The West insists on seeing the war in Chechenia as an internal Russian affair. But as Richard Clogg points out, it is only the latest episode in an old struggle by an independent people against their imperious neighbour.
In the furious war of words that preceded the Russian onslaught on Chechenia, General Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, trumpeted that he could clean up Grozny with a single paratroop regiment in two hours. For his part, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader, threatened that, if the Russians did invade, the Chechens would make the earth burn under their feet.
Grachev's boast will go down in history as one of the more vainglorious made by a military leader (and his claim that Russian soldiers are dying with smiles on their faces as one of the more nauseating). But to the wretched Russian conscripts used as cannon-fodder in the ill-fated New Years' Eve offensive, Dudayev's apocalyptic rhetoric must have appeared all too fearsomely real.
How is it that the Chechens, who number scarcely a million, have been able to keep at bay an army which for decades we have been taught to believe (and heavily taxed to defend ourselves against) is the most awesome military machine the world has known?
From at least the mid-18th century the Chechens have been intermittently at war with the Russians and their forcible annexation by the Tsarist Empire and subsequent, no less involuntary, incorporation into the Soviet Union were furiously resisted. Although western politicians, Douglas Hurd among them, regularly intone that the crisis is a purely internal affair, Chechenia is, in fact, no more "Russian" than Ireland is English or Algeria is French. In the 18th century the Chechen Sheikh Mansur led a holy war against the Russians and his coalition of Caucasian tribesmen inflicted a crushing defeat on the infidel in 1785. In the 19th century an even more effective leader emerged in the person of the charismatic Imam Shamil. After decades of inspired guerrilla warfare he was finally captured in 1859.
Within a few years of Shamil's capture resistance to Russian rule north and south of the Caucasus range had been quelled. Tens of thousands of Chechens, Circassians, Ubykhs, Muslim Abkhazians and others fled to the safety of the Ottoman Empire. This Caucasian diaspora, now scattered throughout the Middle East, even after a 130-year exile retains to a remarkable degree its languages and traditions, together with a powerful sense of longing for lost homelands. The present foreign minister of Chechenia is a Jordanian of Chechen descent.
Chechenia was with difficulty incorporated into the Soviet Union - one redoubtable Chechen opponent of the Bolsheviks threatened war to the death against "engineers, students and all those who write from left to right". Resistance to Soviet rule lasted into the 1930s. Initially grouped in their own (notionally) autonomous district, the Chechens and the related Ingush were, in 1936, given the status of an (again notional) autonomous republic.
If the burden of the Russian imperialist (Tsarist and Soviet) past weighs heavily it is events some 50 years ago, well within living memory, that have engraved themselves on the collective psyche of the Chechens and give such force to their current determination to resist, however overwhelming the odds. In 1944, on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis, the Chechens (along with the Ingush, Balkars and Karachays among the North Caucasus peoples) were rounded up (in trucks supplied by the Americans for the anti-Nazi war) and deported en masse to Central Asia. Mosques were destroyed, holy shrines were desecrated and the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was wiped off the map. Those who resisted were ruthlessly exterminated, some being burnt alive. As many as 200,000 died as a direct consequence of the deportation. Dudayev himself was scarcely a month old at the time of the forced exodus and was brought up in Kazakhstan.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the harsh conditions of their exile, the Chechens retained a strong sense of identity - virtually all Chechens speak their highly complex native language, while the clan and tribal structure, the cement of Chechen society, remained intact.
After the death of Stalin the exiles were allowed to return and from the late 1950s most of them did. The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was restored (since the Chechens declared their independence the Ingush have established their own republic). A very high birth rate helped the Chechens overcome the demographic deficit that resulted from the deportation. The end of their exile did not, however, signify that the travails of the Chechens were over. Russians secured many of the best jobs, particularly in the flourishing oil industry. The mosques that had been closed down at the time of the deportations were not restored. Only at the end of the 1970s were some new mosques constructed. Far from crippling the influence of Islam, as the Soviet authorities hoped, such policies simply drove religion even further underground, and the influence of the Sufi tarikats, or religious brotherhoods, if anything, increased.
Given the Chechens' bitter memories of their Babylonian captivity, it is not surprising that they have scarcely felt reassured by Yeltsin's recent promise that he has no plans for a second mass deportation.
So far the fighting has been confined to Chechenia (although there are reports of clashes with Russian units in neighbouring Ingueshetia and Daghestan and of bridges being blown up to impede communications). But if there is no political settlement then not only can the fighting be expected to endure, albeit at a less intense level, for months, years, even decades but it may also spread to other parts of the volatile north Caucasus, possibly involving a rerun of the Great Caucasian war that convulsed the region for much of the first 60 years of the 19th century.
During the Soviet period regional boundaries were drawn up and cultural and linguistic policies pursued that were designed to fragment the region, and, in particular, inhibit regional solidarity based on common allegiance to Islam. But there is nonetheless a strongly developed sense among the indigenous peoples of the north Caucasus (of whom the Chechens are numerically the largest group) that, if they do not hang together, then they will surely hang separately. In 1989 the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, with delegates from many parts of the region, was revived. The confederation has declared that, if the fighting continues, then a general state of war will be deemed to exist with Russia. But how representative the confederation is and the extent to which it will able to translate its fiery rhetoric into practical support for the embattled Chechens is unclear.
When the Russians began to deploy force there was a tendency in the West to take Moscow's claims that it was restoring constitutional order in a lawless mafia state at face value. Even in such bastions of political correctness as Channel Four News and The Guardian letters page the Chechens were described as "notorious gangsters" and "mafioso tribesmen". Undoubtedly the Chechens are over-represented in organised crime but an entire people cannot be written off in this way. The general Russian attitude to Chechens is unabashedly racist. They, and the other peoples of the Caucasus, are "blacks".
But the savagery of the Russian onslaught, combined with the shrewd deployment by the Chechens of the "CNN defence", holding out long enough for the nightly scenes of carnage on the world's TV screens to have an impact on international opinion, have helped shift attitudes. Almost from the outset Russia's incredibly inept and ludicrously mendacious propaganda lost the battle for public opinion.
Sympathy for the Chechen underdog has not, however, found an echo at government level. Western governments, having so comprehensively nailed their colours to the increasingly rotten mast of Yeltsin, clearly hoped that the Chechen crisis could be resolved in a matter of days, before the world realised what was going on. Western leaders have only belatedly and reluctantly begun to voice criticism, while making it clear that it is a case of business as usual with Yeltsin's Russia. The US secretary of state Warren Christopher's main concern appears to be that the war will hinder the development of the market economy in Russia. Even the use of "needle" bombs, which cause appalling injuries and are outlawed under the Geneva Convention, has not given rise to formal sanctions.
What is truly pathetic is that Western governments, by ostentatiously turning a blind eye to a situation which, had it occurred under Soviet rule, would no doubt have provoked impassioned official rhetoric about the plight of "captive nations", have effectively guaranteed precisely the turmoil on Russia's frontiers that they profess themselves so anxious to avoid. Altogether too much blood has been spilt for there to be much hope of a lasting political solution, which alone could guarantee stability on Russia's Caucasian frontier.
Moreover, in the Islamic world (and there are 18 million Muslims in the Russian Federation alone) the Chechen conflict has served to fuel outrage that already ranges from Morocco to Indonesia over western pusillanimity over Bosnia. Muslims see Chechenia as yet one more example of a Christian (and Orthodox) power waging a genocidal war against Islam and getting away with little more than a slap on the wrist from western governments.
The peoples of the Caucasus fear that they face linguistic and cultural obliteration at best and genocide at worst. Hence the desperate valour of Chechen resistance. The Caucasus is an extraordinary mosaic of peoples and languages.
If the various peoples of the Caucasus were animal species threatened with extinction then we could expect powerful lobbies, and even governments, to agitate on their behalf. Instead, the plight of the Chechens in the face of a pitiless Russian onslaught has been greeted with what one observer has termed a "weird eagerness" on the part of western governments to bury their collective heads in the sand. If only organisations such as the Minority Rights Group or the Gottingen-based Gesellschaft fur bedrohte Volker had the same cuddly image, and fund-raising potential, as the World Wildlife Fund.
Richard Clogg is professor of modern Balkan history at the University of London.