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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- On Equal Terms

Prague, 10 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian and Chechen forces increasingly will meet on equal terms and are likely to suffer equal losses now that the military phase of Moscow's operation is mostly over. And that pattern appears certain to have an impact on Russian popular attitudes about the conflict as well as on Chechen efforts to continue to fight.

That is the judgment of Pavel Felgengauer, Russia's leading defense analyst. Speaking on Russian radio earlier this week, he suggested that the conflict would now turn into one of "total war" between Russians who have brought it upon themselves by the ways in which they have conducted the war and Chechens who see their struggle now as one for national survival.

Such a war, Felgengauer continued, is one that Russian army and interior ministry units are not prepared for. Even the most well-trained units are likely to be at risk, he said, pointing to the destruction of a Moscow police convoy outside of Grozny last week and the escape of the Chechen units who inflicted it.

But for conscripts and new recruits, Felgengauer suggested, the situation is certain to be even worse. The fighting in Chechnya "will increasingly be on equal terms, without artillery or air power" on which Russian forces had relied to keep their own casualties to a minimum.

Any rise in Russian casualties is likely to undercut Moscow's current claims of victory, simultaneously leading some Russians to call for even tougher measures against the Chechens and causing others to consider trying to find a peaceful way out.

Because acting Russian President Vladimir Putin has based his reputation largely on his tough stance in Chechnya, he will be reluctant to pull back in any way. Right now, the Russian public overwhelmingly supports him in this, with approximately 70 percent favoring a continuation of his campaign to suppress the Chechens.

But that support is predicated on his keeping Russian losses low. Felgengauer's analysis suggests that Putin and his regime may not be able to continue to do so. And once casualties increase, the historical record of many countries who have fought similar wars suggests, many who now support the war effort may turn against it.

Moreover, as the war drags on, ever more Russians are likely to become concerned about the impact of the conflict on Russian political and social life more generally. As Felgengauer pointed out, Moscow has conducted this campaign in a way that has demonized the Chechens and created a situation in which "hatred is met with hatred."

Not only will that further fragment Russian society, but it will almost certainly poison Russian politics and limit the possibility that Russia will be able to move in a democratic direction. That risk was highlighted in a recent speech by Dmitri Furman, a senior scholar at Moscow's Institute of Europe and a consultant for the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Center.

Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington on February 23 -- the anniversary of Stalin's deportation of the Chechens -- Furman suggested that Moscow's approach to Chechnya and the Chechens had left him unable to "imagine a peaceful integration of Chechens into Russian society."

As a result, Furman said, Russian democracy is likely to become impossible without Chechen independence. And because of that, he concluded, "in the long run, I think Chechen independence is inevitable."

So far, relatively few Russians appear ready to agree with Furman's conclusion, a pattern that raises serious questions about Moscow's ability to move toward democracy.

But Felgengauer's argument that the new phase of the Chechen conflict will feature more Russian casualties could ultimately lead many other Russians to conclude that they would be far better off in a democratic Russia without Chechnya than in an undemocratic Russia which tries to hold on to this small republic in the North Caucasus.

If that happens, Russia will join a long list of countries which have given up their colonial possessions once they realized the full cost of holding them.