The Chechen war that President Boris Yeltsin claims doesn't exist anymore is likely to drag on inconclusively for many months, bringing more death and destruction to the embattled breakaway republic and further complicating Russia's relations with the West, analysts believe.
Yeltsin, during a joint news conference with President Clinton after a summit here last week, tried to convince a skeptical audience of international journalists and U.S. officials that the 5-month-old conflict was over."There are no hostilities under way in Chechnya right now," Yeltsin said. "Furthermore, the armed forces are not involved there. Today, the Ministry of Interior simply seizes the weapons which are still in possession of some small, armed criminal gangs. But most importantly, we are doing some creative work there. We are rehabilitating buildings, utilities, we ensure the necessary financing."
Yeltsin's recasting of Russia's brutal military campaign to suppress a separatist revolt as a benign mixture of police patrols and urban renewal left Clinton visibly unimpressed. It also seemed unpersuasive to Yeltsin's own military commanders - one of whom, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Yegorov, told Russian news agencies his troops would "continue to disarm and destroy illegal armed units" in Chechnya as soon as a unilateral Russian cease-fire expired Thursday night. Reports from the region indicated that Russian forces had done just that, launching on Friday an intense bombardment of Che-chen resistance positions in the mountainous southern region of the republic. On Saturday, Russian shelling left four civilians dead, according to local reports.
The moratorium, which Yeltsin proclaimed largely to spare the sensibilities of Clinton and other foreign leaders who visited Moscow last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, was never taken seriously by the forces loyal to separatist Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev.
In fact, they stepped up their operations, launching several attacks on Russian positions in the devastated Chechen capital of Grozny and shattering an uneasy peace that had prevailed there since Russian forces captured the city in February.
Clinton and other Western leaders repeatedly urged Yeltsin to give peace a chance in Chechnya by extending the cease-fire indefinitely. But Yeltsin brushed aside their pleas - and in the opinion of one Russian military analyst, he had little alternative.
Dmitri Trenin, a former Soviet army officer who now is a military analyst at the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, observed that Clinton and other Western leaders do not seem to recognize how deep the deadlock is between Russia and Chechnya.
"Of course, President Yeltsin wants a quick end to the war - which means he wants Dudayev to surrender," he said. "And of course Dudayev also wants a quick end, which means he wants the Russian forces to withdraw. Neither is likely."