Yeltsin is not the first reformist leader in Russian history who has finished up isolated and battered, surrounded by a few trusted advisers who feed him the news he wants to hear. In the early 19th century, Alexander I, who began his reign with the hopes of liberals all over Europe pinned on him, ended it in intimate conclave with General Arakcheyev, an artillery officer who was notorious for inspecting his serfs' backs after punishment to make sure they had been flogged properly.
In each case, the reason for the isolation is the same. The elites of society resist reform because it threatens their privileges; the classes who might benefit from it have not yet formed coherent political movements, and the masses remain indifferent. In these circumstances, it is all too easy for a ruler to drift into dependence on a clique, and then get drawn into an unwise adventure. The nomenklatura system of rule, which Yeltsin inherited from the old Soviet Union, intensifies this danger, becauseit functions through powerful individuals forming their own clientele network.
That is exactly what seems to have happened to Yeltsin in Chechnya. As far as we know, General Korzhakov, Yeltsin's chosen confidant, does not share Arakcheyev's proclivities, but he and a few others seem to have encouraged and deepened Yeltsin's tendency to take an oversimplified and paranoid view of the world.
We cannot know what lay behind the decision to invade Chechnya, but Yeltsin did not warn his ministers what was afoot, and the military blunderings give it all the appearance of an operation launched without much consultation with the army officers who would have to lead it.
The consequences will be momentous for Russia's future, whichever way the conflict turns out. The Caucasus is an extremely sensitive area, lying as it does on the border between Islam and Christendom, close to Russia's most fertile grain-growing region as well as to abundant sources of oil. The collapse of the Soviet Union has made the region unusually turbulent today, but actually whenever Russia has fought a major war in the past 200 years it has had to guard its Caucasian flank against invasion or internal subversion.
In the 19th century, Russia spent 50 years tightening its grip on the mountain valleys to crush the last resistance from the ruthless and proficient horsemen who had vowed to wage a holy war against it. Those are the valleys into which the Chechens will today retreat to conduct a partisan campaign if they lose Grozny.
Then, as now, Russia hoped to overwhelm the Muslim mountain people by sheer weight of numbers and technology, only to be rudely disabused. In the end, they were driven to genocide: a systematic strategy of burning down forests, slaughtering livestock anddestroying villages to deny their adversaries the means of life. The Chechens and their neighbours have never forgotten that.
It is not only for the Chechens that this war is destructive. For Russia, war has never been an easy option, however it may look at the outset. It is always expensive, often so much so as to undermine stable finances for years afterwards. Besides, Russian leaders do not always receive the support they expect from their own people.
The empire may pursue its geopolitical imperatives, but the people have their own agenda too. During the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, many peasants volunteered for military service not for patriotic reasons, but in order to escape from serfdom. In the First World War, the soldiers, mostly peasants, put up with terrible conditions in the trenches for three years, but then decided that Russia was less important to them than their home villages, so they defied their officers and made for home.
And today the reputation of the Russian army for mistreatment of its conscripts is so bad that for years parents have been pulling every available string to get their sons exempted or permitted to serve in some harmless backwater. There is no doubt that such efforts will be redoubled right now.
There are two added ingredients that make this war especially difficult to fight. The first is that the Russian army is fighting against Russian citizens: indeed, it is to enforce the Chechens' status as Russian citizens that the war has been launched atall. Besides, ethnic Russians living in Chechnya are probably suffering worst of all, since they have nowhere to flee to, whereas many Chechens can seek refuge in the villages. Since most Russian officers believe that their army exists to fight foreigners, not Russians, the current campaign has generated insubordination at the highest levels. The result is a poorly co-ordinated campaign, often being conducted by the wrong troops and with low morale.
Moreover, for the first time ever, Russian soldiers are waging a war in front of journalists and television cameras passing on the full story to their folk back at home. It is fashionable to decry Russian democracy as a damp squib, but here it has been working in exemplary fashion. The Russian public is being fully informed about the atrocities committed in its name, about the blunderings of its commanders and the defeats suffered by its troops.
All these pressures have created a political situation in which it may soon be impossible even for a president with the constitutional powers of Yeltsin to continue the war. Opinion polls consistently show that 65 to 75 per cent of the public is opposed to it. Most leading politicians have come out against Yeltsin, including his former staunchest supporters. His closest ally now is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who seems to have lost his customary flair for taking up whatever line is currently most popular withthe people. Maybe his head has been turned by the thought that Yeltsin is more or less carrying out the recommendations of his book, The Last Thrust to the South.
All this places a great responsibility on the motley alliance of politicians who oppose Yeltsin. They have a great opportunity if they can get together to present a practical way of bringing about a ceasefire and starting negotiations for long-term settlement of the Chechen crisis. But the signs are not encouraging. Most politicians have no ideas more fruitful than Yeltsin's about how to deal with Chechnya, and in any case they are divided by bitter personal and ideological disputes.
A long-term solution would have to acknowledge that Chechnya is not just an internal problem of Russia, but has international implications - just as the Northern Ireland conflict cannot be solved by Great Britain alone. But most Russian politicians are no more ready than Yeltsin to accept this.
In principle, this would be a good moment for Russia to put into practice its oft-stated conviction that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (formerly the Conference for Security and Co-operation) should play a much more prominent role in European security. The organisation is prepared to mediate in the Chechen dispute, but such mediation would have to take into account the interests of other Caucasian republics, both inside and outside Russia.
Most Russians are still not likely to concede that broader view. They are still haunted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they fear that making concessions to Chechnya will precipitate an avalanche of autonomous republics leaving the Russian Federation. Yet continued guerrilla war in the Caucasus is not likely to reconcile the other ethnic minorities, Tatars and Bashkirs, to Moscow either.
It would be futile to try to predict the outcome of this crisis. The way it is resolved - or not - will affect the way Russians organise their politics, understand the nature of their state and envision its place in the world. But whatever happens, not just Chechnya but Russia too will have to live with the consequences, probably for a long time to come.
Geoffrey Hosking is professor of Russian history at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London.Reuse content