Leading Article: The West must stop ignoring the tragedy unfolding in Chechnya

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The Independent Culture
THE HORROR of the situation in Chechnya, as depicted in today's front-page report by Patrick Cockburn, speaks for itself. Large numbers of civilians have been killed. A third of the population have fled their homes; many are trapped inside Chechnya, unable to escape. And still the onslaught continues. This is the terrible reality of the Russian war, a reality that is daily ignored by the West.

Moscow's war on Chechnya damages not just Chechnya but Russia itself. It is sad that Moscow fails to understand this point. It is equally depressing that Western politicians fail to understand the importance of what is happening in Chechnya today.

As Russian artillery pounds Chechen towns, it is of course civilians who bear the brunt - killed, maimed and orphaned. The Islamic radicals are safely holed up in the hills; pinpoint bombing is not a concept that the Russian military are familiar with.

The near-silence on this subject from Western politicians is both shameful and familiar. During Boris Yeltsin's first war against Chechnya in 1995, Western leaders insisted that this was Russia's "internal affair"; a similar logic applied in Kosovo.

Politicians finally understood that looking away merely encouraged Slobodan Milosevic to behave even worse than before. It is tragic that this lesson has not been learnt in Chechnya.

The Russians have done everything possible to prevent independent journalists from working in Chechnya. But the picture is clear. The Russian army believes that it has a licence to kill.

This war is driven, above all, by Russian politics; the fate of Chechnya and the Chechens is almost incidental. President Yeltsin's government hopes to gain Brownie points with the voters by alleged attacks on the Islamic terrorists who have caused such mayhem in Moscow. But that tactic can only work in the short term. As became clear in Chechnya in 1995, short-term military victory is much easier to achieve than successful long-term occupation. Soon, large numbers of young Russian conscripts will start to return home in body bags. Then the voters will no longer be so happy with the progress of the war.

Meanwhile, every bomb dropped on Chechnya is petrol on the fire of Islamic radicalism. There will be no shortage of recruits for bombings in Russian cities in the months to come.

Chechnya currently occupies a diplomatic no man's land. But all of Russia's current actions mean that full Chechen independence is coming closer - which, in turn, will lead to yet further fragmentation. When that happens, Moscow will have no one to blame but itself.

It need not have been like this. The Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, is no lover of the Islamic radicals who have destabilised his country. Yet, when he sought to talk to Moscow, he was repeatedly rebuffed. The Russian assault took place without any discussions with Mr Maskhadov. That refusal to talk has made it impossible for him to play a moderating role. Moscow's loss is the terrorists' gain.

And still the West does nothing. In Oslo yesterday President Clinton "expressed concern", diplo-speak for doing as little as possible. This do-nothing policy is lethal. Here, unlike the situation in Kosovo, military intervention is neither necessary nor practicable. Tough diplomacy and economic threats are, however, essential if the lunacy is to be reversed.