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Chechnya Uprising Raises U.S. Concern About Broader Unrest

December 30, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Chechnya is just a sliver of the vast Russian land mass, but U.S. officials are worried that the uprising there could have ominous implications for Russia’s long-term stability.

″Yugoslavia writ large,″ said one official, assessing the potential for violent upheaval in other republics which, like Chechnya, resent rule by Russia. He said the consequences could reach well beyond Russia’s borders.

The official noted that Russia is a vast arms depot, with 30,000 nuclear weapons and tons of conventional armaments. Instability would inevitably attract outside interference, said the official, who commented only on condition of anonymity. ″We can see nothing but grave danger developing,″ he said.

So far as is known, there are no weapons of mass destruction in Chechnya although Chechen leaders claim to have access to them. Other republics intent on achieving greater autonomy from Moscow, including Tatarstan, are amply equipped with powerful weaponry.

In Chechnya, the impetus for secession is the religious fervor of the republic’s million fiercely independent Muslims. Its secession declaration in 1991 came after two centuries of resistance to Russian domination.

In other republics, separatist movements are driven by ethnic nationalism or simply mistrust of the central government in Moscow. Some of the more nightmarish scenarios drawn by U.S. officials envision a conflagration extending from Finland to the Pacific, but such a development is considered unlikely in the short term.

Officials believe that a breakup of the Russian Federation could greatly enhance the possibility of nuclear smuggling. FBI Director Louis Freeh and outgoing CIA Director James Woolsey said earlier this year that such activities are among the most dangerous security threats of the post-Cold War era.

As fighting intensified in Chechnya earlier this month, the administration adopted essentially a hands-off attitude, based on its perception that Russia should remain a unitary, democratic state.

This week, however, the administration’s mood changed after officials concluded that Russian authorities badly mishandled the Chechnya uprising by ignoring pursuit of peaceful alternatives and relying increasingly on heavy- handed military tactics, including the bombing of civilian areas.

There have been instances of ″indiscriminate use of force that cause us great concern,″ the State Department said this week.

It stopped just short of accusing Russia of violating Geneva convention provisions regarding the protection of civilians in ″non-international″ conflicts. It also suggested that President Boris Yeltsin had backed away from a commitment to suspend air strikes on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Earlier military escalations by the Russian military had been met with only mild expressions of concern by Washington.

Officials believe the hardline approach of the Russian military could be counterproductive, weakening Yeltsin’s standing and perhaps opening the way for alternate leadership far less committed to reform, democracy and close ties to the West.

The more critical U.S. attitude toward Russia appeared to interrupt somewhat an attempt by the administration to overcome a recent downturn in U.S.-Russian relations. The problem had been based primarily on Yeltsin’s view that plans for the eastward expansion of NATO are designed to isolate Russia.

Barring a sudden de-escalation, the Chechnya situation could dominate a mid-January meeting between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

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