Leading Article: Russia's softer stance offers a small glimmer of hope

PERHAPS IT is the time of year, but it is possible to detect a glimmer of hope in even the grimmest of situations. True to the prediction of our Moscow correspondent, the Russians have launched their Christmas offensive in Chechnya. But there is a left-over crumb of comfort in the fact that they appear to be responding to the pressure of world opinion in trying to reduce, if not avoid, civilian casualties. The fact that the Russian forces have stopped saying that they intend to flatten the Chechen capital, Grozny, is hardly a great gain for humanity, but there are signs that they are allowing some civilians a passage to safety.

Of course, it is not yet Christmas by the Orthodox calendar, but the Russians have a penchant for launching big military adventures on Western holidays. The disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan started on 25 December 1979. It appears to be their assumption that the international community will not be looking on festive days, although in the absence of other news and with most of the population of Western countries watching television all day, this calculation must be suspect.

The point remains that world opinion is a serious constraint on Russian policy in its Caucasian republic. The tempering of the Christmas offensive is a shining thread of hope, which could be stitched into the "fabric of community" of which Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, writes overleaf. There are many such threads of hope which promise a new century in which the idea of international community becomes more real. Mr Annan admits that the international community failed to avert genocide in Rwanda, and that it acted too late in Yugoslavia and East Timor. But late though it was, it did finally act in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, managing to mitigate the worst excesses of inhumanity.

As Mr Annan points out, there exists a framework of international law, treaties and human rights conventions. Increasingly, public opinion around the world is mobilised behind them. Even in the misery of Grozny this winter, there is hope.