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Scoop Editorial: The Right Thing To Do

Russia this week decided not to blanket bomb Grozny. With the benefit of hindsight it appears the decision not to bomb was taken on Tuesday, right at the beginning of the week, Scoop's Alastair Thompson reports on the motivations behind the sudden Russian change of heart on its "big bang Grozny" agenda.

Officially the Russian Government now says their "leave or die" ultimatum was never meant what it seemed to all the world to mean. That said the words "leave or die" do not appear to leave a lot of room for confusion .

The ultimatum, issued Monday to the residents of Grozny in a leaflet drop, on its face stated an clear intention to commit a war crime.

As has been pointed out by all the talking heads and World leaders this week it is legally and morally wrong to attack innocent civilians during an armed conflict, or to allow them to become caught in the cross-fire intentionally.

And now it seems the Russian army, and even Prime Minister Putin, also recognise this.

This morning the latest news from the siege of Grozny is that no all-out assault on the Chechen capital will take place for "two or three weeks" at least.

And so it seems the remaining pockets of Mujahadin will have till at least after the dust settles on the Russian Parliamentary elections of December 19 before they will again face the full onslaught of the Russian army.

Most probably this will mean the offensive will not be rejoined till after Christmas and the millennium New Year. A Christmas campaign is unlikely as at the end of 1995 the Russian's went on a bloody New Year's offensive in Chechnya that would be extremely hazardous, politically, to risk repeating.

Today the Russian decision is a great relief for the world, and a victory for sanity in what appears to be an increasingly insane time.

Particularly pleasing over the past week has been the swiftness and unanimity of the condemnation of the Russian plans.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this historic military climbdown are the motivations behind the change of heart.

In the West the decision not to bomb will certainly be crowed over as another victory for diplomacy - and it is.

But - like the decision of the Indonesian military to withdraw from East Timor and allow in UN peacekeepers - this decision is far more complex than that, and ultimately the reasons for averting the crisis were probably more domestic than international. In this sense it is more a victory for democracy than diplomacy.

The simple truth is that to have proceeded to commit what would have clearly been a war-crime in Grozny would have endangered the political situation domestically of those involved in the military action, just as much as it would have made Russia an international pariah.

The Chechen conflict is being fed to the Russian people as a just and righteous fight against dangerous Islamic terrorists. Killing thousands of ill, elderly and in-firm Chechens is not part of the screenplay. It seems likely that over the past week the potential of the bombing plan to polarise the Russian public has been reassessed by the Russian political leadership.

But to give credit where it is due the Russian government appeared to realise the enormity of their PR blunder almost immediately they had made it.

Hence the - "the words were only aimed at bandits" - explanation by Prime Minister Putin of the ultimatum early this week. Effectively the message to the Russian people in this was, "we are not the monsters we are being portrayed as in Western media."

On Wednesday morning in New Zealand (Tuesday in the US) when the news of the Russian reinterpretation of the words "leave or die" broke, a BBC reporter said the change of heart was due to "moral" reasons.

Of all the reasons given for the change of heart this rings most clearly.

It seems possible that when the big bang in Grozny campaign was hatched in a Russian army simulations computer it never occurred to military planners that there might be a problem with civilians on the ground. The ultimatum may even have been a last minute afterthought when someone pointed out the error in their ways. We will probably never know.

That said launching a carpet bombing exercise at a large city is no mean feat. Planning for the display of might which has now been effectively cancelled will have been in train for months and the fact that Russian military planners have no plan B is clearly evidenced in their announcement today of what amounts to a millennial lull in hostilities.

Now in the aftermath of the Russian decision - just as we did after UN peace keepers were called in East Timor (contrary to all expectations) - we can only speculate on how close the world came to a far worse outcome.

We can say for sure, however, that events of the past week have thrown a huge spanner in Vladimir Putin's presidential election campaign.

The Russian army generals behind the Chechen offensive - and presumably Prime Minister Putin himself - had been planning for a spectacular "big bang" pre-election victory in Chechnya leading hopefully to positive indications for Putin's future from the ballot box.

The military and political planners always knew when the election would be and their timing appeared close to spot on.

Now however the propaganda effort is coming unstuck. The thread is unwinding and ten days can be a remarkably long time in politics. That said, for Putin, the battle is far from over and he continues to show a fairly deft touch in the game.

With Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin holding a 1950s cold war revival sabre rattling session in Beijing, Putin has very cleverly now made himself look somewhat moderate and reasoned in comparison.

And now, just as the future of East Timor was decided democratically in Jakarta the future for Chechnya is likely to be decided on the campaign trail for the upcoming elections.

The Russian people now have a choice. A path of war, deceit and jingosim , or the probably equally hard - but infinitely more rewarding - path of peace and reconciliation.


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