Leading Article: Russia's unhappy game plan, in the disaster that is the Caucasus

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE many occasions when the politics of the Kremlin give cause for despair. None more so than when it comes to its policies (or lack of them) on the Caucasus region.

The military violence against the republic of Chechnya continued yesterday, with the bombing of the capital, Grozny, for the fifth day running. The Defence Minister says that the bombing will continue "until the last bandit is destroyed".

To which we can only say: they must be mad. It is as though the politicians and generals have understood nothing of what has taken place in recent years.

The bombings carried out by Islamic radicals in Moscow and other Russian cities in recent months have been horrific. Many innocent lives have been lost. Even following those bombings, however, the Russian reaction has smacked more of mindless revenge than of bringing the problem itself under control. The arrest of thousands of people of Caucasian origin did little to solve the problem of terrorism. Instead, it helped to stoke Russian xenophobia (in abundance, even in calmer times) and Caucasian resentments of Russian racism (ditto).

In the winter of 1994-95, the weight of Russian military armour swung into action against Chechnya to punish it for its attempted breakaway. The military machine seemed to suffer from the Soviet-style delusion not just that might is right, but also that a large army will always defeat a small but defiant populace. In both respects, they were wrong.

The moral case is clear cut. It was grotesque and depressing that Russia, while portraying itself as a new convert to democracy, cheerfully killed civilians en masse. Young Russian conscripts were sent in to Grozny, in search of Chechen terrorists. They were stunned to discover families cowering in freezing cellars. The practical case was equally clear. The Russian army won a short-term victory - with that much firepower, how could it not? Once the occupying force had been installed, however, it found itself at the mercy of the Chechen rebel forces.

Before the launch of that brutal war five years ago, support for pro- independence rebels in Chechnya was half-hearted; by the time that the apocalyptic war was over, support in the ruined republic was total.

In the years that followed, when demoralised Russian conscripts were shot and blown up on a regular basis, it seemed that Moscow had finally learnt the obvious lesson. Violence does not lead to long-term victory - only to a short-lived phantasm of victory.

Moscow seemed grudgingly to accept that a degree of Chechen autonomy (a fudged version of independence) was inevitable. The Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, became an almost acceptable negotiating partner.

Now, the plugs have been pulled once more. Mr Maskhadov talks of the need for dialogue; the Kremlin scoffs at his request.

In the short term, this grandstanding may impress Russian voters in the lead-up to the forthcoming elections. But it will not improve the security of ordinary Russians. Each bomb dropped on Chechnya - and each Russian refusal to talk - increases the chances that a lunatic will detonate another bomb in Moscow. It is time that Russia learnt this obvious lesson. Government bombs don't stop terrorist bombs; they encourage them.