Is the Russian onslaught against Chechnya a rerun of the 1994-96 war? At first glance, it looks like it.
Like the first Chechen war, this one was launched shortly before Russian parliamentary elections, and in the run-up to a crucial presidential vote. Once again, the pretext of Chechen terrorism has been used to justify a war that will distract public attention from the scandals and failures of an increasingly unpopular Russian government.
But the similarities end there.
The first war was unpopular with the Russian people and highly unpopular with the Russian Army. It was, in some ways, a small Vietnam -- a disastrous war in which the army blamed the politicians for betraying them. It left an already weakened and demoralized Russian army with its reputation in tatters.
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But this time, it's the army that is dictating policy and leading the assault against Chechnya -- in a war to restore its prestige. And the Russian public is cheering them on. Even pro-Western politicians hesitate to criticize indiscriminate attacks on Chechen communities and the heavy civilian casualties.
Anatoly Chubais, a leading Russian reformer, recently said: "The Russian Army is reviving in Chechnya. Faith in the army is growing, and a politician who does not think so cannot be regarded as a Russian politician. In this case, there is only one definition -- a traitor."
Major General Vladimir Shamonov, commander of the forces in the North Caucasus, warned the government not to try to stop the war. If it does, he said, "officers will quit the army en masse. The officer corps may not survive another slap in the face."
That's something new from an army that has traditionally preferred to follow the leader rather han play a leading political role. But it points to what may be a turning point in Russian politics.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has become an overnight political star and a leading contender for the Presidency by supporting the popular war. He has promised to increase military spending by more than 50% next year, and to rebuild the armed forces.
A newly assertive military might be welcomed by the Russians at a time when they feel it their country is no longer taken seriously by the West; President Boris Yeltsin recently felt the need to remind the world that Russia is still a nuclear power.
But more than the military's reputation is at stake in the Chechnya conflict. The path that Russia will take in the next few years could be heavily influenced by the outcome.
A revitalized Russian army would play a major role in a new Russian administration dedicated to restoring Russia as a credible military power.
On the other hand, another humiliating defeat for the Russian army could have a destabilizing effect on a country that has been slowly disintegrating since the end of communist rule.
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