Leading Article: The threat to Chechnya questions Russia's claims to call itself a democracy

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The Independent Culture
WAR CRIMES are being committed in Chechnya every day. And still we look away. The shamelessness of Russian behaviour knows no bounds. In recent weeks, we had come to think that we had seen it all. And still it gets worse. Moscow's latest threat to the inhabitants of the Chechen capital, Grozny - get out within four days, or be killed - surpasses everything that has come before.

Purely on moral grounds, Russia's actions are outrageous. Russia claims to be a democracy - a claim that the West too often seems ready to accept at face value. Russia is a democracy in the sense that its leaders are chosen in free (if chaotic) elections. Newspapers can criticise the government without being closed down. And yet Moscow behaves with the worst kind of Soviet brutality when riding roughshod over the rights of those who have committed no crime, except to be born Chechen. The fate of the homeless refugees is perceived as irrelevant to the policy-makers in the Kremlin.

Shamefully, softly-softly is still the order of the day in the West. The International Monetary Fund has announced a delay on the latest tranche of a $640m loan to Russia - but has fudged the issue by referring to economic problems. The explanation should be upfront: if you slaughter people, you won't get the cash. It is as simple as that. Robin Cook, the UK Foreign Secretary, summoned the Russian Ambassador as a sign of British displeasure. The Kremlin will, however, not be quaking in its boots. Mr Cook suggested yesterday that future financial assistance might be "debated" at this week's EU summit in Helsinki. That, too, smacks of fudge. Action is finally needed, not just words.

Apart from any moral considerations, Russia has lost the political plot. In the first war on Chechnya in 1994-95, the Kremlin was confident that it would defeat the rebels within a few days. In the event, it took many months - and the victory was in any case soon reversed. Now, the pattern is repeating itself. At the beginning of the latest assault on Chechnya, the generals predicted a swift victory, which never came. Many innocent civilians will certainly be killed in the assault on Grozny. The rebels, well protected in their bunkers, will survive unscathed.

Once Grozny is "secured" by the Russian army, the backlash will soon begin. The Russians, holed up in their military barracks, will be attacked by the rebels on all sides and will eventually have to withdraw. The pattern is all too familiar.

It almost defies belief that the Russians themselves have not yet understood these obvious truths. The politicians refuse to admit what is happening; depressingly, millions of ordinary Russians seem to have been equally bamboozled, believing that the assault shows a "strong Russia". In reality, the opposite is the case.

This loss of a moral and political compass has important implications for the way the West should react. If the West simply looks the other way, bad behaviour will not be followed by better behaviour, but only by worse. Lord Robertson, Nato secretary-general and former defence secretary, talked yesterday of "ham-fisted" and "disproportionate" tactics. Such timid language, avoiding a head-on confrontation with Moscow, will do nobody any favours. In order to stop the killings, a line must be drawn in the mud and snow. Without that, the news will only get worse.