Television pictures of wooden coffins arriving from Chechnya evoke comparisons with Afghanistan, and some parallels are indeed striking. Covert action has again failed to subdue an unruly mountain nation on Russia's southern periphery. As then, an overw h elming conventional force has been thrown against poorly equipped but highly motivated rebels. Just as in 1979, the Russian people have not been consulted. Perhaps more ominously, the invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve and the invasion of Chechnya last week both occurred at the start of winter - against the Russian army's own rule of thumb. Last, in both cases it was assumed that the Russians had to prevail.
My bet is that they will again fail. Russian tanks can, of course, storm Grozny at any moment and, give or take a few hundred casualties, establish a garrison. Chechnya is tiny in comparison to Afghanistan, let alone Russia. But taking Grozny will not bethe end of the matter, any more than taking Kabul was. Even without President Dzhokhar Dudayev's Afghan experience, the Chechens know how to fight a guerrilla war.
In the mid-19th century it took 300,000 Tsarist troops and 50 years of fighting before the Chechens were not so much subdued as allowed to live by their own ways. They nevertheless rebelled at least once in every generation: in 1860, 1864, 1877, 1918, 19
28 and 1943.
The present fighters are the children and grandchildren of that half of the Chechen nation which survived Stalin's brutal wholesale deportation to Siberia and made it back home under Khrushchev. More than their parents and grandparents, they are likely to have it in for the Russians, unlike the Afghans, many of whom had been genuinely friendly with the Soviet Union for 30 years before the invasion.
Also, unlike the Afghans, they will not get CIA money and hardware. But they have already found allies: the neighbouring Ingush have apparently attacked one of the Russian armoured columns, setting ablaze 30 vehicles. And if Dudayev can survive and keep the resistance going, he will soon start drawing on the hundreds of millions of dollars of oil revenues his regime has stashed away in foreign bank accounts over the past three years.
Besides, the invasion seems poorly prepared. Some of the "tanks" that excited Western television reporters see are, in fact, antiquated self-propelled guns and even anti-aircraft batteries - hardly the most useful weapon in fighting guerrillas. There ar e elite units among the estimated 40,000 troops, but most are bewildered teenage conscripts, whose morale will not last long.
Even the Russian officer corps seems confused and reluctant. Incredibly for former Soviets, they did not ban the media from the theatre of operation, a mistake compounded by making threats to the journalists already there. As a result, the whole world and, more important, all Russia, could witness the surreal scene of an officer negotiating the passage of his tanks with a group of villagers. When they didn't budge, Major-General Ivan Babichev - who has, no doubt, risked his career and perhaps his life -stopped his armoured column and said he would not massacre civilians. Probably partly because of such cases of reluctance, the invasion was suspended and more time for negotiations allowed. Sleeping rough in the snowfields with nothing to do is unlikelyto increase the Russian army's will to fight.
Although he was elected as president with 80 per cent of the poll, victory for Dudayev would not be a triumph for freedom and democracy. His regime is no less than the Chechen mafia in power. Dudayev's gangsters have murdered journalists and officials who testified against the regime's stealing of Chechnya's oil wealth. One unfortunate consequence of the Russian invasion is that it has already made this scoundrel into a national hero and delayed reforms by years. Ordinary Chechens have no choice but to rally to him in defence against the invader. They will suffer twice over.
The crumbling of the invasion could, however, benefit democracy in Russia. Many, perhaps most, Russians seem to realise that the official explanation for the invasion - that it was necessary to put a stop to Chechen gangsterism and that Chechnya had to be brought back into the fold of the Russian Federation - is suspect. It does not take a genius to work out that the simplest way of inoculating Russia from the Chechen mafia would be to expel Chechnya and seal off Russia's border with it.
Most Russians would regret such action as much as New Yorkers would regret the disappearance of South Bronx down a hole in the ground. Most also recognise that the Chechens are different from them: ethnically, religiously, temperamentally and historically.
Asked a few weeks ago if Chechnya should be granted independence, 74 per cent of Russians sampled agreed, and only 5 per cent disagreed. Their independent spirit has been recognised by no lesser a Russian patriot than the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote of the Chechens in the Gulag: "Only one nation refused to accept the psychology of submission... no Chechen ever tried to be of service or to please the authorities."
What those Russians who oppose the invasion have grasped is that what is at stake in this crisis is not a tiny piece of troublesome territory, but the fate of Russia itself, its self-definition as a country. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a general Russian aspiration was for Russia to become a "normal" country, meaning a normal nation-state looking after its own people, living in peace with its neighbours and shedding its imperial legacy.
This is hard to achieve in the Russian Federation, where 100 ethnic groups rub uncomfortably against one another. But there is still a world of difference between Russia as a federal structure bound by treaties signed with some consent of its smaller ethnic groups - something like British India - and an empire ruled by autocratic fiat, even if in diminished borders.
Parts of Russia's ruling elite have recently been sliding back towards accepting the imperial definition of Russia, but ordinary Russians do not seem to support them. They seem to understand that there is a direct connection between the amount of libertyRussia allows its weaker neighbours, and the amount of freedom they themselves will enjoy.
The party of war in the "power ministries" which have pushed Boris Yeltsin into this invasion are the very same people who pilfer Russia's mineral wealth, blow up nosey journalists with suitcase bombs and are threatening a clampdown on press freedom. That is why the Russian press and public are protesting so vehemently. If there is a silver lining to this dismal episode, it is that Russian civil society is proving more sophisticated and more determined than many suspected.
With luck, this operation may prove to have less in common with the invasion of Afghanistan - which in its early days went like clockwork - and more with the bungled August 1991 coup which attempted to salvage the Soviet Union and instead precipitated
its collapse. Now, as then, the party of war is proving itself worse than brutal and authoritarian: it is shown up as incompetent and risible. If it were to fail in Chechnya, Russian neo-imperialism would perhaps be discredited once and for all. The attempt to turn Russia into an empire again will have failed. The tide of ultra-nationalism in Russia might then begin to retreat. That would not be a bad outcome, either for the world, or for Russia.