."
Human rights groups are calling on OSCE leaders to refuse to sign a new Security Charter for Europe, the Istanbul summit's centerpiece, until Russia proves it is abiding by international law in Chechnya. "The OSCE needs to make it clear that civilian suffering in Chechnya is already too great," says Holly Cartner, European director of Human Rights Watch, an independent monitoring group.
Moscow's troops have already occupied Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest town, and are laying siege to the capital of Grozny. "Occupying the cities and most of the territory of Chechnya is a feasible military goal," says Alexander Goltz, military expert with the weekly Itogi newsmagazine. "But we will be faced with a guerrilla war in the mountains that will go on for years, just as Afghanistan did.
"Chechnya will be a source of friction in our relations with the West for a long time to come."
Analysts say that Yeltsin will not succumb to Western pressure, but will tear a page out of Brezhnev's book and meet criticism with defiance.
"Yeltsin is going personally to Istanbul to make the Russian case to the West," says Valery Fyodorov, an analyst with the independent Center for Social and Political Trends in Moscow. "Basically he will tell them to mind their own business and stop exaggerating Russia's actions in Chechnya. He will definitely not turn the other cheek."
Military action la NATO?
Russian officials say they are only doing in Chechnya what the Western military alliance NATO did in Yugoslavia earlier this year - using force to restore order to a lawless territory. In Istanbul, Yeltsin is bound to stress the links some Chechen warlords are alleged to have with well-known international terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. "We won't stop as long as a single terrorist remains on our territory," Yeltsin said Monday. "Western countries have no right to criticize us for exterminating bandits and murderers who cut off their victim's heads."
But in truth, relations between Moscow and Washington have been going downhill for some time. The Kremlin's commitment to building an open-market economy in Russia has been mocked by a series of high-level corruption scandals. Moscow's hopes of being accepted as an equal partner of the US have been dashed by the expansion of the Western military alliance NATO into the former Soviet bloc, and NATO's war against Russia's traditional ally Serbia last spring. And American determination to break out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of arms control, is giving Russia the jitters.
"Maybe the Americans think Chechnya is the last straw, but for us it was NATO's attack on sovereign Yugoslavia," says Vladimir Baranovsky, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a center that trains Russian diplomats and government experts. "After Yugoslavia, the Russian attitude toward Western criticism has changed radically. Now our main view is that we will not accept any diktat from the West."
Some military leaders have gone much further, accusing the West of stirring the pot in Russia's volatile North Caucasus in order to gain strategic advantages.
"The West's policy is a challenge to Russia with the aim of weakening its international positions and ousting it from strategically important regions," such as the oil-rich Caucasus, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said recently.
Public support at home
Unlike the previous war with Chechnya, which killed an estimated 80,000 people and led to Russia's humiliating defeat, this campaign so far enjoys broad popular support. A survey of 1,600 Russians conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion Research last week found 66 percent considered the war "successful" against 23 percent who felt it was not.
One reason for the public's approval is that the tightly managed Russian media have shown little of the devastation wreaked by the bombing of Chechnya, and given only cursory coverage to the plight of the war's masses of traumatized refugees.
But another reason people in the street are backing the Kremlin this time, ironically, is because the West has been so openly critical."Why does the West think it has a right to interfere in Russia?" says Sergei Mishenkov, an electrician here. "Do we tell them how to deal with crime in their own countries. It's just outrageous." When the USSR invaded Afghanistan, there was no street view in Moscow. Russians listened secretly to Western radio stations, and formed their opinions in silence. Boris Yeltsin will make much of that in Istanbul.
"We may be headed for a period of cooler relations," Mr. Trenin says. "But let's not forget that Russia is not the USSR.... No new cold war is imminent. Russia is just an ordinary country trying to muddle through a mass of internal problems."
*Staff writer Elisabetta Coletti contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society