Time for us to act where governments fear to tread

`Non-combatants being regarded as armed soldiers is a terrible throwback to a different time'
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"THOSE WHO remain will be viewed as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and aviation.'' These words, printed on leaflets and scattered by air over the Chechen capital of Grozny this weekend, evoke an image of 55 years ago; of Hitler's bespectacled, smiling, anti-partisan specialist, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, presiding over the liquidation of the Warsaw uprising.

There, a quarter of a million civilians were trapped with the insurgents of the Polish Home Army, and thousands died. Non-combatants being regarded as armed soldiers, whatever the truth, is a terrible throwback to a different time.

Prime Minister Putin, President Yeltsin, the Russian generalariat and commanders on the ground will never be forgiven if - next week - their helicopter gunships, their ground attack planes, their multiple rocket- launchers, their vacuum bombs and their heavy guns reduce the kids and the mothers, the sick and the scared, to a bloody spew, because Moscow was impatient to root out what it calls terrorists.

Never be forgiven, and what else will we do? Our detestation of the deed, and whose army? Will we one day nab a vacationing Putin, and hand him over to a third party for trial, because of what may be about to happen in Grozny? And even if the answer to this is "yes", what about stopping it from taking place? Why, if we went to all that murderous expense in Kosovo, are we not doing something in the Caucasus?

There are notable similarities. The Chechens are Muslims who have sought greater autonomy from an Orthodox, larger neighbour. They, too, are being forced from their homes in their hundreds of thousands, so we have the same unbearable pictures of lines of shuffling, stumbling, tear-stained women, grannies and infants; the mud-spattered tractors crawling over borders, loaded with almost nothing that people may need for survival in a Caucasian winter. What's more, Chechnya, like Kosovo, is internationally accepted as being part of the country that is subjecting it to violence.

It follows, to some people, that Chechnya discredits the idea of a New World Order, just as many felt that any arms sales to Indonesia exposed the concept of an ethical foreign policy. Four weeks into the Kosovo bombing campaign, Tony Blair went to Chicago and made a speech on, among other things, the circumstances in which it was right to intervene, militarily and otherwise, in the domestic affairs of other nations. Yesterday, a highly intelligent BBC presenter described the contents of the speech as "looking threadbare", in the light of impending events in Grozny.

I'm not sure he'd read the speech recently. It's been fashionable for some time to assume that all politicians and leaders are liars or idiots or both, but when Blair addressed the Economic Club of Chicago he was pretty clear that intervention was not a fit-all-sizes garment. "If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world, then we would do little else than intervene in the affairs of other countries," he said. "We would not be able to cope."

So five general conditions (though "not absolute tests") were laid down. Number three was a question: "On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?" Number four asked whether we were prepared for long-term involvement in the area, and number five contained a rough notion of contiguity - how much was this our problem, rather than someone else's?

Far from looking "threadbare", Chechnya proves the acuity of the speech. There may be people who are opposed to intervention in all circumstances because - like, say, John Pilger - they already believe that the Western democracies are corrupt oligarchies whose actions are automatically worse than those of a Milosevic or a Saddam (but not, strangely, of any Indonesian you care to mention). But there surely can't be many grown-ups who hold to the proposition that if you cannot intervene everywhere, then you cannot intervene anywhere. Moral strength comes from doing what you can, not from always doing the same thing.

It is as obvious that we cannot use or threaten force to get Russia's hands from around Grozny's throat, as it is that we cannot threaten to invade Tibet and liberate it from China. Unfortunately, it's not so obvious what we do instead.

As though expecting a crisis like that in Chechnya, the Chicago speech also contained a section that dealt specifically with Russia. "We simply cannot stand back," said Blair, back in April, "and watch that great nation teeter on the brink of ruin. We must not let our current differences set us on a route towards the mutual hostility and suspicion which has too often characterised our relationship in the past."

Tragically, in September a number of bombs exploded without warning in blocks of flats around Moscow, and hundreds of ordinary Russians were killed. The suspicion that Chechen militants were responsible changed a public opinion hostile to military adventure, to one entirely in favour of it.

That is not, God knows, a peculiarly Russian reaction, but it has been a disastrous shift, and one that we may all be paying for well into the next decade. Suddenly, an unpopular government has been made popular again, by the use of force.

There is little that we can do to harm the Russians that does not threaten our own objectives of strengthening democracy and civil society there even more. Too big a stick, and there's a risk of playing into the hands of nationalists and populists. That's why we feel so bloody constrained, and why we shall limit ourselves to muttering about loans, freezing technical assistance, raising the issue at lots of meetings, and gazing at them with sorrowful eyes.

When President Clinton told Russia that it would "pay a heavy price for those actions", he didn't mean that we'd exact it, but that Russia would find itself enmired and militarised for many years as a consequence. It was a sensible warning. Governments must plead, reason and warn. There could one day be a point at which we give up on the business of subsidising Russia, and decide to live with a second Cold War, a more dangerous one, in which the missiles are controlled by the Lebeds and Luzhkovs, rather than the Brezhnevs and the Chernenkos. The consequences of such a reversion would be bad for all of us, but worse for the Russians, and they should think hard about it. That moment has not yet arrived.

The rest of us, however, can do what governments can't. There should be demonstrations this week outside the Russian Embassy, large ones, protesting against the siege of Grozny and letting Putin and the generals know that their savagery will not soon be forgotten. It may not be quite as exciting as dancing outside Euston station, but the cause is as good. Those of us who know Russians should write, e-mail, call and fax our friends and acquaintances and tell them what we think.

It's not enough, of course it isn't, but it may be the best that we can do. The three words "New World Order" don't solve everything, or absolve us of anything. Never did.