Yesterday the Russian Army was laying down another murderous artillery barrage quite likely to kill the Chechen gunmen and their innocent hostages in a village of southern Russia.
At the same time a small group of Chechens, or their supporters, were aboard a hijacked ferry, with another group of blameless victims, sailing along the Black Sea coast of Turkey with the intention of blowing up the vessel, its passengers and themselves in the Bosporus.
The consequences of Moscow's war in the Caucasus have crossed the borders of Russia and that means two difficult issues must be confronted. The first is whether the brutal methods adopted to suppress the Chechen independence campaign should provoke sanctions from the West and, if so, in what form. The second is whether the ruthless Chechen tactics against civilians deny their movement political legitimacy and place the perpetrators among the ranks of international terrorists.
For Russia, the war in Chechnya was both a strategic necessity and a political disaster. Necessary, because in Russian eyes stability in the south could only be maintained by compulsion and because Russia's rulers want to control the region's oil resources, in particular a strategic pipeline running across the republic. It proved disastrous because the Russian armed forces displayed ineptitude and cruelty. Negotiations for a peaceful settlement had already faltered when Chechen gunmen committed their latest outrage. Boris Yeltsin was left with no policy other than a belated and barely credible show of strength. At the very least, Russia should be told by the West that a political solution must be found to the Chechen conflict. The opportunity to convey that message will come as early as next week when the Russians apply to join the 38 nations of the Council of Europe. It is not an application that should be readily accepted at the moment.
However, glibly condemning Russia's intentions in the Caucasus is a luxury. Not one foreign power formally endorses the pretensions to independence of a Chechen clique notable for gangsterism and corruption. Chechnya remains in international law a part of the Russian Federation. The awful example of Yugoslavia should be at the front of our minds whenever we are tempted to toy with encouraging the break-up of federations to create states based on ethnic identity.
Conflicts in the Caucasus have been typified by cruelty since the Imam Shamyl sent his horsemen against the Czar's generals armed only with sabres. In 1943, the Chechens staged an uprising in support of Hitler's Wehrmacht when it reached the gates of Grozny. Stalin retaliated by deporting the entire population to central Asia.
The long local history of savagery means we should judge the hijacking of the Turkish ferry for exactly what it is - an act of terrorism.
Nor should any comfort be extended to any Chechens who imagine that by such acts they can replicate the cause of the Palestinians in achieving international involvement with their dispute. Neither history nor law are on their side. Chechen fantasies that the West might be persuaded to intervene on its behalf should be dispelled without further ado. There is already a mission to Chechnya, undertaken by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The West is right to complain about Russian methods but we have no interest in Chechen independence nor, as yet, in Yeltsin's defeat.Reuse content