Did this war have to happen? Nik Gowing examines whether the West can help prevent conflicts such as Chechny a

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The awful inevitability of Chechnya's defeat at the hands of the Russian army comes at a moment when prevention and pre-emption are the buzzwords of diplomacy. Potential regional conflicts must be identified, tackled at root, then snuffed out bef ore they become deadly, uncontrolled military conflagrations in which diplomacy has no role.

The new principle explicitly underpinned the declarations of 52 heads of state and government - including President Yeltsin - at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Budapest in early December, five days before Russia's ground assault on Grozny. With an instinctive understanding and mistrust for Russia to his north, the Ukraine President, Leonid Kuchma, appealed, almost prophetically, for an urgent pooling of foreign policy resources. He demanded "early diagnostics (sic) of explosion-threatening situations and conflicts ... to forecast the most horrible first-blood phase in conflicts, after which the conflicts become unforecasted and uncontrolled". Jean Chretien,Prime Minister of Canada, long a ge n erous troop provider for UN peace operations, urged: "We must learn from our mistakes. We need to give new life to preventative diplomacy. We know from the conflict in Bosnia that by the time peacekeepers arrive it is often too late to prevent the spread of conflict."

But where were the international "diagnostics"? Have leading governments adopted a new principle of prevention and speedy pre-emption? It has, after all, been their avowed intention since 1991 and the catastrophic failures of diplomacy to identify the signals and pre-empt the looming war in what was still Yugoslavia.

The Budapest principles appear stillborn. As Russian troops moved block by block towards the centre of Grozny, Chancellor Kohl phoned his "friend" Boris Yeltsin and asked him to rethink what he undiplomatically called this "complete madness". In a lette r to Yeltsin, President Clinton expressed concern about enormous civilian casualties". Vice-President Gore labelled the bloodletting a "terrible mistake". From India the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, sent a diplomatic note to the Russian foreign minist er, Andrei Kozyrev, whose role in the day-to-day handling of the Chechnya crisis appears marginal.

And to what practical end? Within days Russia was openly violating its Budapest commitment that when engaged on internal security operations "the armed forces will take due care to avoid injury to civilians or their property". In the fifth week of President Kuchma's horrible "first-blood phase", the US State Department, "after considerable review of the information", concluded that "Russia has not fulfilled all of its commitments under the OSCE and the Helsinki Final Act".

Even talk of dispatching an OSCE mediation team did not come until three weeks into the Russian assault. As in Rwanda, the West has no direct interest in the Caucasus; as with Bosnia prevention and pre-emption were not in the diplomatic armoury. There h a s been a failure of conflict perception and an international willingness to indulge in wishful thinking for the best-case scenario, instead of even contemplating the bloody, worst-case scenario that has come to pass.

Yet if governments cannot accurately read the early signals and draw the necessary policy conclusions, what chance is there to prevent the dozens of regional conflicts predicted elsewhere by many analysts and humanitarian organisations? Four years ago, when blood was already being shed at the start of the Yugoslav crisis, the then European Community spearheaded diplomatic efforts with regular declarations of condemnation and outrage. Despite the dispatch of EC mediation missions and the appointment of Lord Carrington, we now know that most of the effort was what one senior diplomat involved at the time described as "well-intentioned diplomatic froth".

As in Chechnya today, in the first half of 1991 the Yugoslavia crisis was "an internal matter". Military involvement was never considered a realistic option; diplomacy was always behind the curve of the conflict. History may be kinder to the leading powers for refusing to use the unequivocal threat of military intervention as a diplomatic tool to pre-empt a wider war. The West could have been dragged into a much bigger Balkan conflagration. But the diplomatic failure in 1991 first to perceive, then to act pre-emptively on a threat to regional instability still racks high-level consciences.

In quieter moments senior foreign policy-makers involved at the time, such as Hans van den Broek (who was EC President in late 1991) and Douglas Hurd, concede self-doubt about opportunities missed for decisive pre-emption on Yugoslavia. In 1991 Mr Hurd fought hardest against any military entanglement involving the EC, Western European Union or Nato. But looking back, what would he have done differently? In a revealing, unreported public remark in September 1993, Mr Hurd gave his answer: "We sh o uld have forgotten earlier all those rules and traditions of the United Nations that we do not interfere in other people's internal affairs. I think we could have acted earlier diplomatically before people learned to hate each other to the extent which t hey now have. We all have to move before the fighting rather more energetically than the international community has in the past - even if it means trampling on people's susceptibilities."

In other words pre-emption, but without taking sides.

Translated to Chechnya, the Hurd principle would have required unprecedented international political will for at least three significant policy differences: first, to ignore the instinctive diplomatic cover that Yeltsin's problem was a "Russian internal matter"; second, to reject fears that active international efforts to mediate would trample on Yeltsin's "susceptibilities" and undermine his increasingly delicate relations with the West; and third, to override all fears that firm diplomatic pre-emptionwould embroil the West in a Caucasian conflict of no relevance to their own interests.

In the end, diplomacy has no effective counter-measures against determined deception and ruthlessness. It is powerless to stop a war that at least one side is determined to wage. If the Russian president says the bombing of Grozny will stop, why doubt h i s word? If Mr Yeltsin publicly tells the OSCE summit that he backs the "assuring of human rights, rights of minorities, curbing aggressive nationalism" and the "urgent task" of peacekeeping in the Russian near-abroad, why question his good intent?

There is new international suspicion and scepticism about Yeltsin. But it is too late for the people of Grozny. And the chances of an international political will to prevent or pre-empt similar further conflicts elsewhere seem negligible. Recently the USNational Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, categorised those who threaten future regional security, as "extreme nationalists and tribalists, terrorists, organised criminals, coup plotters, rogue states and all those who would return newly freed societies to the intolerant ways of the past".

All of them will have noted the understandable international impotence on Chechnya.

The writer is Diplomatic Editor for ITN's Channel 4 News.