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Somewhere I still have a flat brass tin, which in the First World War contained sweets. Distributed as a Christmas present from the Royal Family to every soldier in the trenches, the tin was embossed with a little medallion for each of the combata nts onthe Allied side. France and Great Britain and Russia are there, of course. But so are other, much smaller participants.

There is Belgium, for whom the British had gone to war. And there in a corner of the lid is Montenegro. Plucky little Belgium! Plucky little Montenegro! How curious it is that nobody today says: Plucky little Chechnya! The whole world is tremendously concerned, of course, and sorry for the old, the women and children under bombing in Grozny. But that is decent, humane compassion. It is solidarity with pain and fear - but not exactly with the cause for which they are undergoing pain and fear.

There is certainly agreement that the Russian attempt to end the Chechen secession by force has become horribly disproportionate and atrocious. The Western media, and most of the Russian media too, are furiously hostile to what President Yeltsin is doingto Chechnya. In fact they are so indignant about this unequal conflict that they are beginning to mislead the public - both here and there - about the strength of Russian opposition to Yeltsin's Chechen adventure. Rightly, much has been made of officersrefusing to carry out their orders. But it is deceptive to see so exclusively those Russian politicians who openly support the Chechens and denounce the war, men like Grigori Yavlensky, Yegor Gaidar or Sergei Kovalev (who says that "the fate of Russia is being decided in Grozny".)

Most Russians detest the war - but they also detest the Chechens and their claim to independence. What they object to is not that Yeltsin tried to settle the Chechens' hash, but that he bungled it at the cost of good Russian lives.

But sympathy is not enough. There is something missing in the Western response. Even in Britain, where sporting affection for tiny, truculent peoples was once a reflex, nobody cries "Plucky little Chechnya!" Instead, the episode is being treated almost as a natural tragedy, as if the skies over Grozny had opened and rained bombs. But the Chechens themselves deserve to be taken seriously. They knew what they were risking when they declared independence in 1991 and defied the country with the world's worst record for imperial repression. They are entitled to have their hopes judged. Do we, the outside world, think that Chechnya should be independent or not?

There are two ways of saying No. One is demonic. The other, perhaps worse in its consequences, is statesmanlike. The first, employed by President Yeltsin when launching his vast armies against Grozny, is that Chechnya is a sort of hole in the ground out of which climb all the racketeers, gangsters, profiteers, arms smugglers and henchmen of dictatorship who have frustrated his efforts to turn Russia into a prosperous free-market democracy. This is daft. The Chechen government does little to restrain themafia, but Russia's real problems are Russian, not imports from Grozny.

But the second No argument, voiced discreetly all over the world, wears the uniform of realism. If Chechnya gets away with it, then the Tatars will be next and Russia will disintegrate into a patchwork of sovereignties. Do we want this? Would it not encourage the fragmentation of nation-states into tribal micro-states all over the world?

I disagree with almost all of this. The Chechens are not a nation of mafiosi, any more than the majority of Sicilians subscribe to Cosa Nostra. They did not accept independence from their leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, in order to become an offshore island oforganised crime. They took it because most Chechens have never accepted the appalling history of Russian conquest, from the deliberate felling of the Chechen forests in the 1840s to Stalin's deportation of the entire people to Central Asia after the Second World War. They have resisted this conquest for generations. And when the chance came to escape, they took it.

Then comes the argument about "integrity". This means supporting the state in resisting "separatism", and to maintain its control even over alien regions which may be no more than the loot of imperial expansion. There are two objections to this. One is particular, and about the special nature of the Caucasus. The second is general - about Russia, but also about minorities.

Spike Milligan once impersonated an auctioneer, mournfully cataloguing the tatty contents of some cobwebbed mansion. "One volume, on how to wean vultures. Two volumes . . . on how to leave vultures alone!" I hope it doesn't seem callous to apply this to the northern Caucasus. For several thousand years, larger powers - Rome, Turkey, Russia, Persia and Georgia, to name a few - have tried to subdue this astonishing place, where several dozen nationalities or language groups, some numbering only a few hundreds, defend their mountains. All the world has got out of these conquests, never accepted by the fierce inhabitants, has been bloodshed and instability. One by-product, I admit, has been some of the masterpieces of Russian literature: Pus hkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy all became entangled in these wars. But I would lose Tolstoy's The Cossacks if it saved Grozny a day of bombing.

It is time to learn how to leave the northern Caucasus alone. The Russians must come to terms not only with the Chechens but with the Daghestanis and Circassians and Ingush and Ossetians - and leave them to their own devices. The Georgians, in turn, haveto reach some deal with the Abkhazians. On their own, these peoples will find a way to live and to associate with the outside world on whatever terms suit them. Only two conditions have to be met before the northern Caucasus is cut loose. The first is some kind of guarantee for the population of the towns, most of whom are usually Russian, Greek or Georgian settlers. The second is a non-intervention treaty signed by all neighbouring countries - Russia first of all.

My second proposition is that a Russia which sends tanks and bombers against people who disobey orders is not a new Russia but an old one - the bad old one. It does not matter whether a formally independent country like Afghanistan or Czechoslovakia is the victim, or some "autonomous republic" within the state frontiers. The instinct is the same: to use soldiers not just to beat off invasion but to enforce the state's authority when it is challenged in the name of human rights.

Yelena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, has grasped how much is at stake. It is not just that Russia has to stop using force against minorities demanding self-determination. She writes that the whole world has to "accommodate the demand of self-determination through new forms of confederation or commonwealth". Failure to work out these new patterns would reduce the world to "one huge battlefield", she concludes.

But success, to project Bonner's vision, would transform the world into a cheerful, disorderly garden of overlapping sovereignties. There ordinary people - divided into petty and sometimes plucky little regional communities - would work out their own destinies. And perhaps the northern Caucasus, so long the despair of tidy-minded imperial powers, can be a model for that future.