Leading Article: A turning point in the insane Russian war on Chechnya

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The Independent Culture
THE KREMLIN suffers from the delusion that it can defeat the Chechen rebels and that everybody (everybody in Russia, that is) will live happily ever after.

This is an absolute fantasy, which Russians need to understand as such. Until now, the Russian forces have been able to shell and kill without anybody much turning a hair. Now, the Russian forces find themselves confronted by real Chechen rebels for the first time. And lo and behold, they have received a hammering. Despite all the Russian denials, it is clear that dozens of Russians were killed in a Chechen ambush this week. It was all too predictable. The only surprising thing is that the Russians themselves appear surprised.

The illusion of strength can be sustained until tomorrow, when tens of millions of Russian voters will elect a new parliament. Many remain convinced that their armed forces are doing fine work by murdering Chechen civilians, and are ready to elect a government that has proved its toughness. That is a source of sadness for Chechnya. If the Russians did but understand it, it is a source of sadness for Russia, too.

Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow's adventure in Afghanistan proved that tanks do not necessarily win wars. The disastrous war in Afghanistan was an important early sign that the empire itself was on its last legs.

Boris Yeltsin, when he first came to power, appeared to understand that political generosity was the key to the survival of a strong Russia. Only later did he and his generals lose the plot. In 1995, the Russian army seized the Chechen capital, Grozny. Soon, however, a guerrilla war sapped the Russians' strength; they lost the capital once more.

As Patrick Cockburn reports from Grozny today, soldiers were yesterday singing of past triumphs, from Stalingrad to Berlin. In reality, the parallels with Stalingrad are different. The Nazi forces arrived in the Stalingrad, convinced that they were about to defeat the Russian Untermenschen. But the Russians, holed up in their ruined city, were more motivated than the Germans ever imagined. This was the turning point in Hitler's war.

Chechnya, too, will prove to be a turning point. One must hope that some kind of self-knowledge will at last arrive, allowing Russia to reach a kind of sanity - including the understanding that dialogue, not destruction, is the only answer. But that point has not yet arrived.