Prague, Jan. 15 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to use massive firepower against Chechen gunmen in the Dagestani village of Pervomayskaya did not have the look of a hostage rescue mission. Instead, it appears that Yeltsin's motive was political: to use military force to end the hostage episode before tomorrow's convening of the newly-elected State Duma.
Russian forces used heavy artillery and helicopter gunships in their all-out assault on Pervomayskaya shortly after dawn today. Their purported aim was to rescue about 70 hostages held for six-days by the Chechen separatists.
President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, said Yeltsin ordered the attack because "any further delay would have threatened the lives of hostages being held by Chechen separatists." But the assault was likely to leave more hostages dead than alive. Anticipating an assault, the Chechen fighters, who vowed they would rather die than surrender, had dispersed their prisoners around the village in the southern Russian republic.
The pressure on Yeltsin to end the crisis had grown intense. He had dispatched Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and Federal Security Service head Mikhail Barsukov to personally negotiate with Salman Raduyev, leader of the Chechen gunmen. But deadlines came and went without any resolution.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party is set to dominate the lower house of parliament, heaped scorn on Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Zyuganov told reporters in Moscow that Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin should swap places with the hostages, as they bore ultimate responsibility for the incident. Chernomyrdin was widely praised last summer for defusing a similar hostage crisis in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk. But now, many in Russia say Chernomyrdin erred by letting those Chechen hostage-takers withdraw from Budennovsk - setting the groundwork for future incidents.
The military daily "Krasnaya Zvezda" last week wrote that this latest hostage crisis was the direct result of Chernomyrdin's decision to negotiate with separatists in Budennovsk - rather than using "more forthright methods" as the military had recommended.
Today, Chernomyrdin and his boss, Boris Yeltsin are in a no-win situation. They launched an invasion into Chechnya 13 months ago with a vow to subdue the separatists within a few days. More than thirty thousand lives later the war rages on, casualties mount daily, Chechnya lies in ruins - but the separatists are no closer to surrender. No matter how the Pervomayskaya crisis unfolds, the separatists have succeeded in holding the Kremlin hostage to their cause.
Yeltsin in the past week has been playing musical chairs with his cabinet - firing and shuffling ministers - trying to shift the blame for the Kremlin's failed policies on everyone but himself.
Most observers agree, however, that this can only work in the short term. Ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky urged Yeltsin on Sunday to "napalm" the Chechens. While few politicians in Russia would advise the same, many agree that the conflict must be ended soon for Yeltsin to stand a chance at a second term -- should he choose to run in Russia's June 16 presidential election.
Otherwise, self-styled Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev could well outlast his nemesis.