BORIS YELTSIN was hailed in the West as the slayer of the Stalinist regime that ruled Russia till 1991. But in Chechnya he has been acting as Stalin's heir, trying through indiscriminate bombardment to crush a people whom Stalin himself deported to Central Asia at the end of the Second World War.
It was therefore thoroughly embarrassing for Bill Clinton and other Western leaders that last week's summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe should have coincided with an intensification of the Russian military offensive against Chechnya. Yeltsin used the summit in Istanbul for some political grandstanding. He left early to demonstrate his disdain for the rather mild criticisms Western governments made of his butchery in Chechnya.
But the West isn't in a very strong position to criticise Yeltsin. To a significant extent the war in Chechnya is a direct consequence of NATO's war against Yugoslavia. As Quentin Peel, foreign editor of the Financial Times, acknowledges, 'In one way at least, the NATO campaign in Kosovo has actually encouraged Moscow in its onslaught against Chechnya. Russia is justifying its tactics of long range bombardment, rightly or wrongly, by saying NATO did the same in Yugoslavia.'
The connection goes much deeper than that. Moscow played a critical role in persuading Slobodan Milosevic to throw in the towel, only to see NATO impose its control of Kosovo. The Balkan War brought home to the Russian ruling class the humiliating truth that the United States believes it can run the world without their help. They are now trying to reassert Russia's claim to be a major power.
The Chechen war isn't the only sign of this effort. The Texas based intelligence consultancy Stratfor noted recently that the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was marked by 'a remarkable display of nuclear sabre rattling by the Russians'. Thus the Yeltsin administration expressed its fury at Washington's proposal to scrap a 1972 treaty and install an anti ballistic missile system. Senior Russian generals threatened, in effect, to launch a new nuclear arms race if the US goes ahead with these plans.
In the short term at least, an economically weakened Russia isn't in a position to stage another Cold War. Nevertheless, it can re-establish its position as the main imperial power in what it calls the 'near abroad' - surrounding regions such as the Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The US has been extremely active in these areas. It has, for example, promoted the establishment of a pro-Western bloc of former Soviet republics called GUUAM. Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze, one of the leaders of this group, said recently he would be 'knocking very hard' on NATO's door to demand admission.
These moves aren't just boxing Russia in strategically. Central Asia and the Caucasus have recently become of major economic importance with the discovery of major oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea. At the Istanbul summit Clinton attended the signing of an agreement between Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey and Kazakhstan over the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. This will transport Caspian oil to Europe, bypassing Russia. The Financial Times commented, 'The signature ceremony underlined Russia's isolation at the summit, with leaders of the former Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia - Moscow's traditional 'backyard' - welcoming the reduced dependence on Russian energy and export routes the pipeline would bring.'
If you want to imagine how galling these developments are to the Russian establishment, remember the fury and brutality with which the US under Ronald Reagan responded to the successes of left wing guerrilla movements in Central America at the end of the 1970s. The latest Chechen war began when Islamist guerrillas from the breakaway republic invaded neighbouring Dagestan, which borders directly on the Caspian. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin saw this as a direct threat to its strategic interests.
None of this, of course, justifies the cynicism and brutality with which Moscow is waging the war. One factor behind the war is the calculation that victory in Chechnya will boost the chances of Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB agent whom Yeltsin recently installed as prime minister, in next year's presidential elections.
It remains to be seen whether Russia's demoralised and run down army can actually deliver the necessary triumph over Chechen guerrillas who beat them in 1994-6. Whatever the outcome, events have demonstrated how similarly the Great Powers behave as they struggle for domination.