Chechnya Crisis: Moscow wants its revenge, but not a full-scale war Chechnya a short, sharp shock

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WHATEVER THE national fury at recent bomb outrages, and whatever the political temptation to play the "Chechnya card" ahead of the forthcoming elections, Russia's rulers will think hard and long before launching a full-scale attack on the north Caucasus republic that has caused Moscow so much trouble in the past.

Between 1994 and 1996 in Chechnya, the Russian army suffered its greatest humiliation since the first weeks of the Nazi invasion in 1941. President Boris Yeltsin's ill-judged war to suppress the republic's bid for independence left up to 100,000 dead and the military's reputation in tatters. It also dealt a blow to his standing at home and abroad from which he has never properly recovered.

In some ways, it is true, the mood is different from five years ago. Then, ordinary Russians harboured, if not great sympathy for the Chechens, at least deep doubts about the moral basis for the war - doubts that only grew as the scale of military incompetence emerged.

This time, there are no such misgivings. Rightly or wrongly, Islamic insurgents from Chechnya are accused of planting the huge bombs that brought down two apartment blocks in the capital, killing some 300 people. There is a widespread thirst for revenge, and perhaps a calculation in the Kremlin that public opinion would accept the casualties that would follow a ground invasion, if the reward was a victory reasserting Russia's authority.

And solid strategic arguments exist for bringing Chechnya to heel. One, spurred by the incursions of Chechen insurgents into neighbouring Dagestan - which Russian troops had much difficulty in suppressing - is the importance of preventing a "domino" effect along Russia's southern flank, as radical Islam spreads from one republic to another.

With this fear is the need to safeguard existing and future pipelines that one day may transport Caspian Sea oil to the Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. The present pipeline runs through the Chechen capital, Grozny, and Moscow would like to construct a bypass pipeline through Dagestan to the east, a project Chechen commanders have vowed to sabotage.

Finally, after five years of disorder, local people might not be as averse to Russian intervention as before. As Anna Matveeva of the Royal Institute of International Affairs points out in a recent study, no fewer than 20 actual or potential disputes can be identified in a desperately poor region riven by ethnic and religious divisions, where warlords have more power than nominal local governments, and crime and banditry are endemic.

Apart from Chechnya, Ms Matveeva writes, "none of the republics are pursuing separatist demands. There is virtually no anti-Russian nationalism at a popular level, as ordinary people have more grievances against their republican and local authorities, and still look to Moscow with a residual hope."

Such is the case for intervention. But the merest glance at history urges caution. For centuries, Moscow's attitude to the predominantly Muslim republics of the north Caucasus has been a classic example of what might be termed Russia's "defensive aggression" - imperialism born of a sense of vulnerability and a fear of encirclement.

In Moscow's traditional world view, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Ossetia and Cherkessia had to be under its control, not only to ensure access to Transcaucasia to the south, but to serve as a protective buffer for the rich agricultural regions of Stavropol and Krasnodar in southern Russia.

But the doctrine has carried a price - from crushing military defeat by the peoples of Dagestan, backed by the Ottomans, in 1604, to a 19th- century "holy war" waged by unified local Muslim peoples. The mass deportations ordered by Stalin in 1944 brought calm of a sort, but Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to forge a new relationship between the republics and the centre merely reignited old feuds.

Then came the unimitigated disaster of the 1994-96 war, which ended in de facto independence for Chechnya - although under international law the republic remains part of Russia. Today, Russia's army and finances are even weaker. Either an invasion or a serious long-term blockade of Chechnya would have a ruinous cost.

For that reason, whatever action Russia takes is likely to be sharp, punitive and, above all short. Moscow wants to teach Chechnya a lesson. But the prospect of a new and protracted conflict, with bodybags and perhaps more bombs, could see public support quickly evaporate.

Russia has nothing to gain and everything to lose by fomenting Islamic radicalism on its southern border in the Caucasus, which could easily spread to other former Soviet republics across central Asia. The turmoil since 1991 masks a gradual Russian disengagement from the region.

Whatever action is taken now, harsh economic and political realities suggest that, in the medium term, disengagement will probably continue.